Nations react to international political crises through their own history. Hence South Africa’s bland and ambivalent response to Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” to “denazify” Ukraine.
Behind the feeble call of President Cyril Ramaphosa and International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor for a return to the negotiating table and refusal to apply sanctions to the invader lie a sentimental attachment to Russia born of South Africa’s liberation struggle and its membership of Brics (the Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa bloc) — a political association that includes a rightwing former paratrooper who idolises Donald Trump (Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil) and two of the world’s foremost persecutors of religious minorities (Narendra Modi in India and Xi Jinping in China).
This is not a “complicated issue” as an editorial whitewash in Independent Online has claimed. For those who believe in a rules-based international order, it could not be simpler.
At stake is the principle, enshrined in the United Nations Charter, that aggressive, as opposed to defensive, warfare is a violation of international law. It is this that was used to condemn the apartheid South African Defence Force’s many incursions into Angola.
Putin’s Russia has been waging undeclared war in Eastern Ukraine for eight years, and recently recognised and militarily occupied the two puppet states of the “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics” in the Donbas region. This amounts to unlawful territorial expansion, which the UN’s International Law Commission has mandated other states not to recognise.
Russia’s belief that within what it regards as its “sphere of influence” it is entitled to invade whichever country it pleases, and to make or break governments it dislikes, goes back at least to Stalin’s unprovoked invasions of Poland and Finland in 1939. In post-war Eastern Europe it invaded East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
The Russian ambassador to South Africa, Alexander Arefiev, claims Russia is “demilitarising and de-nazifying” Ukraine, suggesting plans to disarm Ukraine and purge its government.
This would be in clear violation of the principle, also endorsed in the UN Charter, that the will of the people is the basis of a government’s legitimacy. In a referendum in 1991, 92% of Ukrainians — a majority in all regions, including Crimea — voted for independence from Russia.
Like many countries, Ukraine has a number of ultra-right groupings, which in the 2019 parliamentary elections formed a united front. But it won just over 2% of the vote, insufficient to earn a single seat.
The claim that Ukraine is a Nazi state ignores the fact that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy (who is Jewish) was elected with overwhelming popular support, winning 72% of the vote in the second round of Ukraine’s presidential election in 2019.
The result was unchallenged. Zelenskyy’s opponent, Petro Poroshenko, announced in a Twitter post: “We succeeded in ensuring free, fair, democratic and competitive elections … I will accept the will of Ukrainian people.”
There is another possible historical perspective. Given South Africa’s colonial experience, the denial of the vote under apartheid and attempts to force the Bantustan system on Africans, one would expect the ANC government to uphold the people’s will as a transcendent value.
Arefiev’s reference to the militarisation of Ukraine perhaps points to the Western armaments that have entered the country since Russian troops started massing on its border last November. Recourse to Western military aid was a defensive reflex that was entirely unsurprising — and has now been amply justified.
It may also refer to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Nato, whose eastward expansion obsesses Putin. Nations apply to join Nato and as a sovereign state Ukraine should decide the question of its membership, not Russia.
Ukraine has been in constant contact with Nato for 15 years, but a series of initiatives have gone nowhere, suggesting Nato is not keen to antagonise Putin.
An ironic outcome of the Russian military buildup has been a sharp growth in popular Ukrainian support for Nato membership, from 36% in favour and 48% against in May 2014 to 64% and 17% respectively in January this year.
If the official pretexts make no sense, what is Putin up to? At one level he is a former KGB officer who still lives in the paranoid mental atmosphere of the Cold War.
“Sphere of influence” is itself a Cold War concept. Sovereign states should be free to choose their allies — a precept the United States also routinely violates.
Putin seems terrified about the proximity of Nato nuclear weapons to the Russian heartland, and has consistently demanded that Nato give binding assurances that it will not accept the former Soviet republics into its fold.
But there is a personal dimension. Consider this quotation: “He is the martyr, the victim. Prometheus chained to a rock, the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds. … If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem a dragon.”
George Orwell was writing about Hitlerbut it sounds like Putin. All those speeches about the West’s efforts, over three centuries, to restrict and dismember Russia, the “constant attempt to push us back in a corner … because we stand up for ourselves”, to block Russia’s self-realisation.
And even a hint of bitter resentment at Russia’s exclusion from the post-Cold War geopolitical order: “You didn’t have to make an enemy of us,” Putin said in a televised outpouring in February this year.
What Putin shares with the German dictator is, first of all, a view of the nation, and himself, as victims denied respect. Just as Hitler harked back to the Versailles conference that stripped Germany of its colonies, hived off a tenth of its population and imposed crushing reparations, Putin broods over the humiliating downfall and fragmentation of the Soviet Union.
He has referred to the fall of the Soviet Union as a “tragedy for the vast majority of its citizens” and “a major geopolitical tragedy of the [20th] century”.
The two leaders also share a mystical sense of nationhood: the Nazi “Blut und Boden” (blood and soil) ideology aimed to bring together all Germans in a single tribe in one settlement area, for which “Lebensraum” (living space) to the East was needed; Putin has described Ukrainians and Russians as one people, and Ukraine as “part of our history, culture and spiritual space”.
It is this that lies behind his claims that Ukraine is a manufactured entity that Lenin wrongly excised from Mother Russia, and which has no right to a separate existence.
Putin dreams of himself as a restorer of Russian grandeur, a modern Peter the Great, who began Tsarist imperial expansion and paved the way for Russia to become a great European power.
Central to his “statecraft” is eroding the independence and territorial integrity of former Soviet republics that drift into the Western orbit. Russian troops occupy a fifth of Georgia, which has also sought Nato membership, and Russia has recognised two former Georgian breakaway client states, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Kazakhstan, whose historical existence as a state Putin has also publicly challenged, may also be in the crosshairs. It is highly significant that the Kazakh government, which seemed close to Russia, has condemned the invasion of Ukraine.
Drew Forrest is the former political editor of Business Day and the Mail & Guardian