There will be a lot on the agenda during this week’s visit to Pretoria of German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock.
It is worth noting that last February when Russia launched its disastrous invasion of Ukraine, Bearbock’s boss, German chancellor, Olaf Scholtz, described the event as Zettenwende or “a changing of the times”.
And in the 17 intervening months, the times have indeed changed, not least for Germany, which initially offered Ukraine 5,000 protective helmets to defend itself against the Russian invasion. Matters changed for Berlin when the gravity and consequence of the war sunk in for itself and Europe.
By March this year, Germany had shipped state-of-the-art Leopard 2 battle tanks to Kyiv and this week Germany offered to station 4,000 troops in Lithuania, which borders Russia, “to strengthen Nato’s eastern flank”, according to German defence minister Boris Pistorius.
That’s a big change from the historic post-Second World War pacific posture of the European economic giant, but as John Maynard Keynes famously noted, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?”
It would be too generous to describe South Africa’s approach to the Ukraine War and the events since its launch as either strategic or even coherent. Rather, after the usual bile-filled anti-Western fulminations at the ANC December conference, blaming Nato for the war and the US for prosecuting an imperialist agenda et al, the foreign policy and defence force approaches simply sleepwalked our country into a series of acts of conspicuous self-harm.
These range from inviting the Russian navy to joint exercises with ourselves on the anniversary of the war, the infamous arrival in the dead of night in Simon’s Town of the Lady R whose cargo — six months later — remains unknown and endless votes in the UN, which in the left’s favoured phrase placed South Africa on “the wrong side of history”.
Imperilling our trade relations and Agoa preferences, debasing our moral commitments and doing violence to vocabulary such as “non-alignment” is a steep price to pay in support of a thug and a squalid regime. And that is before the same autocrat, Vladimir Putin, sets foot here, if he dare leaves Moscow after the dramatic events of the weekend to attend the Brics summit.
Reports suggest Putin was determined to attend the event, but that was before Yevgeny Prigozhin went rogue on the road to Moscow on Saturday. Dictators under threat at home tend not to travel abroad.
If the now infamous Wagner mercenary army, or so-called “private military company”, managed on Saturday to occupy the Russian city of Rostov (population 1-million) and then commence a march on the open road to Moscow, you must wonder: how much havoc could the mercenaries wreak in our own backyard?
A friend of mine speculated that given its embedded presence in neighbouring Mozambique and possibly in Zimbabwe, one can wonder what would happen if the group, now shorn of its central command and exiled commander Prigozhin, turned its gaze southwards to our own country. It would probably take them less than a day to occupy the Union Buildings if so minded.
Little wonder that after the weekend’s non-coup coup by the Wagner group, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was working the phones on Monday. He assured various “clients” in sub-Saharan Africa that, despite Prigozhin being bundled off to Belarus (if indeed he is still alive) and Wagner mercenaries being absorbed into the Russian military, the thousands of Wagner forces in the Sahel region of Africa “won’t be withdrawn”.
Wagner’s “clients” in Africa are mostly located in the most violent hot spots of the highly unstable Sahel region — a belt of states including Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan and Central African Republic and then further north in Libya and down south on our own borders. The sort of devastating brutality that the world has seen Wagner forces unleash in Ukraine mirrored Wagner violence in its African field of operations, which, for familiar and disreputable reasons, obtained less attention and air time than its war crimes in Bakhmut and elsewhere in Ukraine.
French president Emmanuel Macron described Wagner’s activities in our backyard as “the life insurance for failed regimes in Africa”. And while neither Lavrov nor anyone else can assure the precise future course of Wagner in Africa, especially since its forces here are not drawn from the prisons of Russia — as in Ukraine — plus they have an extractive economic motive ranging from gold mining to diamonds.
According to the influential Council on Foreign Relations, the Wagner group has been “one of Moscow’s most influential foreign policy tools”. It allowed the dirty deeds and frankly imperialistic presence of foreign soldiers on African soil to be distanced officially from Russia on the basis of “plausible deniability”. So, while Moscow could earn the gratitude, and votes at the UN, of a clutch of African states, it could simultaneously deny officially sanctioning the presence and indeed the war crimes of its forces on foreign soil.
Wagner hardly restricted itself to hard and brutal power either. It also runs a side business in “troll farms” and so when your Twitter account explodes with vituperative anti-Western pro-Russian rants, likely one of Wagner’s offshoots such as the spectacularly named, “The Association for Free Research and International Co-Operation (AFRIC)” is the originator.
All these presumptions and motivations in the continent are now in flux.
Africa though, as ever, is very low down on the Kremlin’s radar right now, despite Lavrov’s phone calls. The Putin regime itself emerges from the events last week gravely reduced. As one commentator noted, Putin is akin to the Wizard of Oz, “a small mediocre man” when the screen of invincibility and power is pulled back.
Except of course, the Wizard of Oz was a little man from Topeka, Kansas; he did not possess the world’s largest supply of nuclear warheads.
To the extent that anyone in Pretoria ever does any introspection or recalibrating, there was one striking and familiar ring when Prigozhin went on his rant against Putin in explanation of his march to Moscow (before he abandoned it). He, even more of a thug and far more criminal than Putin himself, accused Putin of launching the war on Ukraine on a false prospectus.
Prigozhin, whose forces have been in the heart of the war across Ukraine, explicitly stated that it was “a lie” to suggest that Ukraine or Nato aggression was responsible for the conflict.
Yet when President Ramaphosa defended South Africa’s stance on the war in parliament earlier this year, he specifically called out the expansion of Nato as a cause of the conflict.
When Putin’s chief thug and now sworn enemy calls this false, it’s time perhaps to reconsider alignments or indeed non-alignment.
Writing in the Financial Times on Monday, Gideon Rachman noted, “The Putin project is falling apart … It is now clear that Putin faces a two-front struggle for survival. There is the war in Ukraine. And there is the stability of his regime. The two fronts are connected. Further setbacks in Ukraine will inevitably worsen the situation at home — and vice versa.”
Of course what is unstated in this article is that to avoid a deterioration on both fronts, Putin could throw everything at the war, from nukes to total devastation of Ukraine, to staunch his own demise. More upheaval seems more likely than ever.
Rachman also writes that for Moscow’s elites “sticking with Putin seemed the safe option. But as the regime crumbles, those calculations are changing.”
Indeed, one wonders if Pretoria got the memo.