On February 24, when Vladimir Putin rolled his tanks into Ukraine and violently breached the sovereign border and territorial integrity of an independent state, I received a message from a friend. “Mark this date,” it read. “Today, like 9/11, something profoundly shifted in the world and its consequences will be huge.”

Writing in the Financial Times last weekend Francis Fukuyama — who famously suggested that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the “end of history” and the rise of a peaceful era of globalisation premised on the permanence of liberal democracy — gave a gloomy update. “February 24 has been seen as a critical turning point in world history. Many have said it definitively marks the end of the post-Cold War era we thought emerged from after 1991 [with the dissolution of the Soviet Union] … the end of the end of history,” he wrote.

An early pundit of 21st century globalisation was Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas Friedman, a cheerleader for the new open international system intended to replace the Cold War era of closed systems, hostile borders and mutual enmity between nuclear superpowers. One of the items on his menu in his 1999 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree was hamburgers — Big Macs to be precise. The chapter was strikingly called “The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Resolution”. As he noted with accuracy at the time: “No two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s.”

On February 24 you could still buy a Big Mac in both Moscow and Kyiv. Yet this week, the second in Putin’s bloody war against Ukraine, McDonald’s joined a retreat of Western firms from Russia and announced the “temporary” closure of all of its 850 restaurants in the country. As the Financial Times noted, “The first McDonald’s to open in Moscow in January 1990 was seen as one of the markers of the end of the Soviet Union, with more than 30,000 people queuing to buy a burger.”

While flipping burgers in Russia was good business for the hamburger giant — it employed 62,000 Russians in the process — its CEO, Chris Kemczinski, told his staff: “Our values mean we cannot ignore the needless human suffering unfolding in Ukraine.” When a Western commercial giant and harbinger of 21st century globalisation sounds the alarm bell, perhaps it’s time to take note. Or at least factor in that commercial entities, even more than sovereign governments, do not want to be on “the wrong side of history” or suffer collateral reputational damage.

SA, ostensibly offering a foreign policy based — according to international relations & co-operation minister Naledi Pandor — on a combination of “ubuntu and human rights” is unstirred. Even the Russian destruction of a children’s hospital in Mariupol could not evoke a word of criticism from Pretoria. More on that below.

Friedman and Fukuyama’s optimism of 20 years ago implodes in the face of the pitiless aggression of Putin, who has not only set his face against the world order but is, in some form, determined to recreate part of the old Soviet Union, whose ending he described presciently in 2005  as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.

Polish-born Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to former US president Jimmy Carter, was one who had early insight into the revisionist nationalism of Putin. He thought he was driven by “a great deal of nostalgia” and that “without Ukraine there can be no Russian empire”. Viewed through this lens, much of the globe-shifting tragedy of the past three weeks in Eastern Europe makes some sense.

I had some insight into both Putin and the tug of nostalgia that so drives — against our objective best interests — the gestures and impulses that masquerade as SA’s foreign policy. It was September 2006 and Putin, then in his early years of an endless presidency, was on an official visit to our parliament. Parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete arranged a tea party for him and parliament’s senior office-bearers. Only IFP president Mangosuthu Buthelezi and I were not from the ANC.

Each of the MPs were invited to introduce themselves to Putin. Every ANC MP regaled Putin, who sat poker-faced throughout, with tales of nostalgia from their times in Moscow and obsequious expressions of appreciation for the role the Soviet Union played in the downfall of apartheid. When it came to my turn, realising I could hardly compete on the ANC’s chosen ground, I advised Putin that I was certainly the only South African in the room who had a Russian grandmother.

When in his intense and polite fashion Putin enquired where in Russia my grandmother, Tamara Drusinsky, originated, I advised him it was Sevastapol, Crimea. He deadpanned in response: “Unfortunately Crimea is no longer part of Russia but in Ukraine.” Eight years later Putin changed that political fact by rolling his tanks into Crimea and illegally annexing its territory to Russia.

Doubtless spurred on by the enfeebled Western response, repeated in Georgia, Putin felt it safe to launch a war to take over the entirety of Ukraine. His contempt for the weakness of European leadership, his belief in the irrevocable political divide in the US and the isolationism of Republicans there, and intelligence failures on the determination of Ukrainians, have led him to a fateful moment. Three weeks into an unprovoked war of his own choosing his forces are ground down, Russian fatalities mount, and indescribable horrors are inflicted on Ukraine.

Yet in just three weeks much of the world has pivoted in response. Germany has ended decades of pacifism and reversed its pro-Russian position; US President Joe Biden has risen from his torpor and assembled Western allies and united warring Democrats and Republicans in major sanctions and arms airlifts to Ukraine, while even Russia’s most important ally, China, steps back from explicit support for Putin.

Steven Kuo suggested in his recent Business Day column that “SA’s alliance with Russia” informed the infamous neutrality registered in our recent UN General Assembly vote. He suggested this will “allow us to be available as a viable facilitator for any future peace negotiations”. Yet, other than the President Cyril Ramaphosa’s chat with the Kremlin, we are not a player. The only world leader to have had serious face time with Putin since the war started is Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. The broker of the latest high-level talks between Russia and Ukraine is Turkey. Israel and Turkey voted against Russia at the UN, and both have sent material aid to Ukraine. In Turkey’s case this includes military drones.

As the world changes before our eyes and countries pivot dramatically in response, SA foreign policy wallows in nostalgia for the Cold War and again backs the losing side. Our once admired centre stage position in world affairs has been rendered a relic of impotent gesturing.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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