South Africa can damn Putin and stay non-aligned in the West

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a impolite reminder of how deeply interconnected the worldwide financial system is. It has additionally underlined the fragility of worldwide stability and the multilateral establishments that underpin it. It exhibits that the interplays of energy reign supreme and the strongest can run roughshod over the weak in ways in which undermine worldwide legislation. 

The world local weather of rigidity amongst main powers creates grave uncertainties concerning the future state of the worldwide system and whether or not the rules-based worldwide establishments can stand up to the strain. This fraught setting additionally raises questions on the place international locations like South Africa, and broadly the African continent, ought to place themselves in what might develop into a widening worldwide battle fuelled by geopolitical rivalries.

Many international locations condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Only 17 international locations, together with South Africa, adopted a impartial posture. South Africa defined that it had been known as upon to behave as a mediator. It is just not clear what exact mediation position South Africa will play that’s lacking from France, Israel and Turkey, the three international locations shuttling between the opponents and making a bridge with Western powers. It doesn’t appear that South Africa’s mediating position has the blessing of all of the events within the battle.

South Africa additional rationalised its choice by pointing to Russia’s perceived sense of vulnerability from Nato’s eastward enlargement, basically taking part in into Russia’s narrative for invading Ukraine. Others have additionally used the grand narrative of nice energy rivalry to clarify why Russia is justified to assault Ukraine in peacetime. 

No doubt, Vladimir Putin has typically felt pissed off by what he perceived because the United States’ hostility to his grand imaginative and prescient of rebuilding Russia as a preeminent energy within the post-Soviet geography. His concern has at all times been that the post-Soviet states which can be gravitating to the West could possibly be used as a bridgehead to assault Russia or undercut its rise. 

The Russia-inspired Eurasian Economic Union, which incorporates Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia, is certainly one of Putin’s political devices. This platform has enabled Russia to stamp its authority in its area by drawing former Soviet states into a decent financial union that might dissuade them from becoming a member of the European Union. 

Putin doesn’t take into account Ukraine as simply any nation in Russia’s yard, however as its core curiosity and a fraction of its historical past courting again to the mid-Seventeenth century. Many Ukrainians within the japanese half and Crimea converse Russian, a geographic and linguistic assemble Putin makes use of to whip up nationalistic sentiments in Russia and as a canopy for his imperial designs in Russia’s neighbourhood. 

If this form of linguistic and historic justification have been to be allowed in worldwide legislation, any nation can dig up historic narratives, distort them, and use them as a foundation for invasion. 

South Africa’s lack of ethical compass in not condemning acts of aggression and worldwide legislation violations ought to frighten its neighbouring international locations.

Southern Africa, traditionally, has had an identical expertise, though the details have been fully completely different. The equal of perverse use of geographic contiguity and an exaggerated sense of exterior hazard was South Africa’s try and forge a Constellation of Southern African States beneath then president PW Botha within the late Nineteen Seventies. 

This constellation was an imperial scheme by the white minority regime that sought to attract international locations like Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Namibia; and former homelands equivalent to Transkei and Bophuthatswana into South Africa’s orbit by way of a shared political, safety, and financial framework. 

This perverse technique was designed to counter Russia’s help for the liberation actions and delay the highway to freedom in numerous Southern African international locations, together with South Africa.

Despite having fun with the help of distinguished enterprise leaders equivalent to Harry Oppenheimer, who referred to the stratagem as an act of “charm and imagination”, Botha’s imperial mission failed dismally. The apartheid regime in South Africa on the time lacked legitimacy as a result of different international locations didn’t belief it. Instead, it impressed the institution of the Southern African Development Community as a counter-force and a lightning rod for nationwide liberation in international locations that have been beneath the grip of tyranny. 

Russia as we speak has restricted social legitimacy amongst Eastern European international locations that also have nightmares about life beneath the Soviet empire. These international locations want liberty and financial prosperity, which they need to realise by way of affiliation with the European Union relatively than Russia’s various Eurasian Economic Union. Countries equivalent to Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Romania, and Bulgaria had fared higher since they joined the European Union than beneath the Soviet empire. 

Some observers have seen Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by way of nice energy rivalry relatively than the lens of worldwide legislation. Great energy rivalry needs to be seen as an anomaly relatively than one thing we must always take as a given. It can also be a poor foundation for rationalising an assault of a smaller nation by one with preponderant army and financial energy. 

We ought to do not forget that it was the rationale of nice energy rivalry that led to Britain’s invasion of the Cape Colony within the late 18th century, and its occupation of Simon’s Town as its naval base to thwart the Dutch and any nice energy that might emerge. 

Keeping quiet within the face of aggression, as South Africa has accomplished, is a disservice to historical past and a blot on the nation’s long-standing dedication to worldwide legislation. Ukraine is a sovereign state that ought to get pleasure from safety beneath worldwide legislation as enshrined in Article 2 (4) of the United Nations Charter. 

It is feasible to sentence Russia for the particular act of aggression whereas staying non-aligned within the grander geopolitical rivalries between the West and Russia. For instance, many international locations condemned the US and the United Kingdom for invading Iraq in 2003 as a result of this was a transparent act of aggression. Those international locations that condemned the West throughout that struggle weren’t pro-Iraq however pro-peace. 

At the peak of the Cold War in 1961, many newly unbiased states in Asia and Africa constituted themselves into the non-aligned motion, which sought to keep away from the tensions between the US and the Soviet Union. These international locations would condemn acts of aggression whether or not they got here from the West or the Soviet Union whereas staying broadly non-aligned. 

Apart from the reason that South Africa’s membership of the Brics  bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) performed a task and that it was known as upon to mediate, there are probably different elements that will clarify the nation’s fence-sitting strategy. 

The first is the exaggerated picture of Putin as a robust man who shouldn’t be offended even when he breaches worldwide legislation. The second is that Russia represents an historic ally of the ruling celebration, the ANC, and there are party-to-party relationships between the ANC and United Russia, Putin’s celebration. 

Russia beneath Putin is basically completely different from what existed through the Cold War. Even Putin is loath to invoke any historic connections to that period. Today’s Russia is extra right-wing than the communist Russia of the twentieth century. There are additionally no ideological affinities between United Russia and the ANC — the previous is conservative and nationalistic, and the ANC is extra social-democratic in its outlook. 

Yet nonetheless, South Africa should keep dedicated to worldwide legislation and the safety of territorial integrity whereas guarding its international coverage independence on broader geopolitical tensions between the West and Russia the place there are not any clear angels and demons. If South Africa sounds half-supportive of Russia, it dangers being utilized by Putin and Russia’s overworking info networks. The injury to South Africa’s world profile could possibly be irreversible. 

Dr Mzukisi Qobo, head of the Wits School of Governance on the University of the Witwatersrand, is the creator of The Political Economy of China-US Relations: Digital Futures and African Agency

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