Ramaphosa condemns war, but not Russia specifically

President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Thursday the war in Ukraine could have been avoided if Nato had heeded caution not to expand eastwards, as he reiterated that South Africa was ready to mediate.

Replying to a question in parliament, Ramaphosa suggested that it was partly South Africa’s historical perspective on the alliance’s expansion and partly a desire not to alienate Russia so as to keep communication channels open that had informed his refusal to condemn its invasion of Ukraine.

He went further, perhaps, than before by saying that Pretoria cannot condone the use of force and the flouting of international law.

“While it is important to understand and articulate the cause of the conflict and advocate for peace-building measures, we cannot, however, condone the use of force or violation of international law,” Ramaphosa said.

But he also criticised sanctions imposed on Russia, warning that these may backfire and emphasising that dialogue was the only way to end the war. Beyond that, the president said South Africa was concerned about the effect of sanctions on its own economy, fearing that it will reflect notably in rising food prices and more fuel price hikes.

“We also need to recognise that coercive measures such as sanctions outside the legal prescripts of the UN may serve to prolong and intensify the conflict.”

Ramaphosa said the war demonstrated the need for a multilateral approach to peace and security, as well as weaknesses in the structure of the UN.

“The  composition of the UN Security Council, in particular, does not reflect the realities of the prevailing global landscape,” he said, adding that Africa deserved a seat.

Dominant countries demonstrated a tendency to use their position on the council to serve their national interest rather than peace.

“The security council needs to be overhauled so that there is equitable representation and a more inclusive mechanism for resolving international disputes. We should also work to revitalise the Non-Aligned Movement to ensure that those countries that are not part of the hegemonic contest between the big powers can work together to build peace across the globe,” Ramaphosa said.

However, South Africa fully subscribed to UN secretary general Antonio Guterres’s call for de-escalation, dialogue and a return to diplomacy. The president noted that Guterres has called for an immediate ceasefire and respect for international law, as well as the implementation of the MInsk accords as part of efforts to end the war.

“South Africa stands ready to support general multilateral efforts to end the conflict,” he added.

Responding to a supplementary questions, Ramaphosa expressed irritation with the view that South Africa has equivocated on the invasion.

“We don’t support war, because war just results in too many problems and challenges for people. We support the end of this war … and obviously a ceasefire is the beginning of that process to bring an end to the war, and then serious negotiations should ensue.”

He said he “got it from none other than the president of Russia” that talks are ongoing and showing some promise. “We have been approached by a number of other interlocutors, some of whom are not necessarily playing a direct role in the conflict and we have said when called on to do so [assist in mediation], we would be ready,” Ramaphosa said.

The government has faced criticism for refusing to condemn Russian aggression at the emergency special session of the UN general assembly on the Ukraine crisis, days after International Relations and Co-operation Minister Naledi Pandor was hastily corrected after calling for Russia to withdraw its troops from its neighbour.

“There are people within our country and elsewhere that want South Africa to adopt a more adversarial position,” Ramaphosa said.

Instead, he said, Pretoria’s approach was one of seeking to help create conditions that would allow a durable resolution of the conflict.

“Through this approach, we are able to make our voice heard, not only publicly, but also to the parties that are involved in the conflict. By doing so — as we talk to them; as we exchange views and interact with them — we bring our influence to bear on the issue of dialogue, negotiation and mediation, which has always stood us in good stead as a nation.”

Ramaphosa added: “Our approach is informed by an analysis also of the causes of the conflict.”

“This includes a view shared by many — leading scholars, politicians and a number of other people in international relations — that the war could have been avoided if Nato had heeded the warnings from among its own leaders and officials over the years that its eastwards expansion would lead to greater, not less instability in the region.”

The president drew a parallel between the current war and the Cuban Missile Crisis and said it was obvious that Russia had perceived the eastwards push of NATO as a threat.

“We need to look at the history. Some of us may forget that in 1962 the world was almost plunged into a nuclear war when, at the time, the Soviet Union sought to put missiles in Cuba.”

Ramaphosa said this presented an unacceptable existential threat to the US, and recalled that former US secretaries of state Condoleeza Rice and Henry Kissinger were among those who cautioned that further expansion of Nato carried risks.

“Now this has happened to Ukraine. We want everyone to remember what history teaches us as we engage in dialogue and negotiations … Now, obviousl,y Russia has felt that this is an existential threat to them.”

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