UKRAINE/RUSSIA: South Africa unlikely to rush to support Ukraine in Russia standoff

Ukraine has been trying to rally international sympathy after a standoff with Russia brought shipping traffic to a standstill in the Sea of Azov last week. As the country is preparing a draft resolution against Russia at the United Nations, it’s also, rather desperately, looking to South Africa for support.

The media briefing by the Ukrainian chargé d’affaires in Pretoria, Liubov Abravitova, on “Russian aggression” against what she said was an increasingly democratising Ukraine, came at a bad time — and it wasn’t well-attended.

Most of the few working journalists that care about South Africa’s foreign relations were attending an ANC-organised meeting of Brics Plus ruling parties (these also included representatives from a few other countries, notably Africa) at the Sheraton Hotel, a 15-minute drive away. Much of the talk at this gathering was about the rise of “narrow and extreme” and “irresponsible” nationalism (the kind practised by United States president Donald Trump) and of multilateralism (which is short for saying: “none of us likes Trump”).

Dr Vyacheslav Tetekin of the Communist Party of Russia struck an anti-colonialist tone and noted how inequalities in “imperialist states” has led to the general mayhem seen in the protests in France and in Trump’s trade wars.

Issues such as what position the governments of the five Brics countries will take when they vote for a resolution on the human rights abuses in Myanmar next it comes up in the United Nations General Assembly, or when the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons next decides on a budget, are unlikely to arise, at least in open discussions. South Africa, China and Russia often tend to have converging views on matters in international forums. Despite President Cyril Ramaphosa’s recent warm foray into a wintry Europe, it’s unlikely that the ANC would break bread with — and readily share strategic positions with — most Western countries any time soon.

Abravitova’s battle to convince the South African government to support the Ukrainian position might therefore be an uphill one, and her wish for sympathy from a South African populace caught up between affording Christmas shopping and following the daily local political high dramas, is as hopeless as wishing for snow in a heatwave.

South Africa has the responsibility to represent all the African countries,” she rightly said of the country’s stepping up to a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2019. South Africa is there with the support of the African Union, for one — and Pretoria will be lobbied frequently on issues on the international stage in the next two years, even if the conflict is more than 12,000km away.

Sanctions were imposed by the European Union and the United States on Russia and Crimea after a Russian military intervention in the Ukraine in 2014, and things have been tense since. The recent incident on November 25, when Russia attacked and seized three Ukrainian gunboats and their crew while attempting to transit into the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait, is considered by the Ukraine as a sign of renewed Russian aggression.

Twenty-four Ukrainian servicemen were seized in the incident as prisoners of war. Shipping traffic has resumed.

Ukraine wants Nato to help it confront Russia in the Black Sea region.

These are international law violations,” Abravitova said, citing the UN General Assembly Resolution 3314 of 1974 on aggression, as well as Article 2 of the UN Charter.

We see hybrid warfare we never saw before.” If Russia was allowed to violate international law like this, and fight a hybrid war — generally defined as a military strategy coupled with political warfare, including fake news, diplomacy, and foreign electoral intervention — what is to prevent any other country from doing it against another? Even South Africa wouldn’t be safe, she argued.

For a democratic South Africa it should be very important at this stage.” She said Russia’s aggression since 2014 had been very well-organised.

The purpose was to destroy the Ukraine as an independent state.” Having a democratic state at its doorstep was “never in the interest of Russia”, she said, adding that the geographic location of the Ukraine, at a crossroads between Asia and Europe, was enviable. The Black Sea has long been of strategic significance, and the break-up of the Soviet Union complicated relationships.

Abravitova said the Ukraine was looking to the international community for a number of things, which included support for a UN General Assembly draft resolution on the militarisation of the Crimea and the Sea of Azov (coming up in the next two weeks), permanent monitoring of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and Nato ships deployed in the Black Sea.

She also said her government wanted more sanctions against Russia, including against its ports in Azov and against individuals responsible for last week’s aggression in the Kerch Strait.

Some have asked questions over the Ukraine’s reaction. Freelance journalist Leonid Ragozin, writing for Al Jazeera’s website, has described Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s invocation of martial law following the incident as “drastic measures”.

Poroshenko announced this on live television, flanked by his defence council. What it means is that he now has the right to ban political parties and rallies, detain people without a warrant, seize property and close media outlets. It also means elections are banned. The Ukraine is set to go to presidential elections on 31 March, and polls are showing that Poroshenko could lose to former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Some liberal commentators said it’s an attempt to tamper with these polls.

Abravitova, however, said this was Russian propaganda, adding that the martial law measures were strictly only for 30 days, and adding that Poroshenko had no problems with popularity.

Still, the human toll in this entire conflict has been significant. Fighting in Ukraine’s Donbas region following the Maidan Revolution in 2014, when the pro-Europe faction overthrew the Russian-leaning and kleptocratic Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, has claimed that more than 10,000 lives, including 2,800 civilians. Nearly two million people have been internally displaced. Although South Africa expressed concern about the situation in the Ukraine when issues began in 2014, and called for a peaceful resolution, it didn’t go as far as, say, cancelling a nuclear deal with Russia in protest. It’s unclear now whether the South African government would support the draft resolution, or even abstain from voting.

Department of International Relations and Co-Operation spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya would not comment on South Africa’s current position.

Let’s talk when the draft is there,” he said. For now, no statement has been issued.

The knee-jerk reaction of an ANC national executive committee member, when asked how the party would react, was, however, telling. She shrugged it off, saying South Africa and Africa had enough of their own problems to worry about a conflict in the Ukraine. For now, however, the struggle ties with Russia might still be too strong to display overt sympathy with its foes, anyway. DM