Putin’s Poodles

February 23, 2023

On the anniversary of Russia’s attempted anschluss of Ukraine, President Joseph Biden joined President Volodymyr Zelensky for a stroll through Kyiv, a city, the sirens reminded us, facing the same terror Londoners faced when Hitler unleashed his V2 rockets in the closing stages of World War II.

Pretoria marked the occasion by conducting exercises with a Russian frigate on which was painted Z, President Vladimir Putin’s swastika. A highlight of the exercise, we were told, would be the launch of a hypersonic Zirkon missile, one of the vergeltungswaffen— vengeance weapons — Putin hopes will make Russia great again. The plan was later scrapped.

A year ago, the Department of International’s Relations and Cooperation called on Russia to “immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine in line with the United Nations Charter.” On Thursday, South Africa refused to join 141 members of the UN General Assembly in reiterating that call. No surprise there.

Last month Naledi Pandor, the minister of foreign affairs, welcomed Putin’s Ribbentrop, Sergei Lavrov, and said it would be “simplistic and infantile” to call on Russia to comply with the Charter while arms were pouring into the region, an argument South Africa’s UN representative duly repeated on Thursday.

Does the Minister really believe that if the West stopped helping Ukraine defend itself, Putin would meekly call off the whole thing off? 

What’s infantile is calling “friend and partner” a regime that has set a legion of Eugene De Kocks  recruited by the loathsome Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group upon the population of an utterly unthreatening  neighbour. 

Its great men gone, the ANC’s moral blindness is indicative of how deeply the old Russia colonized the minds of the movement’s lesser cadres. The imishini Putin’s predecessors supplied Umkhonto did little to free SA. The ideology that came with the guns, which Putin has disavowed in favor of neo-medievalism, has helped ensure that SA remains the most unequal society on earth 

True, Russia’s generals are the same as ever. They proved as useless in their opening drive on Kyiv as they did against the SADF on the Lomba River in 1987 . The nimbler Cubans had to save the day. The only real favor Soviet Russia ever did for the disenfranchised South African majority was to collapse.

On September 4, 1939, Prime Minister JBM Hertzog, founder of the National Party, proposed that South Africa remain neutral when Hitler invaded Poland.  “To him”, Herman Giliomee wrote in his definitive history, The Afrikaners, “Britain and France had brought war on themselves with the humiliating peace treaty of Versailles in 1919.”

Hertzog had a point about Versailles. The same point could be made about Western policy after the Soviet Union lost the Cold War. In each instance, hubris and path dependence blinded the victors. John Maynard Keynes and Jan Smuts tried to warn them in 1919, as did George Kennan in the 1990’s. That these warnings went unheeded may help explain the subsequent rise of Nazism and Putinism, but it does not absolve Hitler of his depravity, nor Putin and his siloviki — mostly ex-KGB hoods like old Mozambique hand Igor Sechin  —  of theirs. The distinction between explain and excuse eluded Hertzog then and eludes the ANC now.

Putin has justified his invasion on multiple grounds. Zelensky, though Jewish, is a Nazi. Ukraine is not a country. And here’s what Lavrov had to say in March last year: “This is not actually about Ukraine at all. It reflects the battle of what the world order will look like. Will it be a world in which the  West will lead everyone with impunity and without question or will it be something different.”

That Pretoria should want an overhaul of the global order is laudable. An international system that still largely reflects the world as it was in 1945 is long overdue for rebalancing.   By century’s end four in every ten human beings will be African. Without Africa’s minerals and forests, and unless Africa can achieve low-carbon industrialisation, the planet doesn’t stand much of a chance against climate change and associated upheavals. 

The world needs new rules. The question is who should write them.  In South Africa’s case the people’s choice does not seem to match the ANC’s. Late last year, pollsters for the Munich Security Conference, a think tank, asked citizens of 11 countries: “Whose rules would you prefer to live by?” US rules, said 29 percent of South Africans. Europe’s, said 21 percent. Russian and Chinese rules were the choice of 6 percent and 7 percent respectively. “Economically developing countries” accounted for the balance.

So it would seem that by a rather large margin South Africans don’t want a new world order designed by the Kremlin or the Chinese Communist Party.  Nor, according to the same poll, do Brazilians and Indians. And who can blame them? Do you want to live in a world where the rules are written by people who poison their critics with polonium and throw them out of windows like Ahmed Timol, and where a tweet can land you in a labour camp?

There may be a lot of hypocrisy in the West, but, to borrow Le Rochefoucauld’s maxim, the West’s hypocrisy is a vice that at least pays homage to virtue. The Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein was a crime, pure and simple, but the two leaders genuinely thought they were liberating Iraqis from a murderous despot. They were reckless, deceitful and stupid, but weren’t trying to rub a country off the map because they believed it had no right to independent existence. And, by the way, how many African lives did Russia, or China, save from HIV/AIDS?

Will Pretoria pay a price for clinging to Putin’s apron strings? The congressional resolution five mostly first-year Republicans introduced last week is nugatory as it stands but may be an omen of trouble when the African Growth and Opportunity Act comes up for renewal in 2025. The administration is smarter than that and will keep trying to engage constructively. US policy makers are less worried about SA’s foreign alignments than the spectacle of it slouching towards Venezuelan dystopia.

Biden, as Treasury secretary Janet Yellen demonstrated on her recent African tour, would like to maintain the polite fiction that Washington’s renewed attention to Africa is driven by a recognition of Africa’s indispensability in meeting the globe’s challenges rather than any motive as shabby as big power competition.

Besides, if the US and its allies were to make make too much of Putin’s attempts to raise Russia’s profile in Africa, they would, in a sense, be letting him own them. Judo champion that he once was, he would be getting them to concede that Russia is once again a great power, rather than what it is: a kleptocratic, resource-dependent rogue state with a GDP the smaller than South Korea’s, whose best minds are fleeing and which commands global attention principally because of its capacity, and propensity, to kill people.