By Their Friends Shall ye Know Them — South Africa and Russia

South Africa's friendship with Russia bodes badly for a future driven by long-term Western-sourced investments, and more towards one defined by a party-state developmental model, favouring party security and privilege over the national interest — or at least as the national interest.

23 June 2022 ·   8 min read

By Their Friends Shall ye Know Them — South Africa and Russia


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On 10 June, the Estonian foreign ministry summoned the Russian ambassador to protest about remarks made by President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin comparing himself to the 18th-century Russian tsar Peter the Great. Putin, now in his 23rd year of power, drew a parallel the previous day between himself and Peter's appropriation of foreign lands, including the Estonian border town of Narva.

“Peter the Great waged the great northern war for 21 years. It would seem that he was at war with Sweden, he took something from them. He did not take anything from them — he returned [what was Russia's],” declared Putin when visiting an exhibition dedicated to the tsar in the northern city of St Petersburg.

Rather than his usual claims of “denazification” in Ukraine — a country which he has said has no claim to statehood — of historical injustice and the prevention of Nato expansionism, Putin appears now to have come clean about Moscow's imperial mission.

“Apparently, it is also our lot to return [what is Russia's] and strengthen [the country],” said Russia's president. “And if we proceed from the fact that these basic values form the basis of our existence, we will certainly succeed in solving the tasks that we face.”

The Ramaphosa phone calls

Just six days after this startling admission of a war of imperial conquest, President Cyril Ramaphosa called Putin, the second time he had done so since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February.

“The presidents expressed satisfaction with the current level of the two countries' strategic partnership and stressed the shared intention to expand mutually beneficial cooperation, above all in trade, the economy, and investment,” was the official line in a Kremlin press release.

“They also discussed in detail issues of food security, including the supply of Russian agricultural products and fertilisers to the African continent, in particular South Africa. The leaders also noted the importance of joint work within BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA] in order to further promote the role of this association in global politics and economics.”

Two months earlier, on 10 March, Ramaphosa had called Putin to “gain a better understanding of the situation that is unfolding between Russia and Ukraine”. Forgetting that this is akin to phoning Hannibal Lecter for HR tips, this call had apparently zero purpose.

“I outlined our position on the conflict that has unfolded,” reported Ramaphosa, “as well as our belief that the conflict should be resolved through mediation and negotiation between the parties and — if need be — with the help of agencies that can help bring a solution to the conflict.”

No such mediation role has transpired, not least, as critics noted in response, because “it takes two to mediate” — and such obsequiousness, unsurprisingly, drew the ire of Ukrainians. It took more than a further five weeks for Ramaphosa to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Then, a week after Ramaphosa's most recent call to Putin, the SA President announced the country would participate virtually at the 14th BRICS summit on 23-24 June. There, the largest armed conflict in modern times which is causing a severe food crisis and which involves a member of BRICS, is not on the agenda. Instead, Ramaphosa's circulated speech said: “We must oppose attempts to shape global economic policies through unilateral sanctions and other coercive measures.” Of course, the self-same “global economic policies” have made the SA President a very rich man.

It's impossible to defend such political flick-flackery and cowardice.

Costs and benefits

The costs and benefits of South Africa's diplomatic forays — because these sad, sporadic interventions don't amount to a strategy — will be determined by several factors, including Putin's recent admission of his goals outlined above.

Another factor concerns the impact of such cosiness on South Africa's stated values and its democratic model. Talk of a “strategic partnership” with Russia, a country that ranks poorly on human rights indicators (scoring 19 out of a maximum of 100 on Freedom House's rankings, for example, lodged between Rwanda and Burundi), carries with it the dangers of infection by association. This, too, exposes a key strategic weakness of the BRICS concept: that it lacks common values apart from a vague anti-Westernism and desire for self-enrichment.

Until now, successive SA governments have seen foreign policy as a largely cost-free domain for radical posturing: whether this be on Cuba or Palestine or, now, Ukraine. This notion has remained, in part because more developed economies could not be bothered to argue back, lacked spine, were hyper-transactional themselves, or there was no real stake in disagreeing with the SA position.

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Ukraine may yet prove to be different. This could cause strategic damage to perceptions of South African reliability and investment attractiveness, unless, of course, it is Ramaphosa's intention to jump completely in bed with the Chinese and Russians — a move for which there is growing evidence.

The value of this approach would depend to an extent on whether this war has proven a grave strategic — as opposed to simply operational — miscalculation by Putin. What if he wanted a new Cold War and now has achieved that? After all, the Russian leader has for some time warned that Russia was at war with the West. Then he went and made this claim true. A Cold War situation provides him with a justification to be as repressive at home as he wants.


The extent of this miscalculation will also depend on whether China ends up on the Russian side of this divide, and that, moreover, China's positioning is in Africa's interests.

Until now, China has presented itself as a neutral peacemaker. But the propaganda does not entirely match the reality.

While Russia's flouting of sovereign borders would have been frowned on in Beijing, given its own concerns, China has remained active in buying Russian oil and is reputedly engaged earnestly in technology transfer. Russia's isolation may also offer a fresh avenue for China to gain as much access to data and tech as it needs to support its geopolitical ambitions.

China and Russia cannot confront the West without each other.

But what if the ANC has a purpose, and Beijing's relationship with Moscow is less opportunistic than systemic, united by a Leninist heritage that links domestic and international politics within a general view of the world?

Certainly, China is in increasing conflict with the current rules-based international order, with India, for instance, and in the South China Sea. Beijing seems to be focused more on military and technological competition, and a strategic clash of norms and values, between party-state interests on the one hand, and those of a more democratic character on the other. President Xi Jinping has taken China in a very different direction from that of his predecessors: towards economic and political conflation and power centralisation.

The benefits for South Africa — and any African country for that matter — in positioning itself on the Chinese/Russian side of this divide are, at best, risky. For one, it depends on the above all being true. It also depends on whether Russia wins the conflict in Ukraine, or at least doesn't lose, and how the West responds.

Ukrainians and the West

Whatever Putin's aims were and have become — from taking over Ukraine in its entirety to a more limited focus on creating a land bridge to Crimea and cementing Russian control of the Donbas — the Ukrainians and the West also have a say, whether the Russian President likes it or not.

Writing in Foreign Affairs this month, Ukraine's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, has outlined Kyiv's theory of victory. Warning that: “It is only natural that people and governments lose interest in conflicts as they drag on” and against the threat of compromise, he writes: “To succeed… the United States and its European allies must swiftly supply our country with appropriate numbers of advanced heavy weapons. They must also maintain and increase sanctions against Russia. And, critically, they need to ignore calls for diplomatic settlements that would help Putin before he makes serious concessions.”

It is sometimes forgotten that the Ukrainians have been here before, no matter Putin's view of their country as a pseudo-state and Zelensky, who is Jewish, as a Nazi. As the historian Timothy Snyder reminded in a speech to the German Bundestag in 2017, “More Ukrainians fought and died on the allied side than French, British and Americans put together… We confuse the Red Army with the Russian Army, which it most definitively was not. The Red Army was the army of the Soviet Union in which Ukrainians because of the geography of the war were substantially over-represented.” He notes that Ukrainian civilians also suffered disproportionately — with 3.5 million deaths — precisely because the territory was occupied.

Whatever the tough, grinding circumstances in which the current war is being fought, Ukrainians have been here before, and they are fighting for something. When they look over their shoulder, they see their countrymen and women; Russian soldiers see the damage they have wrought on Ukraine.

It will be difficult to convince Ukrainians to give up.

The West's strategic blunder

Despite some recovery in prestige following the Afghanistan debacle and the consequential severe cost to its credibility, the West's strategy has once more been badly exposed in Ukraine. For one, Russia would have been unlikely to invade if the West had raised the stakes by committing a substantial military force in Ukraine before 24 February. This lack of commitment undermined the concept of deterrence. Joe Biden's expression of support that the “prayers of the entire world” were with Ukraine at the start of the invasion was an admission of the extent of a lack of preparedness and helplessness as much as anything else.

The West was easily cowed by Russia's threat of the use of nuclear weapons, hence Nato's reluctance to step up to the plate, with the West seemingly forgetting that it also possessed such weapons.

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Now, the investment required by the West to prevent Ukraine's defeat and, more so, to ensure its victory, is much greater than it would have been before 24 February.

The best way to instil deterrence is to, as Martin Hurt, a research fellow at the International Centre for Defence and Security in Tallinn, Estonia, says, “spend more, contribute more, do more”. The insertion of a larger force into the Baltic states would help, but this would be a consequence of Washington sticking to its goals, as the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, put it in April, of ensuring Ukraine is free again and can defend its territory, and to weaken Russia so that it doesn't try this again.

Victory thus depends on the West getting ahead of the curve of war. Before and since Russia's seizure of Crimea and parts of the Donbas in 2014, they have been hopelessly behind it. And since then, the West has so far only supplied weaponry and intelligence to Ukraine sufficient to stave off defeat.

The favourite current scenario — of a war of attrition, a long, hard slog — makes several assumptions.

It assumes that the Russian economy will survive, somehow, in part through evading sanctions, and that Russia also does not collapse militarily. It assumes that the West will not take issue or even target those supportive of the Russian position, including China, not only over its relations with Russia, but in the light of its threats towards Taiwan.

It also assumes that the Russian and Ukrainian leadership remains as is, as does the leadership in the West for that matter. A change in US or French or British leadership could significantly alter the war's trajectory and the geopolitical circumstances. It also assumes that Zelensky is intent on reforming the worst excesses of Ukrainian governance even before the fighting stops. This makes it easier for donors to justify keeping on with their assistance.

To an extent, this depends on the costs that the West is willing to absorb and spend, which is, in turn, a reflection of economic strength along with values and morals. Compromise with Putin might be excused in the West on the grounds that it was able to avoid the worst.

Appeasing authoritarian countries, the European record shows, is, however, not really a terribly effective or long-term solution and illustrates a surprising degree of ahistorical and intellectual sloppiness.

Points for Africa to ponder

The question that Africans should be thinking about is whether a Russian and, by implication, a Chinese victory is in their long-term interests. The South African assumption seems to be that Russia and China are more interested in African development than the West. That may well prove erroneous.

And their assumption that the South African people share their recidivist allegiance to the ghost of the Soviet Union is also shaky. Most South Africans were raised on openness, democracy and freedom and cherish these ideals. They know that Russia and China do not share them.

They have just witnessed — and fought against — the construction of a State Capture oligarchy not dissimilar to that which reigns in Russia.

If the old maxim “By their friends shall ye know them” applies, this bodes badly for a future driven by long-term Western-sourced investments, and more towards one defined by a party-state developmental model, favouring party security and privilege over the national interest — or at least as the national interest.

All Africans, and not just the continent's leadership, should ask themselves a key question in all of this: Why would a victory for Western values be less in the interests of Africans than the contrary?

This article originally appeared on Daily Maverick

Photo: www.kremlin.ru