Squirrel, the weasel

Andrew Donaldson writes on the SA govt's prostration before Russian imperial aggression


IT is not the sort of information one expects to find doom-scrolling the news feeds, especially as an armoured Russian convoy said to be more than sixty kilometres long is slowly grinding its way towards Kyiv. However, and for what it’s worth: Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy can play the piano with his penis.

Well, not exactly. But this was the basis of an absurd comic sketch that featured in a 2016 variety show, a video of which has now resurfaced on social media. Admittedly not sophisticated, the schtick reminded me a bit of my father’s old Victor Borge records. Zelenskyy’s audience found it hilarious.

At the time, Zelenskyy was not the president of Ukraine but a popular comedian who played the part of the president of Ukraine in Servant of the People, a hit TV series that aired in that country from 2015 to 2019. 

The show was produced by Kvartal 95, a company set up by Zelenskyy. In March 2018, its employees launched a political party bearing the name of the TV series. Zelenskyy announced his candidacy for the May 2019 Ukrainian presidential election on December 31, 2018. He did so, brazenly, during then president Petro Poroshenko’s televised New Year’s address, 

The pundits initially considered this young upstart an amusing distraction. A comedian and a complete political novice? C’mon, be serious… But opinion polls suggested otherwise: Zelenskyy’s anti-establishment, anti-corruption stance appealed to Ukrainians, and he won the election in the second round of polling with more than 73 per cent of the vote. Some joke, this anti-establishment, anti-corruption lark.

The events of the last week have, to put it mildly, been no laughing matter. But the 44-year-old Zelenskyy has emerged from the turmoil of the Russian invasion as a courageous leader— the William Wallace, if you will, of the Eurasian steppe.

This defiance has been noted in Downing Street. The London Sunday Times quoted an aide joking with prime minister Boris Johnson: “Who would have thought that a former chat-show host would turn into a statesman of great principle and stature? It wouldn’t happen here!” Johnson was not amused, the newspaper added. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

On Tuesday, Zelenskyy addressed the European parliament in Brussels. He was beamed in to a standing ovation from some Kyiv bunker. He was unshaven and wearing a military T-shirt. Not the crappy commando camo so beloved by Carl Niehaus, but the real thing — for this was the real thing: Kharkiv, the capital’s sister city, was at that moment under sustained Russian bombardment. 

It was a brief, but moving address. At one point, even the translator struggled to maintain composure, fighting back tears. Zelenskyy implored the European Union to admit his country. “Prove that you will not let us go,” he said. “Prove that you indeed are European and then life can win over death. Glory be to Ukraine.” That got him another standing ovation, and then he was off, back to the war. 

By contrast, over at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, diplomats and envoys from some 50 countries staged a mass walk-out as Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov began to speak in a session ahead of Wednesday’s rare emergency meeting of the UN General Assembly. This followed Russia’s veto of a Security Council resolution condemning its invasion of Ukraine. 

At the time of writing it was unclear how South Africa would vote on a General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s actions and demanding the withdrawal of its troops from Ukraine. 

Denouncing Moscow does not, however, seem likely. This, shamefully, even as accounts of atrocities against civilians grow.

SA’s permanent representative to the UN, Mathu Joyini, delivered a measured, though wishy-washy statement on the conflict on Tuesday. She noted that “unnecessary human suffering and destruction with global ramifications” would no doubt arise as a result of the invasion. A big du-uh moment, then. But still she failed to criticise Moscow for its aggression.

Instead, Joyini noted that the UN’s charter urged its members to settle disputes by peaceful means. She urged “all parties to approach the situation in a spirit of compromise, with all sides upholding human rights, abiding by their obligations under international law and international humanitarian law”.

Frankly, there is only one “party” here that most of the world is concerned with, and that is Vladimir Putin. 

The ANC government, dismayingly, has once again chosen to side with the scum of the earth. 

But there was a moment, though, when a brief glimpse of spinal matter was detected in the oleaginous muck that passes for foreign policy in Pretoria. God alone knows what was going through their heads but, on Thursday, in their initial reaction to the invasion, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation called on Moscow to withdraw its troops from Ukraine and respect its neighbour’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. 

That statement, reportedly cleared by international relations minister Naledi Pandor, so alarmed Cyril Ramaphosa that he was reassuring Russian ambassador Ilya Rogachev most pronto that Dirco’s statement was out of kilter with Pretoria’s usually supine position where Moscow’s plans are concerned. Squirrel has revealed his true form, and it’s weasel.

But, speaking of plans, it is patently clear that Putin’s Ukraine adventure has not proceeded as intended. The guy’s no military genius, no matter what Donald Trump believes. Logistically, the invasion has been a horror show, and not the blitzkrieg that the Kremlin had been banking on. The Russians reportedly took a beating at Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city. Their tanks are running out of fuel and troops have been forced to loot for food. British intelligence sources report that demoralised Russian conscripts are crying in combat and refusing to carry out orders to shell Ukrainian towns. 

Ukraine may not have the arsenal that Russia has, but they more than make up for this in sheer guts and balls. That, along with scorn and ridicule, are their most potent weapons — something the Kremlin had overlooked when they set out to rebuild the former Soviet empire. 

We’ve seen the videos on social media. There was the Russian naval vessel ordering the surrender of 13 Ukrainian border guards on a tiny island in the Black Sea to stand down, and the response it got: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.” There’s the clip of a Ukraine farmer gleefully towing away a Russian armoured personnel carrier with a tractor, and one of a motorist, his voice dripping with derision, offering to give a Russian tank crew a lift back to the border. There’s the  brewery that has donated beer bottles with “Putin is a dickhead” labels for the Molotov cocktail drive, and that woman who told a Russian soldier to put sunflower seeds in his pockets so they may bloom where he has been killed…

How do you win over such people? Get their support, their “hearts and minds”? Clearly, Russia has the numbers and weapons on its side. It may crush Ukrainian resistance, and Zelenskyy may be forced to surrender to prevent further loss of life, but Russia then faces with the problem of governing this “restored” territory. What’s that going to cost? What sort of policing will be needed to keep its quarrelsome population in check? These are considerations that appear to have been ignored.

There is now much chatter about Putin’s mental health — although not to his face. Which, these days, is not looking good. Commentators suggest the puffiness is a tell-tale sign of steroid abuse, and he is paying the price for the years of having the most testosterone on the international block. There have been too many plunges into freezing Siberian lakes, too many falls on the ice in hockey, far too much naked wrestling with bears in the forest and other such he-man nonsense. The thrill of applying live electrodes to the nipples to amp up resistance to possible torture has gone. All that’s left for the old Cossack is war.

His run-up to the invasion came in a typically dictatorial fashion. It was both bizarre and chilling. First, Putin summoned his security council to the Kremlin last week to find out if there were any objections to his plans. One by one, his grovelling lieutenants expressed their support. 

There was an uncomfortable moment, however, when Russian spy boss Sergei Naryshkin, a man known for his anti-western rhetoric, stuttered uncomfortably when Putin grilled him about his intentions. “Speak directly!” Putin twice snapped at him. 

Then, with all on board, Putin then gave a long, rambling televised speech, asserting that the invasion was justified. “I have decided to conduct a special military operation,” he said. “Its goal is to protect people who have been subjected to bullying and genocide ... for the last eight years. And for this we will strive for the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine. And to bring to court those who committed numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation.”

It’s feared the Russian courts will shortly be very busy. According to The Times, the country is set to introduce a law that will make it a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison to spread “fake news” about the military operation in Ukraine. If implemented, this censorship legislation will mark another milestone on the journey back to the Soviet era. Russia is now set for years of international isolation.

Putin, the Guardian noted in an editorial, is escalating his ruthless assault on the Ukrainians. “It is increasingly hard to see how he would feel able to extract his country from this war with anything short of Ukraine becoming a vassal state. An isolated and dangerous man has no exit, does not want to be shown one, and risks losing everything. Though the initial slowness of the offensive has set back Mr Putin’s plans to end Ukrainian independence, this does not reduce the danger to Ukrainian civilians, but increases it.”

As for the “denazification” programme, this week it included a Russian bomb striking the Holocaust memorial site at Babyn Yar, in Kyiv, where Nazi troops massacred 34 000 Jews in 1941. More horror will follow in the hours and days to come.

Dreaming on

My colleague David Bullard has expressed the opinion that sanctions will prove ineffective against Putin. “Dream on, Europe,” he writes, suggesting that as long as there’s a back door through which Russia can buy things, then such measures are doomed to failure.

However, I must differ. Those back doors are closing pretty sharpish. The freezing of assets by Western governments belonging to Putin’s pals is starting to take effect, even in Londongrad, where the looted billions laundered by banksters was previously considered untouchable. Russia’s expulsion from the Swift banking system has been painful. So has the ban on international flights. 

The sporting world has followed suit. It says something that Fifa, football’s governing body and arguably the most corrupt organisation on the planet, has barred Russia from the sport. A panic is taking hold.

Labour MP and head of Westminister’s parliamentary standards committee, has now claimed that the Russian oligarch and Chelsea football club owner, Roman Abramovich is hastily is hastily selling his UK properties to avoid potential financial sanctions. He told the Commons on Tuesday: “I think he is terrified of being sanctioned, which is why he’s already going to sell his home tomorrow, and sell another flat as well. My anxiety is that we’re taking too long about these things.”

According to reports, Abramovich’s home in Kensington Palace Gardens is currently valued at £150-million, while his Chelsea Waterfront penthouse has a price tag of £30-million. 

At the weekend, there was much in the press about a return to the climate of the boycott era we know so well. “We need to be treating Russia like apartheid-era South Africa,” an unnamed cabinet source told the London Sunday Times. “The only way to destabilise Putin is to create the conditions in Russia where ordinary people can feel the consequences of his actions.” 

The theme was picked up in an editorial in the newspaper. “Putin’s Russia is every bit as reprehensible as apartheid South Africa. The international community should close ranks and make him feel it.”

One sanction that may especially hurt, meanwhile, is the decision to kick Russia out of the Eurovision song contest. I thought this laughable when I first heard the news. Expulsion from a kitsch spectacle renowned for radioactive levels of high camp? What good would that do? But I have since learnt that the competition is serious business where PW Putin is concerned. This is because Ukraine is quite good at it, while Russia is just crap.

The lyrics of 1944, a ballad by the singer Jamala and Ukraine’s winning 2016 entry, are worth noting. It’s first verse begins:

When strangers are coming
They come to your house
They kill you all
And say
We’re not guilty
Not guilty

The song is about Stalin's deportation of the Crimean Tatars in the 1940s to what is now Uzbekistan, allegedly as a result of their collaboration with the Nazis, and the “detatarisation” campaign that followed. Some activists have claimed the removals were a form of ethnic or cultural genocide. Others have suggested this wasn’t genocide, but merely the Soviet assimilation of “unwanted nations”. 

At the time of contest, 1944 had a particular resonance given Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. It has renewed currency now, and could easily be retitled 2022.