The Roots of Ukraine War: Don't Believe Putin's Propagandists

It is no good for us as Africans to complain about crimes against humanity committed on our own continent, if we are going to turn a blind eye to war crimes being committed on a daily basis by Putin's regime, argues David Coltart.

24 June 2022 ·   8 min read

The Roots of Ukraine War: Don't Believe Putin's Propagandists

In last week's Zimbabwe Independent a writer describing himself as Jonathan Chando, a lawyer, wrote an opinion piece justifying Putin's invasion of Ukraine. His article cannot be left unanswered. Aside from anything else, lawyers are trained to argue on the facts and the law, and Chando does neither.

It is simply, from start to finish, a crude rehash of Putin's propaganda. But this is not just about the integrity of the legal profession, or the interests of the Ukrainian people. Although Zimbabwe has very little interest in Ukraine it is vital that we understand the conflict because it has profound implications for our politics and economy at home.

But let me first deal with Chando's “facts” which underpin his argument that this is “Washington's war against Russia”. The article is riddled with brazen untruths from start to finish. I will deal with four of them.

Chando insinuates that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is US installed. He writes that the US installed “their handpicked Yatseniuk as interim president, who was to later be replaced by Petro Poroshenko following elections, and further by Volodymyr Zelensky.” The facts are that Zelensky won the first round of free and fair elections in Ukraine on March 31, 2019. In the second round, on April 21, 2019, he received 73% of the vote to Poroshenko's 25%, and was elected President of Ukraine.

Zelensky wasn't installed — he was democratically elected. If anyone doubts his popularity I encourage people to watch “Servant of the People” a Ukrainian TV satire in Russian with English subtitles which was first shown on Ukrainian television in 2015 (it is now on Netflix). Its themes of criticising corruption, the power of oligarchs, poor teachers' salaries and the misuse of State funds resonated with the Ukrainian people and it acted as the springboard to Zelensky's election. He is no US puppet.

Chando repeats Putin's propaganda that this is a war against Nazi nationalists who somehow have taken over control of the Ukrainian government — he quotes Putin who stated that the aim of the “military operation” was “the denazification of Ukraine”. The fact that Zelensky himself is a Russian speaking Jewish man appears lost on Chando. The claim is patently absurd. The war itself has shown that Ukrainians themselves are deeply patriotic and determined to protect their own democracy. They have no desire for Ukraine to become another vassal fascist state like Lukanhesko's Belarus.

Tied to this is the third falsehood sprouted by Chando — namely that the Nazi Azov regiment has “unleashed terror on the eastern regions killing more than 14 000 civilians in the past few years”. Whilst it is true that at least 13 000 people have been killed in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, according to the latest report by the United Nations (through the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights) up to 13 200 people had died in the conflict until early 2020, of those, 3 350 were civilians and 5 650 insurgents, according to the UN.

It says that 4 100 of those killed were members of the Ukrainian military. Putin's claim, repeated by Chando, that there has been what amounts to genocide in eastern Ukraine is brazenly false. I recommend a complete reading of the report to get the facts.

Finally, Chando's regurgitation of Putin's claim that there are “30 biological laboratories aimed at biological warfare against Russia and the people of Lugansk and Donetsk” is baseless. His claim that US Under Secretary Victoria Nuland has admitted that there are 46 biological laboratories is equally false and just a repeat of far right US commentator Tucker Carlson's allegations which have been completely debunked.

The truth is that whilst there are labs, they study legitimate problems such as African swine fever (with the aim of preventing its spread in Ukraine) and tracing tularaemia and anthrax in animals such as wild boars. A kernel of truth has been deliberately twisted to suit a political end. In any event why any self-respecting African commentator would repeat what right wing conspiracy theorists aligned to Donald Trump say, is quite beyond me.

So much for the “facts” used in Chando's article. But why is it important that Chando be challenged in this matter? Many argue that the war in Ukraine doesn't affect Zimbabwe and is none of our business. Chando's argument about Western double standards (exemplified in the US and Britain's invasion of Iraq) resonates with many Africans. I contend that despite Western hypocrisy and double standards it is important that we understand the facts behind Putin's invasion of Ukraine and its implications for Zimbabwe and Africa in general, for the following reasons.

War is evil

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The underlying premise of Chando's article is that the Ukrainian war is a necessary evil brought about by Western aggression. That notion feeds off our Zimbabwean experience. The intolerance, greed and arrogance of the Rhodesian Front regime, supported by the sentiments of a majority of white Rhodesians, led to the liberation struggle. That justified the taking up of arms and as a result war is still lauded in our country by many, and is a sentiment which is exploited by those who support Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

However, aside from the fact that there are fundamental differences between the Ukrainian war and the Zimbabwean liberation struggle, this argument ignores the devastating consequences of war. In the 1950s Southern Rhodesia had an economy bigger than Singapore and South Korea.

Today our economy is a fraction of Singapore's economy. The primary reason for that is the war our nation had to endure and the poison which has infected our body politic ever since. And that is a universal consequence of war. Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939 ultimately devastated Germany.

The US's invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan in the last 20 years has destroyed infrastructure in both those countries and also contributed to the US's massive debt burden. War has taken a terrible toll right across Africa in the last 50 years. In fact the only guaranteed consequences of war are that participating nations' economies are trashed and that arms manufacturers profit.

Exactly the same is the consequence of Putin's invasion of Ukraine. Not only have his forces flattened entire cities in Ukraine, but tens of thousands of lives have been lost and there are devastating consequences for the world's economy. Fuel prices have rocketed and many nations now face severe food shortages. For all the attempts of the Russian ambassador to deflect blame for food shortages in the same edition of the Independent last week, the fact is that his country's invasion of Ukraine has deeply exacerbated world food supplies. The war has had a significant impact on Zimbabwe itself.

The point is that war is evil; it should only be used as a last resort in defence of human rights. Putin's actions are simply unjustifiable, even if the factual basis of Chando's article was true, which as stated above they are not. There were other means of tackling the perceived threat to Russian security; but war was used as a first resort not a last resort. Zimbabweans need to be disabused of any notion that this war is justified or laudable in any respect.

Territorial integrity

Chando's article correctly reflects Putin's original stated objectives of the denazification and demilitarisation of Ukraine. When the war first started Putin's intention was clearly to remove Zelensky from power and to turn Ukraine into another vassal State like Belarus. The Ukrainian defeat of Putin's main objective to capture Kyiv has resulted in Putin focussing on a secondary objective, namely the occupation of a strip of territory adjacent to Russia and the Black Sea. It appears the purpose behind this is to consolidate Russia's control over the Black Sea.

Whatever Putin's objectives are, the fact remains that Ukraine is a sovereign independent State recognised by the United Nations. Whether Putin's objective was to take over effective control of the entire country or merely to seize a portion of Ukraine, his actions have violated Ukraine's territorial integrity. If that policy is allowed the consequences for world peace will be dramatic.

It will set a terrible precedent of might becoming right. If that policy is pursued in Africa it could result in endless wars on our continent. Imagine, for example, if the DRC was taken over by an efficient and powerful oligarchy which decided it wanted a land bridge to the Atlantic, and ethnic tensions were used to justify the invasion of Cabinda Province, which contributes 60% of Angola's oil output? Closer to home, imagine if secessionist tensions in Matabeleland were used by a dominant South Africa as justification for invading Matabeleland with the real intention of securing Zambezi water or Zimbabwean gas fields? For this reason alone Putin's invasion of Ukraine is indefensible. Indeed it is shocking that any African could seek to justify it.

War crimes

It is clear that war crimes are being committed in the Ukraine. Reputable media in the last few days have reported on an analysis of more than a thousand photographs taken recently which show that “Russia has used hundreds of weapons that are banned by international treaties and that kill, maim and destroy indiscriminately”. There are hundreds of credible reports of cities being carpet bombed into oblivion, of hospitals and schools being indiscriminately targeted along with civilians.

There are many credible reports of rape being used as weapon against Ukrainian women. The death toll so far has exacted a staggering toll in lives lost, thousands of them civilians. All of these are war crimes.

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It is no good for us as Africans to complain about crimes against humanity committed on our own continent if we are going to turn a blind eye to war crimes being committed on a daily basis by Putin's regime. Once again even if the factual basis argued by Chando was correct, that doesn't justify the wholesale commission of war crimes or our deafening silence as Africans in failing to condemn these crimes.

Conventional wisdom in Zimbabwe is that the Zanu PF regime has modelled itself on China

Given the long history between Zanu PF and the Chinese Communist party, China's support of Zanla during the war and the substantial investment of China in certain infrastructure projects in Zimbabwe (such as the energy sector, the new Parliament and the Defence College) it is natural to assume that this is the case. But the reality is that since the coup of 2017 the Zanu PF regime has increasingly modelled itself on Putin's regime, not the Chinese.

The hallmarks of the Putin regime are rampant corruption, a country run by obscenely wealthy oligarchs, the destruction of any semblance of an independent judiciary and a penchant for war. For all the undemocratic nature of the Communist Party these characteristics are not found in China. China regularly executes those found guilty of corruption; it remains a country where Western capital, including massive companies like Apple, still feel safe enough to invest in. China has not engaged in any foreign wars for decades.

In stark contrast, from Chechnya to Syria, Putin's Russia has been involved in a string of wars since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia, unlike China, has not invested in Africa's infrastructure. In Zimbabwe, Russia's investments have been confined to the extractive mineral sector and Zimbabweans cannot point to a single large infrastructural project the Russians have financed for the benefit of the Zimbabwean people. Furthermore, unlike China, the Russian investment climate is toxic.

The book “Red Notice" written by Bill Browder, the world renowned hedge fund manager who has campaigned to get justice following the murder of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, is a powerful exposé of the reality of the Russian investment climate and the state of the Russian legal system.

Indeed Browder's book should be required reading for Zimbabweans because as one reads it the similarities between the Putin regime and the Zanu PF regime become painfully apparent. Whilst the Zimbabwean economy and the power of the regime is minute compared to Russia, that is where the dissimilarities end. Zimbabwe's economy is now effectively controlled by a handful of black and white oligarchs.

Corruption involving the same oligarchs has become endemic. The judiciary has been completely undermined; so called anti-corruption courts are now used to persecute political opponents. The Zimbabwe Anti Corruption Commission turns a blind eye to brazen and rampant acts of corruption committed by the political hierarchy and their oligarch supporters.

The Zimbabwean investment climate is also now toxic notwithstanding the rhetoric of the Zanu PF regime. The Zanu PF regime also has a penchant for war; its current leaders are the very same people who richly benefited from Zimbabwe's involvement in the DRC war. The events of August 2018 and January 2019 are a reminder that this regime doesn't hesitate in its use of the military to impose its will.

Ironically, as much as I deplore the undemocratic nature of China, if the Zanu PF regime actually modelled itself on China our economy would be in much better condition than it is now.

But it does not and shows no intention of doing so. For this reason alone it is not in Zimbabwe's national interest for us to support Putin's actions. It follows that aside from human rights concerns, or international justice issues, if we as Zimbabweans want to promote international investment and resuscitate our economy then it is imperative that we distance ourselves from the Putin regime and its vile actions, not seek to justify it, or worst still associate ourselves with it.

David Coltart is a lawyer and a politician from Zimbabwe.