The Russian invasion of Ukraine has transformed geopolitics, uniting the West against Russia and reigniting talk of a new Cold War or even World War 3. But Russia, it is now clear, is not as isolated as the initial global outcry suggested. It benefits from a robust network of partners, allies, and fellow travelers that includes countries such as Belarus, China, India, Iran, and North Korea.
While few countries have endorsed Moscow’s aggression, Russia’s allies have and will continue to help shield it from potential punitive action at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), dilute the impact of economic sanctions, and shore up its arsenal of weapons.
Since the invasion, China and India have dramatically increased imports of discounted Russian oil, providing Moscow with a record current account surplus in 2022. Iran has provided Russia with vital arms, including Shahed kamikaze drones to swarm Ukraine’s air defenses. Last year, North Korea began shipments of artillery and missiles to Russia. And many countries in the Global South, including South Africa, continue to maintain military and strategic ties with Russia.
These partnerships, Norwegian intelligence assesses, have helped Russia in “seizing the initiative and gaining the upper hand militarily” in its Ukraine war.
Let’s take a closer look at some of Russia’s closest geopolitical partners and allies.
Belarus: Russia’s Closest Ally
Belarus has been actively aiding Russia’s Ukraine war from the very start. A neighbor of both Russia and Ukraine, Belarus’s Russia-dependent strongman Alexander Lukashenko has given Russia unrestricted access to its air space and land to attack Ukraine. Belarus has also provided logistical and medical support to Russian forces.
Russian troops stationed in Belarus for joint military exercises ahead of the invasion, using the country as a staging ground to enter northern Ukraine. On February 24, 2022, Russian troops entered Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone via Belarus, in a failed bid to seize the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.
Lukashenko has so far resisted Russian pressure to contribute soldiers to the war in Ukraine. But Russian support is key to his hold on power after the disputed elections of 2020. And the Belarusian economy is heavily dependent on loans from Moscow and exports to the Russian market.
Belarus is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO — a multilateral Russia-led defense organization that succeeded the Cold War-era Warsaw Pact. As explained below, Belarus is the lone CSTO member that has closely aligned with Russia in the Ukraine war.
India and Russia: Long-Standing Allies, Close Defense Partners
Among major world powers, India is Russia’s oldest continuous ally. The partnership between the two countries dates back to the Soviet era. In 1971, India and the Soviet Union signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, despite New Delhi’s claim that it was a non-aligned country.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, India has shielded Russia from punitive action at the UN by not voting in favor of resolutions critical of Moscow. And it has ramped up imports of Russian oil, helping reduce the blow of Western sanctions.
Russia remains popular in India.
- According to a Gallup International survey conducted in January 2023, 51 percent of Indians see Russia as an ally — the highest rate among 14 countries polled.
Defense is at the heart of the India-Russia strategic partnership. India is among the world’s top importers of weapons. And Russia has long been India’s main arms supplier. In recent years, New Delhi has acquired nuclear submarines and the S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Moscow.
Driven by a shared rivalry with China, India’s cooperation with the United States and other Western powers has grown over the past two decades. But many Indians see the U.S., not Russia, as a threat. And New Delhi has remained loyal to its friends in Moscow.
Notably, India has adopted a neutral stance in the current Ukraine crisis not just at the UN, but also at other international platforms.
India, while not a permanent member of the UNSC, was a non-permanent member of the body in 2022. On February 25, 2022, India was one of three countries that chose to abstain from a UNSC resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
India’s top diplomat, Minister of External Affairs Subramanian Jaishankar has not only refused to condemn Moscow’s aggression, but he’s also become more outspoken in resisting pressure to join the anti-Russia camp. In 2022, Jaishankar, referring to the Ukraine war, said: “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems.”
Last August, the joint statement at the India-hosted G20 summit failed to condemn Russia for its Ukraine invasion, unlike the communiqué released at the 2022 meeting in Indonesia. An elated Moscow praised New Delhi for its “leadership.”
Are Russia and China Allies?
China and Russia have a long, complicated relationship. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Soviet Union were allies in the early part of the Cold War. But by the late 1950s, the relationship began to unravel, driven by growing ideological differences and other factors.
In 1959, Chairman Mao Zedong accused Khrushchev of “revisionism.” The next year, Deng Xiaoping repeated the charge and declared that “China must go her own way.” By 1962, the “Sino-Soviet split” became official when Beijing broke off relations with Moscow. This divorce paved the way for the establishment of relations between the PRC and the U.S. in 1972.
Cooperation between China and the Russian Federation has grown over the past two decades, especially since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. In 2001, China and Russia signed a Treaty of Friendship, which paved the way for the expansion of military ties and strategic cooperation. Beijing describes its relationship with Moscow as a “comprehensive collaborative strategic partnership.”
But Sino-Russian ties today are more complicated than official rhetoric suggests. China and Russia seek to oppose U.S. dominance of the world order. Yet they behave in fundamentally different ways in the international system.
Scholars at the RAND Corporation argue in a 2018 report:
“Russia is not a peer or near-peer competitor but rather a well-armed rogue state that seeks to subvert an international order it can never hope to dominate. In contrast, China is a peer competitor that wants to shape an international order that it can aspire to dominate.”
China and Russia are also strategic competitors in the Arctic and Central Asia. Kadri Liik, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, notes that as Russia has become isolated from the West, “China did not rush to break Western sanctions on Russia” and “proved to be a tough negotiator.” As a result, she describes the relationship between Beijing and Moscow as “a flexible non-alliance.”
On February 4, 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a 5,000-word joint statement that some interpreted as heralding a formal Sino-Russian alliance to counter the West. The two countries declared that there were “no limits” to their “friendship.”
Notably, the word “alliance” doesn’t appear in the text. The Wall Street Journal reports that the decision to sign the statement was “influenced by a Chinese foreign-policy establishment stuck in a belief that Mr. Putin wasn’t out for war.” Those assumptions have since been proven to be incorrect and Beijing has struggled to find a clear response to the Russian invasion.
Like India, China voted to abstain from the February 25, 2002, UNSC vote on a resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And, like India, China has increased its imports of Russian fuel.
In late February 2023, the U.S. government claimed that China was mulling sending arms to save Russia from a defeat in Ukraine. But, days later, in an attempt to signal its neutrality, Beijing released a 12-point document outlining what it said was its vision for a political settlement in Ukraine.
While China’s neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine war is questionable, the Chinese public favors such an approach.
- According to a Morning Consult survey conducted in early February 2023, nearly 50 percent of Chinese adults polled say they believe their country should remain neutral in the Russia-Ukraine war.
- Only 12 percent of Chinese adults believe that China should support Russian operations in Ukraine. And just seven percent of Chinese adults think that Beijing should provide Russia with weapons.
Iran and Russia: Friends in Need
While Iran and Russia are not treaty allies, the two countries have provided decisive assistance to one another in moments of dire need.
In 2015, Russia began providing critical air support to aid the Bashar al-Assad regime and its Iranian backers, helping them prevail in the Syrian civil war. Russia mercilessly bombed Syrian cities and villages, including Aleppo, killing nearly 7,000 civilians. The Russian intervention, some say, was at the request of then-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.
In September 2022, Iran returned the favor, providing Russia with Shahed kamikaze drones that helped curb the successful first Ukrainian counter-offensive. The low-cost drones are used to target civilian and military targets in Ukraine and swarm its air defenses.
North Korea: A Win-Win for Kim and Putin
In 2023, Russia turned to another sanctions-hit state, North Korea, to address its firepower needs. North Korea has provided Russia with vital, albeit old, artillery shells in its war of attrition with Ukraine.
Conflict Armament Research has assessed that Pyongyang has provided Moscow with more recently developed ballistic missiles as well, including the short-range KN-23 and KN-24. Russia’s deployment of these missiles in an active theater of conflict provides North Korea with valuable data on how they work against Western air defense systems.
The North Korea-Russia partnership could deepen. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited Russia in September, touring a factory that builds advanced fighter jets. Earlier this year, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said: “In return for its support we assess that Pyongyang is seeking military assistance from Russia including fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, armored vehicles, ballistic missile production equipment, war materials and other advanced technologies.”
Armenia and Other CSTO Members Distance Themselves from Russia
In 1992, Russia and eight other former Soviet republics formed the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to replace the Warsaw Pact, or Warsaw Treaty Organization, which was disbanded the year earlier.
The Warsaw Pact was the Soviet Union’s response to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO, anchoring Communist countries that fell under Moscow’s sphere of influence. While the CSTO lacks the muscle of the Warsaw Pact, it has served to block the spread of NATO. The CSTO also enables Russia to station troops overseas and facilitates its export of weapons to member countries.
Today, the CSTO is diminished in size. Since its founding, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Uzbekistan have left the organization. Along with Russia, its remaining members are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
But no CSTO member other than Belarus has aligned with Russia on the Ukraine war. Kazakhstan has distanced itself from Russia. Armenia, surprisingly, has been careful not to endorse Russia’s actions. It has not recognized the Donetsk and Lugansk breakaway regions of Ukraine.
Still, there remains deep sympathy for Russia in Armenia. Arayik Harutyunyan, the Armenian-backed “president” of the now-defunct breakaway “Republic of Artsakh” formed from Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region, hailed Russia’s recognition of these breakaway territories and called on Armenia to do the same. And Artak Zakarayan, Armenia’s former deputy defense minister, blamed Ukraine’s political elite for the Russian invasion.
Russia is Armenia’s top trading partner by far. Armenia hosts 3,000 Russian troops. In 2020, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said that the “Armenian-Russian military alliance is pivotal for ensuring Armenia’s security” and called for greater integration of their militaries.
Russia’s Top Allies
In 2020, the independent Levada Center polled the Russian public on Russia’s top allies. The ten most popular responses in descending order are listed below.
Please note that since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Germany has backed the Ukrainian resistance to Russia, providing lethal assistance to Kyiv. It has also weaned itself off of Russian gas. Kazakhstan has also attempted to distance itself from Russia.
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