Russia drove its tanks and fired its missiles over the international rule book this week and launched an unprovoked attack on neighbouring Ukraine, unleashing a new war in Europe.
Who wins the award for the most fatuous and fantastical depiction of the now red-hot Cold War?
It is an overcrowded field, but the clear winner is undoubtedly Russia’s supreme and unsmiling autocrat, Vladimir Putin.
On Thursday, as he fired the starting gun on the latest superpower confrontation, he advised that the aim of his aggression was, among other things, “the denazification of Ukraine”. He refers, of course, to a country whose head of state, President Volodymyr Zelensky, happens to be Jewish.
Competing for the gold medal in self-serving absurdity was Putin’s other claim — that his invasion of Ukraine was to “protect” Russian speakers in that country. Professor Timothy Snyder, whose sweeping history of that troubled region, Bloodlands — Europe between Hitler and Stalin, is an essential read, had the perfect response.
“Russian speakers in Ukraine are far more free than Russian speakers in Russia”, he said. Indeed, while Ukraine had an at-risk democracy before the Russian invasion this week, it allows robust politics. Its opposition leaders are allowed to win at the polls, government critics are not sent to distant gulags, and it does not launch cyberattacks on internal or external enemies. A world of contrast to the grim regime Putin has imposed on his country.
Putin contends, despite the formal independence of Ukraine in 1991 — recognised in a treaty signed by Russia itself — that there is no such thing as Ukraine or Ukrainians. They, in his warped view, are simply Russians. Hitler — against whose ghost Putin claims to act — had a very similar view on all areas of Europe containing German speakers.
Drawing from the depths of his research, Snyder reminds us that “history cannot stop a war. But it can help us, at least, to understand how one begins, which is with arrogance and lies.”
A worthy contender for silver medal status in the verbal Olympics for mendacious statements is our own minister of international relations & co-operation, Naledi Pandor.
Compelled this week via a parliamentary question to end her long silence on the Ukraine crisis, Pandor did not disappoint.
Her contribution was a stupefying concoction of overwrought clichés entirely untethered from even a vague appreciation of the crisis. Or the true identity of the villain of the piece.
“South Africa encourages dialogue in a spirit of compromise” to resolve the crisis, she said. That’s like suggesting a neighbour sit down and smoke the peace pipe with a home invader. In this case the invader surrounded the neighbour with 190,000 troops before unleashing its dogs of war.
In her word salad of free-floating ideas Pandor suggested that ubuntu and diplomacy were the route to resolving the situation. On Thursday, when the beleaguered Zelensky tried desperately to reach Putin by phone, he refused the call.
Somewhere buried in her otherwise absurdist statement was Pandor’s claim that South African foreign policy is based on “the advancement of human rights … and the rule of law”.
It is trite to cite how many breaches of international law Putin committed this week: violent usurpation of territory, breach of sovereignty and forced annexations are three.
Pandor and her party might interrupt their fence-sitting to reflect how the Pretoria government created and then promptly recognised the “independent” republics of Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei. The rest of the world shunned them as fake states.
This week, as a prelude to its full-scale invasion, Russia borrowed precisely from the old Pretoria playbook by recognising the so-called “independent republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. At least Pretoria never used Bophuthatswana as the launch pad for an armed assault on Botswana.
Financial Times chief foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman enthused that under its new president, SA could again become “the standard bearer for Africa in the world”.
On this week’s performance it is clear that the baton has now passed to Kenya.
In a widely praised speech at the UN Security Council, its ambassador, Martin Kimani, had no problem in affirming the territorial integrity of Ukraine and condemning Russia’s breaches of international law. “We reject irredentism and expansionism on any basis, including racial, ethnic, religious or cultural factors. We [reaffirm] Kenya’s respect for the territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders,” he said.
Here is a clear, concise, coherent, and legally correct exposition of the case. By contrast, and to our deep discredit, SA contorted itself with out-of-date cliches, until by Thursday afternoon it semi-reversed course and, belatedly, called for a Russian withdrawal.
Just think about that when you fill up with fuel soon and discover that petrol costs north of R30 a litre.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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