Cyril & Co. didn’t beat about the bush in Russia


Cyril & Co. didn’t beat about the bush in Russia

If Vladimir Putin expected lapdogs when African leaders presented their case about the war in Ukraine to him and Volodymyr Zelensky, he was sorely mistaken. The visitors were particularly uncompromising about the war crime concerning the kidnapping of Ukrainian children, writes PIET CROUCAMP.


SEVEN African leaders, including the heads of state of the Comoro Islands, Senegal, South Africa and Zambia, as well as the prime minister of Egypt and representatives of the Republic of the Congo and Uganda, visited Ukraine and Russia last weekend in an attempt to help bring an end to the almost 16-month war.

After the visit, it was clear the African leaders had more in common with Volodymyr Zelensky than with Vladimir Putin. Let me explain.

Cyril Ramaphosa proposed a 10-point plan for peace on behalf of the African leaders, and you have to be rather cynical to dismiss everything the South African president had to say as being worthless.

The visit did absolutely nothing for the likelihood of ending the war and it is likely that neither Zelensky nor Putin will think any differently about their respective roles in the conduct of the conflict after listening to the African leaders.

But for the purposes of South Africans' understanding of the government and the ANC's relationship with Russia and Putin, there is much to think about.

Insightful reaction

That being said, the African leaders' visit to war-torn eastern Europe put the analytical understanding of international policy analysts to an interesting test. I have studied the social media accounts of various political analysts and academics with a connection to Ukraine and it is extremely interesting to read these perspectives, to say the least. Obviously, ideological code words, the context of concepts, even random opinions, but also formal statements were important indicators in mapping the sometimes unspoken policy preferences of the actors involved.

Tymofiy Mylovanov is a former minister in Zelensky's cabinet and is currently affiliated with the Kyiv School of Economics. He obtained his PhD in economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was  a junior professor at the University of Bonn. He turned down Zelensky's offer of a cabinet post but they are still allies and friends.

Unlike most South African analysts, Mylovanov was pleasantly surprised with important aspects of Ramaphosa and the African leaders' 10-point plan. As far as he is concerned, certain statements and opinions indicate that the South African and his colleagues are not indifferent to Ukraine's version of the war's political gestation and military justifications.

Putin made his frustration with important parts of the African leaders' understanding of the war very clear.

Naivety about political agreement

The African leaders' insistence that the war must be stopped immediately in order for negotiations to start is obviously naive and a very simple derivation of what worked in the 1980s in Zimbabwe, in 1990 in Namibia and in South Africa in the same decade. These conflicts can be better described as civil wars and are therefore not a meaningful analogy for the war in Ukraine, which involves the invasion of a sovereign state.

Russia's military invasion of Ukraine's territory, initially with the annexation of the Crimean peninsula and later with the “special military operation", eventually led to a full-fledged conventional war. But for a complexity of reasons, this is not the same scenario as Southern Africa's struggle to decolonise or South Africans' post-conflict civil negotiations with the aim of establishing a new constitutional order.

The starting point of the African leaders' 10-point plan is that the militarisation of the dispute must be stopped immediately. These leaders do not have an institutional memory from which an understanding of the conflict can be derived, and their proposal for a negotiated settlement is astonishingly but understandably naive.

Former president Thabo Mbeki referred to it last week as “the silencing of the guns". But as several military analysts have already pointed out, if Ukraine stops the military battle even temporarily, the Russians will strategically interpret it as an indirect confirmation of “the new geographical realities", as Putin puts it.

Because the Russians use their national security and the infiltrating presence of Nato to justify the war, a total withdrawal is also not a sensible proposal for Putin and the siloviki (the securocrats surrounding him).

However, a ceasefire would cement the Russians' position of power during the negotiations, because they would retain and control occupied territories during this time. Zelensky will never be able to agree to that. This is an existential war for both countries which can be settled only by a military victory. There is no room for the African leaders' proposal of a political agreement.

No mincing of words

Yet the Africans certainly created the impression among commentators close to Zelensky, such as Mylovanov, that they are willing to listen to both sides. And the differences between Putin and Ramaphosa were extremely interesting. As a member of the group of African leaders, Ramaphosa was clearly not averse to applying pressure on the authoritarian Russian leader.

He could have easily omitted from his speech any mention of the missile attack on Kyiv during their visit, but he used these events in the context of an unjustified conflict and in the process rejected his own spokesperson's claims. There can be no doubt that Ramaphosa's colleagues insisted that this repudiation of the Russian missile attack was important.

On behalf of the African leaders, Ramaphosa also claimed in St Petersburg that the war contributes to food price inflation in Africa. This position is regularly advanced by economists in the European Union and Washington. António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations (UN), has repeatedly pointed out that the war causes food inflation, which contributes to relative poverty in Africa. Putin objected almost immediately, telling Ramaphosa the reasons for increasing food prices should be sought in the Western value chain, rather than by blaming Russia.

Ramaphosa also made an important yet politically sensitive point by referring to the UN's insistence that the sovereignty of states must be respected. For Russia, but probably also for North Korea and China, “sovereignty" means international institutions should not interfere in their national politics. For democracies, the word sovereignty emphasises the integrity of national borders and refers to the independence of states.

Ramaphosa's reference to sovereignty corresponds to that of the UN. This was probably the 10-point plan's strongest argument against Putin's rejection of UN and Security Council resolutions. It also provides a new context to South Africa's practice of abstaining when decisions are taken that condemn Russia for the invasion of Ukraine.

South Africa's so-called non-alignment on this point yielded to a political principle that is held very strongly on the African continent. The point made by Ramaphosa that the blockade of ports in the Black Sea must be stopped also confirms the extent to which this part of the 10-point plan corresponds with Ukraine's interests. The African leaders' plan is clearly more in line with Zelensky's interpretation of international law than with Putin's.

This argument by Ramaphosa and the African leaders should be read with the position in the 10-point plan that, politically speaking, both countries must get security guarantees at the end of the conflict in order to protect their territory's sovereignty.

Brave criticism regarding children

Ramaphosa and the other African leaders made an extremely bold demand in Putin's presence that the Ukrainian children who were taken to Russia should be returned to their families immediately.

This part of the Africa plan corresponds to the International Criminal Court's (ICC) main accusation against Putin that he committed a war crime by abducting the children. To say this in front of the international media and in the presence of Putin was astonishingly direct and even brave.

Anil Sooklal, South Africa's ambassador in Asia and to Brics, can now apologise for accusing me of accepting Western propaganda when I pointed out to him that Putin is a child kidnapper. He can take note that Ramaphosa and the African leaders agree with me.

Many members of the media and political analysts saw this demand as an indication of a realisation among African leaders and Ramaphosa that the ICC could have a legitimate case against Putin.

Contentious Brics summit

This recognition of the ICC's accusation also gives context to South Africa's thorny situation regarding Putin's planned visit to South Africa for the Brics meeting in August.

We still don't know what Ramaphosa said to Putin during their meeting in St Petersburg, but we know Putin now realises the South African president and other African leaders are accusing him of a very serious political crime.

It is therefore unlikely that Ramaphosa did not make it clear in his discussions with Putin that the Russian leader's planned visit to the Brics summit is a crisis that requires a different solution.

Deputy President Paul Mashatile also reminded Ramaphosa shortly before his departure to Kyiv and St Petersburg of the cabinet committee's position that he will violate his own country's laws if the ICC's insistence on Putin's arrest is not heeded.

Backbone visible at last

There is probably little doubt that the African leaders' visit to Kyiv and St Petersburg was not a success by any reasonable measure. But that doesn't mean  their public statements were pointless and worthless; far from it.

South Africa's so-called non-aligned or neutral policy position was clearly subordinated to that of Africa, or at least to the African leaders who were present.

Ramaphosa was obliged to outline realities in the presence of Putin for which neither he, nor his foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, previously had the backbone.

Zelensky may suspect the African leaders of political naivety but he can be satisfied that Africa is not Putin's political lapdog. Mylovanov is still close to the president of Ukraine and their opinions will not differ significantly.

As for Putin, he looked even more surly than usual during the African leaders' visit. Or as the Pope would have said: “It's been lonely in the saddle since my horse died."


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