The recently concluded summit of BRICS, since 2009 consisting of annual meetings between the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and (since 2010) South Africa, decided to invite as new “members” in an enlargement drive such disparate countries as Argentine, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia and Egypt, which means that as from 2024 the BRICS acronym may have to be changed and the total member country number will be an impressive 11, together representing a huge part of total world population and considerable share of total world income. And dozens of other countries have expressed interest in joining, something to be considered at the next “BRICS” summit in Russia.

The Johannesburg summit was the first physical summons since the covid break and therefore anticipated by considerable world media attention, especially in view of the diplomatic dilemma facing the host, South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa: whether or not to invite Russia’s ICC indictee Vladimir Putin, considering that as ICC member South Africa would be nominally obliged to arrest Putin, should he set foot on South African soil – politically unthinkable but juridically unavoidable (of sorts). But Ramaphosa was in the end spared the embarrassment, Putin abstained from visiting and participated only by video link. And next summit, then, is in Russia, at which summit Putin pledged in his video speech to actively promote further “BRICS” enlargement – as a means to counter US-led sanctions and US-led international isolation.

One thus has to add quotation marks to the established acronym, “BRICS” after all referring to the original grouping of countries, and also to the word “member” since at least so far “membership” only implies participating in the annual events, not belonging to an organization. This vagueness, together with the obvious fact that this group of countries, especially after steps of enlargement essentially with former adversaries in the MENA region (plus Argentina), represents a variety of different ideas and interests gives rise to pointed questions as concerns the relevance and impact of the grouping, even as it is expanded.

Nonetheless, one can clearly see the emergence of a newly energized “BRICS” as part of a global trend of competitive multilateralization, with “BRICS” perceived, especially by Russia and China, as a counterweight to US and Western claims to world dominance, notably in the economic sphere, with “de-dollarization” as the stated aim that combines the otherwise disparate interests of India under Modi, China under Xi, Russia under Putin, Brazil under Lula, and the rest, including South Africa under Ramaphosa.

Clear and present disagreements between on the one hand Russia and China, which look upon “BRICS” as a means to mobilize global resistance to US dominance and US-led sanctions against Russian aggression against Ukraine, and countries like Brazil and India, and later Egypt and Saudi Arabia, unwilling to end up in an openly anti-American or anti-Western camp but still ready to promote widened multilateralism and uneasy about Western pressure for them to sanctions against Russia, are likely to prevent major, substantive leaps onwards. And – as experienced by the G20 configuration with a politically very mixed composition, and to some extent also the EU – while enlargement adds weight and clout, enlargement also adds potential disagreements.

At present, the immediate relevance of the “BRICS” summit and its enlargement decision should be seen in the light of a global struggle over Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and whether and to what extent the US-led West, including the G7 grouping, will succeed in convincing important countries of the “Global South” to actively support, militarily, economically, or (at least) diplomatically, Western attempts to help Ukraine prevail against Russian aggression. Or whether and to what extent Russia, with Chinese backing, will be able to prevent this by means of successful counter-mobilization, using “BRICS” as the means to that end.

The overwhelming support – in terms of country numbers – for condemning Russia’s aggression achieved at the level of the UN General Assembly last year (like probably this year, in the upcoming September session) was one thing, as such essential: 141 votes in favor, 5 against, 35 abstentions. But in terms of major, populous, powers in the “Global South”, such as Brazil, India and South Africa plus a number of UN “abstainees” now interested in becoming members of “BRICS”, the picture is rather different, displaying a great reluctance on their part to listening to the appeals of the hitherto dominant “West”, instead tempted by the transactional attraction offered by the opposite narrative – that multilateralization (and “de-dollarization”) is an inherently good thing and that neutralism over the Ukraine crisis is therefore, on balance, the best position offered.

From the point of view of the US and the “west”, while the jury may still be out as regards the ultimate outcome of this struggle for “Global South” support over Ukraine (and beyond) there is, therefore, every reason to take the emergence of a strengthened and enlarged “BRICS” seriously, as a serious competition to G7 and other formats representing US/Western leadership ambitions in an increasingly complicated global context.

The author is ambassador, holds a Ph d and is a fellow of RSAWS.