SA’s dubious Putin investment

William Saunderson-Meyer says the Russian President is not the sure thing he once appeared to be


You have only one chance at toppling the tyrant. That’s an adage tested over the centuries.

Mutiny is a life-or-death business. Failure usually triggers swift and fatal retribution. It’s the would-be insurrectionist’s head that instead goes onto the chopping block. 

That makes good sense. Not only is the immediate rebellion scotched but a merciless response has the salutary effect of discouraging anyone else who might harbour ambitions of overthrowing the leader. 

So for President Vladimir Putin to grant the treasonous Yevgeny Prigozhin immunity from prosecution, safe passage to exile in Belarus, and an On Golden Pond retirement, is unusual, to say the least. It’s particularly puzzling since he initially said that Prigozhin was a traitor who would be punished harshly for his betrayal. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Prigozhin is a particularly savage rebel and may well be certifiably insane. He delights in his and his mercenaries’ reputation for brutality. Putin, his erstwhile ally and now sworn adversary, has shown over the 23 years that he has been in power that he, too, is no shrinking violet when it comes to cruelty and violence. 

Putin has said that while he can forgive an enemy, he won't ever forget or forgive betrayal. Since there’s worldwide trail of assassinated KGB defectors that testifies to the Russian president’s ruthlessness in this regard, Prigozhin should at the very least be alert for wielders of poison-tipped umbrellas while queueing for the bus in Minsk.

The acquisition and retention of power have always been an unforgiving and deadly business in Russia and the reckoning between the two men has merely been postponed. Neither man’s reputation can survive an impasse. There eventually has to be a winner and a loser.

An excellent and nuanced post-mutiny assessment in the US journal Foreign Affairs gets to the nub of it While the mutiny has failed, Putin may nevertheless be fatally weakened. 

Before February 2022, Putin’s military moves in Syria, Crimea and elsewhere had given him the veneer of a capable strategist. “Then, in one stroke,” Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage write, “he showed his ineptitude by invading a country that posed no threat to Russia and by failing again and again in his military enterprise.” Prigozhin’s short-lived rebellion may prove to be the final puncture to Putin’s “autocrat mystique”, with damaging consequences for Russia internationally.

The analysts may be right about the erosion of “mystique” in most of the world. But at the southern end of Africa, the reverence existing within the African National Congress towards Putin, Russia and Marxist-Leninism is seemingly unassailable. 

Although President Cyril Ramaphosa dresses up this admiration as “neutrality” and being “non-aligned”, it is nothing of the sort. It’s a puppy-dog devotion that defies logic and the self-interest that, within the parameters of international law, should be at the heart of any sovereign nation’s foreign policy.

Whether through naïveté or fear of riling, in an already fractious ANC, the ire of its many strongly pro-Russia sentiments supporters, the Ramaphosa administration refuses to be swayed on this. Recently, International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor reiterated that South Africa’s supposedly non-aligned position on Russia would not be traded for Western trade benefits.

In contrast, Russia and China see the “non-alignment” of alliances like BRICS as no more than a politically useful fig leaf to advance their national interests. On Wednesday, the Russian ambassador to South Africa told a “dialogue” on the Ukraine war that there was no place for non-alignment or neutrality.

“You cannot remain neutral, you will be punished by secondary sanctions [by the West],” Ilya Igorevich Rogachev told the ANC-sponsored event. “[You cannot] remain distant and neutral.” 

Instead of contesting the Russian interpretation of South Africa’s non-alignment with the same robustness that Pandor took on the US, the ANC’s former chair of its international relations sub-committee just rolled over to have her tummy tickled. South Africa, Lindiwe Zulu said, couldn’t adopt the approach argued for by Rogachev unless and until it had been “endorsed” by the ANC’s policymakers. 

That there is no overarching foreign policy principle at stake here, was made further clear by Clayson Monyela, head of diplomacy at the foreign ministry. South Africa’s approach to the Ukraine conflict “cannot be defined as neutrality”, he said. 

“Non-alignment should never be confused with neutrality. We made a very deliberate decision based on our history.”

Monyela was emphatic that South Africa’s position was well understood and accepted by the US. From the conversations International Relations had had with the US, there was “no threat” of sanctions.

He is probably right. There will be no sanctions, at least not in the immediate future. 

The US won’t want to be seen wielding its big stick and the European Union and Britain are desperate to parlay their substantial historical and economic ties with South Africa into influence elsewhere on the continent. For now, South Africa can get away with tweaking noses and kicking shins.

But South Africa would be wise also to note that with the attempted mutiny, Russia’s attractiveness as an ally has been much reduced. It’s a time to hedge bets, not double down.

India, also a staunch member of the “non-aligned” BRICS grouping, seems to understand better than South Africa the subtle balancing required in a multi-polar world. Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi returned from Washington where had been warmly welcomed. He had addressed Congress and signed multiple defence and technology deals.

But then again, Modi — along with China — voted in favour of a United National resolution which categorically acknowledged Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and, before that, against Georgia. If only Ramaphosa were so canny. South Africa abstained and has since added injury to insult by sending two high-level “military cooperation” missions to Moscow.

Whether the attempted mutiny has rung any South African alarm bells is still too early to tell. The BRICS summit to be held in Johannesburg in August must now be causing even more consternation in the Ramaphosa administration than before.

Initially, Ramaphosa had hoped that Putin might be persuaded not to attend in order to spare South Africa the dilemma of having to carry out an International Criminal Court warrant and arrest its friend. Putin reportedly had made it clear that non-attendance was a humiliation that he would not countenance. 

Now Ramaphosa will be hoping that it is the threat of another mutiny that will encourage Putin to stay home. But Putin might very well still come, if only to demonstrate that he remains firmly in power. 

And, after all, if a coup does occur, Putin at least can rely on his ANC pals to provide him with a very comfortable political asylum in sunny South Africa.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye