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United Nations Security Council meets after Russia recognized two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent entities, in New York City, on Feb. 21.CARLO ALLEGRI/Reuters

For years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has carefully cultivated his partners in the BRICS coalition, knowing that he would need them at a moment like this.

Today, while his government faces punitive sanctions from many Western countries in retaliation for its actions in Ukraine, Mr. Putin knows he can rely on valuable business and political support from the BRICS – the 12-year-old bloc of emerging economies that comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

For the Putin government, trade and investment from BRICS will help to cushion the blow of Western travel bans, asset freezes, banking terminations and a cancelled pipeline. The five-country bloc could provide the economic and financial links that will keep Russia afloat in the face of sanctions.

At an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Monday night, it soon became clear that the BRICS countries were unwilling to join the Western denunciations of Russia’s decision to send troops into the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.

Diplomats from China, India and Brazil all spoke during the emergency debate. None criticized Russia’s actions. Significantly, the leaders of all three countries have met Mr. Putin in summit meetings recently, giving their clear support to the Russian leader.

The fifth BRICS member, South Africa, is not a current member of the UN Security Council, but it has been conspicuous in its silence on the Ukraine issue. Its international relations department, which routinely offers comments on many developments around the world, did not issue any statement on the Russian intervention in Ukraine on Tuesday, despite queries from the media.

South Africa’s biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, said it was appalled by the government’s silence on Ukraine. The silence can only be interpreted as “condoning and enabling the Russian aggression,” the party said.

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This is not the first time the BRICS members have tacitly accepted an aggressive Russian action. They behaved the same in 2014 when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean territory. They abstained from a UN vote condemning Russia’s actions in Crimea, and they denounced a proposal to evict Russia from a G20 summit.

At the Security Council’s emergency session Monday night, Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun gave only brief and vague remarks, making no mention of Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine. “All parties concerned must exercise restraint and avoid any action that may fuel tensions,” he told the meeting.

Just two weeks ago, Mr. Putin travelled to Beijing to secure support from Chinese President Xi Jinping on the Ukraine issue. In a statement at the summit, China joined Russia in calling for a halt to any eastward expansion by NATO. The two countries also voted together at the UN Security Council in late January in a failed attempt to block a debate on Russia’s military buildup on the Ukrainian border.

In another highly visible meeting with a BRICS leader, Mr. Putin hosted a visit last week by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who had defied U.S. pressure to cancel the trip. At their summit, Mr. Bolsonaro declared that Brazil was in “solidarity” with Russia.

That solidarity was evident at the Security Council’s emergency meeting on Monday night. Brazil’s UN ambassador, Ronaldo Costa Filho, declined to make any criticism of Russia at the meeting. While he made a general statement about the principle of territorial integrity, he did not specifically mention Russia.

India’s UN representative, T.S. Tirumurti, was even more cautious. He called for “restraint” but made no mention of Russia’s intervention or Ukrainian sovereignty.

Mr. Putin had met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a summit in early December in New Delhi. They signed a flurry of military and energy agreements, including a 10-year defence co-operation agreement. Russia has already begun delivering a US$5-billion long-range S-400 missile defence system to India.

While the BRICS members were delicately avoiding any criticism of Russia, other developing countries were less quiet. The three African non-permanent representatives on the Security Council – Kenya, Ghana and Gabon – all condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Ghana’s representative, Harold Adlai Agyeman, was sharply critical of Russia’s troop deployment in Ukraine. He said Ghana opposed any actions that violated Ukraine’s sovereignty and its internationally recognized borders.

But the most powerful speech was by Kenya’s UN ambassador, Martin Kimani.

“Multilateralism lies on its deathbed tonight,” he told the Security Council. “It has been assaulted today as it has been by other powerful states in the recent past. … The territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine stands breached. The charter of the United Nations continues to wilt under the relentless assault of the powerful.”

African political analysts praised the Kenyan ambassador for putting the Ukraine crisis into a larger historical context, including earlier invasions of sovereign countries by the United States and the colonial imposition of borders in Africa.

“We believe that all states formed from empires that have collapsed or retreated have many peoples in them yearning for integration with peoples in neighbouring states,” Mr. Kimani said. “However, Kenya rejects such a yearning from being pursued by force. We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.”

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