Why South Africa should care about Ukraine

As the war in Ukraine unfolds, it becomes clear how to win worldwide support if attacked by a deranged thug with a much stronger military than yours.

Have a president with a talent for the courageous soundbite, orchestrate worldwide social media support, win the argument for massive and effective sanctions and be white.

Russia today has a collapsing currency and stock market, has had interest rates more than doubled, has lengthy queues at ATMs as people try to draw money when they can and the government is desperately printing money to try to keep up.

Contrast this with the glacially slow pace of implementing sanctions against apartheid and the arguments against sanctions — it will hurt the victims of apartheid more than the perpetrators, it will never work, et cetera.

Had the West implemented sanctions against the apartheid regime as effective as those Russia is now facing, the system would have collapsed in a week.

Despite this valid cynicism though, what Russia has done is inexcusable and I applaud the Ukrainians for defending themselves so effectively against Russian aggression.

A war of aggression contravenes the United Nations Charter and is a war crime.

What is aggression? The 1933 Convention on the Definition of Aggression lists the following; any state that is the first to take such a move is an aggressor:

1. Declaration of war upon another state;

2. Invasion by its armed forces, with or without a declaration of war, of the territory of another state;

3. Attack by its land, naval or air forces, with or without a declaration of war, on the territory, vessels or aircraft of another state;

4. Naval blockade of the coasts or ports of another state; and

5. Provision of support to armed bands formed in its territory which have invaded the territory of another state, or refusal, notwithstanding the request of the invaded state, to take, in its own territory, all the measures in its power to deprive those bands of all assistance or protection.

A good fraction of the list applies to Russia’s behaviour going back to occupying the Crimea in 2014. What dastardly reactionary state came up with such a definition that makes Russia look so bad? Signatories were the Soviet Union, Romania, Afghanistan, Estonia, Latvia, Persia, Poland, and Turkey — and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was the chief author.

Russia’s behaviour problem goes beyond aggression.

When Ukraine split from the USSR in 1991, they had a third of the former country’s nuclear weapons. In the 2014 Budapest Memorandum, the United States, United Kingdom and Russia guaranteed Ukraine‘s security arising from Ukraine’s agreement to give up their nuclear weapons.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin argues that Ukraine is no longer the country it was in 1994. That is a feeble excuse for his violations of international law. Nor does it excuse undermining non-proliferation. How will any country be persuaded to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees, if those guarantees aren’t worth the paper they’re written on?

Despite all the feel-good stories out of Ukraine, a crisis does not only bring out the best in people, so there will inevitably be darker stories. One example: reports of disgraceful treatment of Africans fleeing the war.

Here in South Africa, how do we play this? Clumsily, judging from our government. After Minister Naledi Pandor condemned the Russian invasion, President Cyril Ramaphosa followed up by blaming President Joe Biden for refusing to talk to Putin unless Putin guaranteed that he would not invade Ukraine. This is bizarre. Not long before the invasion, Putin denied that he was planning anything like that. Whether Biden should have talked to Putin is in any case beside the point. Biden isn’t the aggressor and Putin lied about his intentions.

ANC stalwarts have a soft spot for Russia because of Soviet support for liberation movements. But Putin does not represent anything like the Soviet system. Russia’s economy today is dominated by wealthy oligarchs. There are some similarities, such as disproportionate spending on the military and limited tolerance for dissent (though nowhere as near as bad as under Stalinism). But Russia today is not the USSR — much as Putin would like to rebuild it by swallowing Ukraine whole.

What I find disturbing in the government’s response is a lack of a moral dimension. In 1976, when Jimmy Carter was elected US president, he introduced the rather novel concept of human rights as a central foreign policy concern. The anti-apartheid movement enthusiastically embraced this and worked very hard to undo the previous standard of no interference in internal affairs.

Yet here we are today, with a foreign policy that is devoid of a moral dimension.

Where next?

Let us build on enthusiasm for the Ukrainian cause to re-awaken the idea of moral international relations — and add to that causes that are finally becoming mainstream like Black Lives Matter, the Me Too movement and more broadly support of the excluded and vulnerable.

If Ukraine deserves the magnificent support it has been receiving, why not every country that is a victim of aggression? Why not every excluded group that is treated brutally or inhumanly? Far too often, these questions are inconvenient and are brushed aside. It particularly saddens me that our post-apartheid government has forgotten how it won power ­— not as much through the barrel of the gun as through the lens of morality.

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Philip Machanick
Philip Machanick is an associate professor of computer science at Rhodes University

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