BRICS Under Russian Chairship – Analysis

By Rajiv Bhatia 

On 1 January 2024, the chairship of BRICS shifted from South Africa to Russia, with a full agenda in tow.  BRICS, a multilateral forum of five nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – made history by accepting the applications of six other states – Argentina, Saudi Arabia,  UAE, Iran, Egypt, and Ethiopia to join it,  a decision taken at its 15th summit in Johannesburg in August 2023. These need to be absorbed into the grouping. How has the effort been shaping up in the first two months of Moscow’s leadership?

The first bump was felt last year in December,  when South Africa was still in the chair, as the newly elected  Argentine President Javier Gerardo Milei formally declined to join the group, stating politely that the timing was not right for his country to enter BRICS. The second unexpected response came a month later in January 2024 from newly admitted member Saudi Arabia, which failed to send its representative to the BRICS Sherpas’ meeting in Moscow, without providing clarity on whether it wished to join or stay out of BRICS. Hence, the grouping is, as of now, nine-member strong with the possibility that the Chair may be able to persuade Saudi Arabia to cement itself as the tenth member.

How is BRICS going to handle a web of challenges, both internal and external, in the build-up to the next summit in Kazan, Russia, in October 2024?

Over the past 18 years, the world that BRICS was first born in has changed beyond recognition. Then, in the early years of the 21st century, US dominance – ‘the unipolar moment’ – was the defining characteristic of geopolitics, with the G7 nations ruling the roost.  BRICS emerged as a conscious response to correct the geopolitical imbalance as Eurasia’s three major powers (Russia, China and India) and President Lula’s Brazil got together to unfurl the flag of an alternative pole of power. BRIC, the club of emerging economies, had its first expansion with the entry of South Africa in 2011, thus making BRICS a strong contributor to multipolarity.

Today, the U.S.-China contestation, China-India hostilities on the border, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Israel-Hamas war, and the regionalisation of conflict in West Asia have transformed the international environment in which BRICS operates. The year 2023 became historic as some three dozen nations formed a long queue to join the grouping, seen as an alternative space to the dominant order. Despite its modest achievements, BRICS must be doing something right to become such a coveted club.

Against this backdrop, President Vladimir Putin recently defined the priorities of the Russian Chairship through a catch-all theme – ‘Strengthening multilateralism for equitable global development and security.’  Tired of two years of damaging Western sanctions and efforts to isolate Russia on account of its war against Ukraine, Moscow conveyed that its focus would be on forging positive and constructive cooperation, promoting the three pillars of BRICS: political and security cooperation, economic and financial cooperation, and cultural and people-to-people exchanges. Special attention is to be accorded to science, high technology, healthcare, environmental protection, and cultural relations. A disclosure of much consequence by Putin was that nearly 30 countries were willing to join BRICS. He observed that a Russian priority was to consider the modalities to engage these countries in BRICS’ multidimensional agenda “in one form or another” through a new category of partner countries.

India, a co-founder of the forum, has been intensely involved in the development of BRICS since it was first conceived in September 2006. (The first summit was held in 2009). With the new additions, India is focused on the BRICS’ future. A national seminar in Kolkata on 22–23 February, hosted by Adamas University in collaboration with three think tanks, was a valuable occasion for scholars, diplomats, officials, and business leaders to engage in a critical stocktake and offer thoughtful suggestions for policymakers. The participants seemed especially interested in how BRICS should address the challenge of the next expansion. Indian experts were clear that a careful and gradualist approach was most advisable lest BRICS lose its inner coherence and become the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) 2.0.

The Chinese panelist, on the other hand, favoured all applicants being brought into the fold if backed by consensus among BRICS states. Clearly, China sees strategic and economic gains for itself in a vastly expanded BRICS. The Brazilian and Russian representatives were, however, clear that the priority now was to secure “a harmonious integration” of the five new members, and plans for any future expansion would have to wait.

Yet, BRICS leaders are bound to feel increasing pressure for expansion as the October summit approaches. What is likely is the possible emergence of consensus on creating a new category of ‘dialogue partners’ within BRICS, somewhat on the same lines as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). However, what the new members – UAE, Iran, Ethiopia, and Egypt – want on this issue remains unclear at present.

Another cleavage within BRICS revolves around its attitude towards the West comprising the U.S., EU, and Japan or G7. The China-Russia combine prefers an anti-West approach for their own fundamental ends, whereas the rest of the members may go along, in varying degrees. India’s choice is pragmatic: a non-West line that is willing to oppose the West where necessary but keen to collaborate with it where possible. How the Russian chair navigates its path through this tricky geopolitical turbulence will be watched closely. This is what makes many observers quite anxious, even wary, about the future of BRICS.

In contrast, the Indian industry’s perspective on BRICS at Kolkata was marked by considerable optimism. It felt that BRICS was moving on the right track and that its recent expansion was for everyone’s good. The forum should now concentrate on expanding intra-BRICS trade and investment flows, a pathway that will impart greater strength and a bigger role to the grouping on the world stage.

N.G. Khaitan, President of Bharat Chamber of Commerce Kolkata, stated that despite geopolitical hurdles, BRICS + will become one of the important economic powerhouses, able to influence global governance.

This optimism must be carried by India into the ongoing discussions at BRICS this year. India’s strategic responsibility is to guide BRICS, so the forum strengthens its brand of multilateralism, contributes to multipolarity, avoids contradictions with the nation’s pro-West but well-calibrated foreign policy, and helps in achieving sustainable economic development of the Global South. Indian diplomacy has its job cut out for it. It is likely to succeed, provided the consolidation of BRICS’ inner core, IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa), is secured and China’s influence with the new members is contained effectively.