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BRICS explores expanding its membership to counterbalance the West

Putin skips meeting with leaders of the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa bloc fearing arrest for war crimes in Ukraine invasion

Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a pre-recorded speech during the 15th BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa; August 22, 2023.KIM LUDBROOK (EFE)
Javier G. Cuesta

The BRICS bloc of nations (Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa) started its 15th Summit in Johannesburg (South Africa) on August 22. The possible expansion of the group to include more nations is a hot topic for debate. The main goal of the BRICS is to give non-Western countries more influence globally. However, member states have different views on international affairs. Some partners focus on maintaining positive relations with the West, while others see the United States and its allies as adversaries. Russian President Vladimir Putin, a strong proponent of dividing the bloc, is conspicuously absent from the meeting in South Africa, allegedly because he fears arrest for war crimes perpetrated during the invasion of Ukraine.

Around 36 countries have expressed their interest in joining the group, and several countries, including Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Egypt, have officially submitted requests. ”We appreciate the interest,” said South African President Cyril Ramaphosa during his opening speech. “The significance and impact of the BRICS alliance are steadily increasing on a global scale,” said the president, who had a telephone conversation with Putin on August 8 in which they discussed his summit attendance. The Kremlin announced two weeks later that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would represent Russia at the meeting.

Ramaphosa underscored the transformative shifts witnessed in the global economy over the past decade. The ongoing recovery from the 2008 financial crisis was impeded by the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, which wreaked havoc on international supply chains. Furthermore, the impact of the conflict initiated by Russia in Ukraine since 2022 has worsened these challenges.

BRICS 15th Summit kicks off in Johannesburg, South Africa. From left, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Brazil); President Xi Jinping (China); President Cyril Ramaphosa (South Africa), Prime Minister Narendra Modi (India); and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (Russia); August 23, 2023.
BRICS 15th Summit kicks off in Johannesburg, South Africa. From left, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Brazil); President Xi Jinping (China); President Cyril Ramaphosa (South Africa), Prime Minister Narendra Modi (India); and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (Russia); August 23, 2023. ALET PRETORIUS (REUTERS)

China has emerged as a major player in the last 15 years. According to the International Monetary Fund, the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) is now valued at $45.1 trillion annually. Only China’s $19.3 trillion GDP is close to the United States’ world-leading $26.8 trillion GDP. Japan and Germany follow with $4.4 trillion and $4.3 trillion, respectively. India comes in at $3.7 trillion, followed by Brazil ($2.08 trillion) and Russia ($2.06 trillion). Russia’s GDP has dropped by nearly $200 billion since 2013, the year before its illegal annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region.

“The BRICS group now wields significant influence on the global economy. We demand fundamental reforms in global financial institutions,” said Ramaphosa, citing the BRICS New Development Bank based in the Chinese city of Shanghai. “We do not want to be a counterpoint to the G-7, the G-20 or the US. We simply seek our own organization,” said Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in a pre-recorded statement released on social media before the meeting.

During his speech at the BRICS summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized his pragmatic approach. “China is on the right side of history and will continue to pursue an independent and peaceful foreign policy,” Xi said, stressing that “humanity is at a critical juncture [...] We have a choice — either we collaborate or compete against one another. We choose the path of cooperation and openness.”

Putin blames the West

In his pre-recorded speech, Putin repeated his mantra that the West is to blame for the current crisis, although he conveniently failed to mention his invasion of Ukraine. The president attributed worldwide price inflation to market volatility caused by the irresponsible actions of certain countries to incur enormous public debt during the pandemic. He also criticized the imposition of illegitimate sanctions and freezing assets of sovereign states as violations of free trade and fundamental norms in international relations. Russia had built up more than $600 billion worth of foreign currency reserves, with about half believed to be frozen by the restrictions imposed on its central bank. The implementation of this measure, along with sanctions such as isolating Russian banks, has resulted in a significant capital flight in Russia and a sharp devaluation of the ruble. This is mainly due to the shortage of euros and dollars to cover its import payments.

In his speech, Putin acknowledged the significance of this problem for his economy, but adopted a curiously optimistic outlook. “The irreversible de-dollarization process is gaining strength in BRICS payments,” he said. In contrast, Putin instructed the Central Bank of Russia an hour earlier to slap restrictions on the free market economy in his country and “limit speculative and unproductive demand in the economy, control capital flight and monitor the behavior of the main market participants.”

Putin restated that Russia will only resume the agreement for the safe transport of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea if all obligations to the Russian side are fulfilled. The president has accused the West of impeding Russian fertilizer exports through sanctions, a claim that the United States vehemently denies.

“Our country has the capability to substitute Ukrainian grain commercially as well as provide free aid to countries in need because we expect an excellent harvest this year,” Putin told the BRICS Summit audience. A month after leading the Russia-Africa Forum in Moscow, Putin once again curried favor with African countries.

“As a first step, we have chosen to send 25,000-50,000 tons of grain, free of charge, to six African countries,” Putin announced one day after mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin reappeared in Africa dressed in a military uniform and carrying an assault rifle. “Let’s work towards further enhancing Russia’s influence across continents and fostering greater freedom in Africa,” said the Wagner Group leader in a pre-recorded video.

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