/ 11 July 2023

Setting the record straight about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

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Russian president, Vladimir Putin. (Contributor/Getty Images)

I’ve been working on human rights in Russia for more than half my life. My knowledge of Africa is regrettably lacking — but this unfortunate fact makes me think that, likewise, many people in Africa might not have been closely following the developments in Russia prior to its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. 

It also prompts me to provide some insight into the lies told by the Russian government about the ongoing war — the war which the Russian government hypocritically calls “a special military operation” it claims is aimed at saving Ukrainians from Nazism. 

Yes, the Kremlin doesn’t even call it a war. This exercise in hypocrisy is revolting but not surprising. The bloody and protracted war in Chechnya, fought by Russia from the mid-1990s into the 2000s, was initially labelled “an operation to restore constitutional rule” and then “a counter-terrorism operation”. Russia’s war in Georgia in 2008 was “a peace-enforcement operation”. Russia’s vile war of aggression against Ukraine was proclaimed yet another “operation”. 

Moreover, under the war censorship laws the Kremlin pushed through parliament last year, calling this war what it is can land you in prison for years. Many critics of the invasion are already behind bars in Russia for allegedly spreading “fake news” about the “special military operation” or “discrediting” Russian armed forces and other authorities. 

Even calling for peace is a prosecutable offence, very much in line with the anti-utopian motto in George Orwell’s novel 1984, written three-quarters of a century ago: “War is Peace/ Freedom is Slavery/ Ignorance is Strength.” Needless to say, Russian state-controlled media uphold that motto to the fullest.  

The Kremlin argues that, in winter 2014, the “collective West” orchestrated an anti-Russian military coup in Ukraine. In reality, these were countrywide public protests against the corrupt government. Victor Yanukovich, who was the Ukrainian president, fled but the country’s parliament continued working and new democratic elections were conducted under international scrutiny.

It is arguing furthermore that the events of February 2014 endangered the population of Crimea, with its majority of ethnic Russians, so Moscow had no choice but to protect the people of Crimea who supposedly begged for Big Brother’s help. In reality, the annexation plan had been developed by Russia’s defence ministry at least a year before the occupation of the peninsula — and the March 2014 “popular referendum” on Crimea “rejoining” Russia was carried out with the assistance of occupying Russian military forces. 

It is saying local Russian-speaking residents founded the so-called Donetsk and Lukhansk People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine fearing violence from the new government in Kyiv. In reality, paramilitary groups from Russia and the Kremlin were behind this project and the “separatist” referendums were staged and illegitimate. 

It is saying that “Nazis” usurped power in Ukraine. Fact is, recent parliamentary and presidential elections in Ukraine were free and fair — and support for radical nationalist candidates was negligible. 

The Kremlin claims that its February 2022 attack on Ukraine was preventive because Ukraine and Nato were plotting against Russia and getting ready to attack. It also claims Russian strikes are focused only on military targets and delivered by precise weapons to avoid civilian harm; that they provide functional “humanitarian corridors” to civilians affected by fighting; that Ukrainian territories flourish under Russian control and local residents can “finally” enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms. 

All these claims are no truer than Russia’s earlier claims about Chechnya and Syria. No anti-Russian plot existed. The Russian “targeted attacks” were massive, indiscriminate shelling. Over 20 000 people died in Mariupol alone and the city itself suffered such horrific destruction that it is now routinely compared to Syria’s Aleppo, largely destroyed by aerial bombing, and Grozny, the war-wrecked Chechnyian capital.  

Up to 30 000 people died in Russian attacks on Grozny in the winter of 1994-1995. And in the winter of 2022-2023, Russian rockets methodically destroyed Ukrainian energy infrastructure, leaving millions to freeze. In Syria, Russia bombed hospitals and other medical facilities, cynically using UN coordinates to target those protected buildings. 

In occupied territories of Ukraine, the Russian military has been operating secret prisons, torturing, forcibly disappearing and killing people — similar to what they did in Chechnya and Syria.   

The large-scale warfare in Ukraine, fraught with war crimes and crimes against humanity, would not have been possible if not for the decades of impunity the Kremlin has been enjoying. A robust reaction by the international community to the crimes in Chechnya and Syria could have prevented the Ukrainian nightmare. 

One of the organised perpetrators of the atrocities in Syria, and now in Ukraine, was the Wagner mercenary group, sponsored by the Russian authorities to carry out particularly dirty work, in which the government wanted no visible role. 

This is the same group which has committed horrific abuses in Central African Republic and Mali, entangling the African continent in the vicious cycle of Russian lawlessness and violence. Now, after close to a decade of pretending it wasn’t directly involved with the company, the Kremlin has publicly admitted that Wagner is its project and has been funded by the government from the very start.

The war in Ukraine might seem to be far away but, if Russian aggression there goes unpunished, it cannot but have dramatic consequences for Africa, too.

Already, the effects of the war in Ukraine are being felt on the continent. Limited trade via the Black Sea affects food, fertiliser and fuel destined for many African seaports and has led to grain shortages, hunger and social unrest.

As the war continues unabated, so does the impunity for the war crimes that are being committed, including by the Wagner group. The mercenary group is widely known to be operating in some African countries. That tens of thousands of mercenaries could be polishing their newly amplified experience of massive violence, impunity and lawlessness on African soil should be of concern to African countries and the African Union. 

Rather than push for the suspension of the International Criminal Court’s warrant of arrest for President Vladimir Putin — as a delegation of seven African countries suggested as part of their African Peace Mission to Ukraine and Russia in June — African governments, and South Africa in particular, should stand up in defence of the UN Charter which calls on all UN members to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other states. 

To cave in to a liar and war criminal will certainly not bode well for international peace and security. 

Alexánder Cherkasov is a Russian human rights defender and a board member of Memorial, a leading Russian right organisation and a co-laureate of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.