Russia vs Ukraine: It's not morally complicated

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on Putin's aggression, Western fecklessness, and SA's craven response


The Russian invasion of Ukraine has generated a lot of what-aboutism and don’t-forgetitis on the part of President Vladimir Putin’s defenders worldwide.

They have tried to downplay the horror of the past few weeks by drawing dubious parallels with instances of Western perfidy, of which there are admittedly many. And they’ve tried to justify the invasion — or “special military operation” as Putin prefers to call it — by finding precedents for interference in the intricately interwoven history of the two countries.

Of course, that is not to deny that Russia’s has legitimate grievances and fears. Nor to claim that Ukraine is blameless and has not also goaded the Russian bear, with the West recklessly egging it on.

But one does not have to be a professional ethicist to discern basic right from wrong here. Neither the fog of war nor the smog of propaganda should obscure what is a legally and morally simple matter. Russia’s invasion was contrary to international law and is being executed with disregard to the Geneva Conventions that protect civilians during conflict. The invasion is illegal and inhumane.

To deny this is to condone a world order where the powerful nations prey ceaselessly and unrestrainedly upon the weaker. It’s a world where Taiwan and all of eastern Europe would be eyed as the next delectable low-calorie morsel.

That the invasion is a reprehensible and illegal act doesn’t mean, however, that it was a foolish one in political terms. The invasion hasn’t been the military pushover that Putin expected, and it is still too early to know what effect international sanctions and exclusion will force upon the Russians. But whatever the strategic withdrawals and compromises that now occur, some of Ukraine will likely remain in Russian hands, giving Putin a distinct edge in future confrontations of this nature.

In the meanwhile, for Putin, a despot always searching to burnish his macho credentials, there are immediate benefits. It has allowed him to cast himself as a latter-day Ivan the Terrible — as the warrior-leader who will restore not only imperial Russia’s lost glory but that of the Soviet Union before it imploded under the weight of its own ideological absurdities.

At a stroke, Putin the Awful has boosted his standing with much of the Russian population, erased decades of humiliation in international forums, and forced the world’s leaders to treat Russia with caution, if not yet respect. Perhaps most importantly for future shifts in the balance of power towards the emerging Sino-Russian axis, the invasion throws into focus how enfeebled the Western democracies have become.

It has highlighted the damaging divisions caused by Britain’s departure from the European Union, as well as the uncertain nature of the EU’s response to external threats. It’s also raised question over the deterrence quotient of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation forces.

At present, the entire West is militarily at sixes and sevens. A war conducted on its eastern flank and inevitably spilling into EU countries, is simply unthinkable to post-World War II generations that have never known anything but peace and material comfort. Russia knows, comes push to shove, that the West will blink.

The German response has been revealing. Germany, because of its geographical position, is the lynchpin to countering any Russian threat. Only now is it dawning on a complacent West how ill-suited it is, in every way, to do so.

After decades of underspending — despite President Donald Trump harrying the NATO countries to increase military expenditure — its military is in a sorry state. A few years back, the Bundeswehr became the laughingstock of the world when it sheepishly revealed that during NATO exercises it had to simulate machine guns using brooms, because of a shortage of materiel.

Its psychological readiness to fight is similarly in doubt. After more than 80 years of aversion therapy stemming from its culpability in two devastating world wars, German’s state of mind can be gauged by its initial response to Ukrainian calls for help. It promised 5,000 steel helmets.

The United States, the real power behind any NATO response, is in no better nick. For decades, it’s been repeatedly bested by rag-tag armies around the world. It’s also smarting from its recent ignominious exit from Afghanistan.

The quality of leadership, too, is an issue. President Joe Biden has not engendered confidence with his daft comments. This week Biden asked rhetorically, “How do we get to the place where Putin decides he's going to just invade Russia?" Last week it was, “Putin may circle Kyiv with tanks, but he will never gain the hearts and souls of the Iranian people.”

The degree of commitment the US has to any supposed “line in the sand” was inadvertently revealed by Biden when he was trying to intimidate Putin in the run-up to the invasion. Russia, he warned sternly, would be “held accountable” for any invasion. But then, showing his hand, he let slip that any response would depend on whether or not it was “a minor incursion”.

Such low comedy response to Russian belligerence has not been confined to the US. In South Africa, our own clowns have been hard at it.

International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor had responded immediately and unambiguously to the invasion. Russia, DIRCO said in a statement, should “immediately withdraw” its forces “in line with the United Nations Charter which enjoins all member states to settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice are not endangered”.

It was downhill from there. Pandor was reportedly rebuked by President Cyril Ramaphosa and the ANC, backed by Ramaphosa, issued a statement saying that it was not the party’s position to call on Russia to withdraw but rather to push both parties towards mediation and negotiation. When, days later, it came to a UN vote to condemn Russian aggression, South Africa abstained.

Unfortunately South Africa’s craven response to the invasion has nothing to do with genuinely working even-handedly behind the scenes for peace. It is simply expediency.

If you have any doubt, substitute “Russia invades Ukraine” with “Israel invades Iran” and consider what South Africa, the ANC alliance, and Ramaphosa would have said and done. Inhale deeply the stench of hypocrisy.

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