/ 23 September 2022

South Africa, as a Brics member, must make its voice heard on Putin’s nuclear weapons sabre-rattling

Brics Bank Launches In Shanghai

With President Vladimir Putin’s latest speech announcing a partial mobilisation and redefining Russia’s strategy for nuclear weapons, his war against Ukraine has taken an ugly turn of escalation. By threatening the use of such weapons, after abandoning the slightest attempt at using the international institutions Russia helped to build, is far too damaging for South Africa or the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) bloc to accept without sanction. 

From a moral standpoint, South Africa ought to have already condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine. However, morality and foreign policy seldom meet as many of the same countries that have condemned Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian civilians are silent when their strategic allies commit almost the exact same crimes. Moral hypocrisy in matters of conventional wars is nothing new and has been a perennial aspect of international relations since the advent of diplomacy. 

When it comes to the rhetoric around the use of nuclear weapons, however, there can be no moral equivocation. Whatever strategic foreign policy gains South Africa gets from a friendship with Russia will amount to little if even a tactical thermonuclear genie is set loose by Putin. 

If we were to be generous and call the war in Ukraine a “border dispute”, even the thought of resorting to nuclear weapons (tactical or strategic) is morally abhorrent. Argument over borders is one of the most common forms of disagreements between international neighbours. Allowing any state to suggest using such weapons to solve their problems would lead to untold and unfathomable destruction. 

There are essentially two types of nuclear weapons: tactical and strategic. Strategic are the nightmare apocalypse scenario bombs designed to destroy cities and cause maximum damage to a state. Tactical nukes are smaller, with the intention of being used against conventional military targets or massed formations such as a large column of tanks or an aircraft carrier. 

Assuming that Putin’s threats referred more to the use of tactical rather than strategic nuclear weapons it should be noted that the bombs dropped on Japan in World War II were more akin to tactical than strategic weapons.

Border disputes between nuclear powers are not uncommon as India-Pakistan and India-China demonstrate, nor is their propensity for violent escalation. However, the ubiquity of border disputes is also the reason why there are numerous international organisations tasked with the peaceful resolution of such disputes. 

The International Court of Justice (not to be confused with the International Criminal Court) hears and rules on cases of such matters. Of course, there are also the United Nations’s institutions of the General Assembly and the Security Council. Even more specifically, there is also the Organisation for Security Co-operation in Europe, which was formed during the Cold War as a forum of co-operation to prevent these conflicts from escalating. 

Russia, as the primary inheritor of the former Soviet Union, is a founding and core member of these institutions. To say that all these institutions have been ineffective in preventing the war in the first place, or are unable to prevent escalation, would be inaccurate. Putin has not even tried to use these powerful institutions. 

Putin’s initial justification for invading Ukraine and his “special military operation” was to stop the persecution of the Russian-speaking population by Ukrainian Nazis. The UN, in all its various forms and sub-institutions, was specifically designed to fight nazism and prevent genocide. In fact, the name “United Nations” was the official term used by the Allies in World War II in their fight against fascism. If Ukraine really does contain such a hotbed of nazism as to warrant a “special military operation” then the UN ought to have been the principal actor in dealing with the threat. 

While, yes, the UN has failed, sometimes spectacularly, to prevent genocide in Cambodia, the Balkans and Rwanda, it nonetheless still plays prominent roles in attempts to end atrocities, as well as in post-conflict reconstruction and justice. With Ukraine, however, Russia, as a founding member, has not even attempted to engage with the UN or the Organisation for Security Co-operation in Europe to resolve these matters, preferring to act unilaterally without international legitimacy and breaking several international treaties and laws. These institutions were not tried and found wanting, they were not tried at all. 

Such contempt for international institutions has been common enough with autocrats around the world. It is this contempt that constitutes a substantive problem for the future of Brics. The members have been trying to form an international order away from the neo-colonial machinations of the Global North, or at least that is the general view from Brazil, India and South Africa. 

Doing so still requires common respect for international institutions, especially for the functioning of something like an international development bank. What hope is there for the long-term success of Brics if one of the foundational members has not only demonstrated a total disregard for the other institutions it helped create but now also threatens to unleash uranium-fuelled hell? 

These are not the actions and judgments of an honest partner. More to the point from a South African historical perspective, threatening to use nuclear weapons to preserve an ethnolinguistic group, while ignoring all attempts to negotiate a peaceful resolution, with or without the aid of legitimate international institutions, is exactly what the apartheid state attempted to do. 

South Africa’s renouncing and decommissioning of nuclear weapons gives us a uniquely powerful voice on these matters. Now is the time to make that voice heard, not only for our own foreign policy interests, but also for those who were looking for Brics to shape a new path away from imperialist war-mongering. 

Dr Simon Taylor is an extraordinary researcher at North-West University and the founder of Ana Nzinga Research. He was formerly with the department of international relations and co-operation and holds an MSocSci from the University of Cape Town and a PhD from the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.