/ 20 February 2023

Russia-Ukraine: Changing face of the war and Impact on the Global South

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at a press conference for selected media at his official residence the Maryinsky Palace on March 3,2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo by Laurent Van der Stockt for Le Monde/Getty Images)

Most South Africans get their information about the war in Ukraine from Western media, and our own media, a good deal of which reports the Western line verbatim and uncritically. 

While the media often presents itself as impartial, this is never the case. All newspapers, television news stations and so on have a broad political orientation. Of course, some, to their credit, do make space for divergent views and thereby serve the interests of a democratic public sphere better than those that only tell a single story. 

All powerful states deploy considerable resources and expertise towards shaping media narratives in their own interests. And during times of war, the media, including social media, is explicitly considered to be part of the battlespace. This is not a new development. As the old saying goes, “the first casualty when war comes is truth”.

As we approach the anniversary of the start of the war between Russia and Ukraine, now widely understood by serious analysts across the political spectrum to also be a proxy war between Russia and the United States, it is notable that this war has become a key issue in our public sphere and public consciousness. The wars in Yemen and Ethiopia, which have death tolls far higher than in Ukraine, are given very little attention.

We as South Africans still allow the West to shape much of our understanding of global affairs, and we ourselves often still have a colonial view of the rest of the African continent. Consequently, African lives are not accorded the same weight as European lives and African states are not taken as seriously as European ones. 

But the proxy war being fought on Ukrainian soil and airspace does have an objective and particular global significance in that Russia and the United States, two of the world’s great powers, both with nuclear powers, are directly involved.

The decision of the Brics countries — China, India, Brazil and South Africa — to remain non-aligned means that the long struggle for the autonomy of the Global South in global affairs, which goes back to the Bandung Conference of 1955, continues to find organised expression.  

Africa learned a hard lesson during the Cold War when it became the centre of some of the worst proxy wars between the East and the West. This left the economies of many countries in disarray and their growth curtailed and set back for generations. As a result, there remains a strong view among the continent’s intelligentsia, in and out of the US, that autonomy, multilateralism and the continued use of diplomatic channels cannot be overemphasised. 

It is very unfortunate when these kinds of longstanding and carefully thought through concerns are crudely misrepresented in the media as support for autocrats, corruption or “state capture”.

In this complex situation, South Africans need a greater diversity of credible analysis in order to understand the origins of the war and possibilities for its resolution. Among other issues that have not been sufficiently examined in our public sphere is the history of US proxy wars in general, the history of US involvement in Ukraine, which goes back to the removal of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych from office in 2014, and the role of Nato. Nato is patently not, as the US claims, a purely defensive alliance. Nato was directly involved in the 1999 bombings of Serbia and in the removal of Muammar Gaddafi from power in 2011. 

A year into the war it is clear that there will be no easy victory for either party, and that neither country has any will to surrender. Emboldened by increasing US and Western aid to it, Kyiv sees no reason to go back to the table and talk to Moscow. On the other side Moscow will not step back from its demands that Nato remove its weapons from the countries on its borders and commit to not incorporating Ukraine as a member state.

However, stalemate does not mean stasis. There is a real risk that as the supply of weapons to Ukraine increases, and European countries rearm, the war could spill out into other countries. US belligerence in Eastern Europe could also escalate tensions in the South China Sea and, of course, many are concerned of the risk of nuclear war. 

Already there has been a global environmental catastrophe after the Nord Stream pipeline was blown up in September, pushing 300,000 tonnes of methane into the atmosphere. Veteran US reporter Seymour Hersh has presented work arguing that US President Joe Biden gave a direct order to destroy the pipeline. If Hersh is correct, the US has moved beyond supporting the war effort in Ukraine and into a direct attack on the sovereignty of both Russia and Germany. This is a very dangerous situation for the world as a whole. 

Currently, Ukraine is getting what it wants: more and more dangerous and deadly weapons that will enable it to escalate this war. However, as the respected American academic Jeffery Sachs has noted, the US always moves on and by the time it does, Ukraine may well be a country left in rubble like Iraq, and it may well descend into factional wars like Libya. 

The US is under no immediate pressure to retreat. Moscow is dug in for the duration. But what of Kyiv, and the Ukrainian people? And what of world peace?

The escalating tensions between China and the US, most recently seen in the shooting down of the balloon and other flying objects over North America, as well as the continued build-up of military presence in the South China Sea does not bode well. The ongoing proxy war in Ukraine could be a harbinger for a wider European and possibly world war. The signs are there to see but many South Africans, offered only a simplistic narrative, are not thinking through the bigger picture.

Those countries in the Global South that are remaining non-aligned and arguing for negotiations are not, as it is often suggested, acting unethically and in concert with authoritarianism. They are mindful of the fact that the war has already hit their countries hard in terms of escalating food and energy prices and are, quite correctly, taking a position in support of the autonomy of the Global South, multilateralism, peace and, also, the hope for the emergence of a multi-polar world in which the Global South would have greater room to manoeuvre. Moreover, with a growing economic and environmental crisis which necessitates cooperative action, it is imperative that as many countries as possible work to make friends rather than foes. 

War is always a terrible, terrible thing, and should always be avoided wherever possible. Those who needlessly provoke, encourage or wage war should always be condemned. 

But lining up behind America’s militarism in this war is not the road to a more peaceful and just world. As the cumulative disaster of American proxy wars shows all too clearly, we should do all in our power to work for a swift and fair negotiated end to this war, and to work to build a world more grounded in multilateralism. 

The Global South should continue to offer to be an independent broker, perhaps under the leadership of the widely respected Lula da Silva. 

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