11 July 2023 | Story Dr Sunday Paul C Onwuegbuchulam | Photo Supplied
Dr Sunday Onwuegbuchulam
Dr Sunday Paul C Onwuegbuchulam is from the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies, University of the Free State.

Opinion article by Dr Sunday Paul C Onwuegbuchulam, Centre for Gender and Africa Studies, University of the Free State.

It has been more than a year since Putin declared his pogrom in Ukraine, which he termed a ‘special military operation’. The war – which Putin envisaged to last a few weeks – is now going into the second year, with lots of people killed on both sides, including civilians. It is also notable that the war has seen the destruction of several key civilian infrastructures in Ukraine, and different human rights abuses carried out by Russian soldiers and their Wagner Mercenary Group. It suffices to say that the bloodletting and destruction in Ukraine have been great, and up until now, there seems to be no solution at hand to stop this war. As the war drags on, with Ukraine engaging in counter-offensives to reclaim its stolen lands, the question on the mind of many is when and how this is going to end. Several countries, including China and South Africa, are making efforts to broker peace in Ukraine. China, for example, proposed a twelve-point political settlement framework, which, among other things, suggested that the Western countries relax their sanctions against Russia and called for a cease-fire and peace talks. In more recent times, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa led an African group to Ukraine on a peace mission in yet another effort to broker peace between Russia and Ukraine.

Brokering peace in Ukraine and Russia while their backyard is burning

My issue in the article concerns this move by African countries, especially South Africa. Firstly, I am wondering how these so-called African leaders can jet off to Ukraine and Russia to broker peace while their backyard here in Africa is burning with conflicts. One wonders why this delegation considers the Ukrainian conflict more serious than, for example, the ongoing war in Sudan. Secondly, I have a gripe against South Africa’s efforts to broker peace in Ukraine, when some of its leaders, politicians, and educated elites have come out categorically to enunciate the phrase, ‘We stand with Russia’. It is the same thing as China (which has clearly stated its alignment with Russia) now proposing a peace plan for stopping a war that Russia is complicit in starting. I am okay with countries aligning themselves with other countries. It is a norm in international relations and is good for cordial relationships among nations of the world.  My issue is with the double standards being played out by nations and that exist in the contemporary international relations arena.

The double standards being exhibited by countries around the world regarding Putin’s war against Ukraine will be an albatross that will ultimately lead to the failure of the peace talks and peace proposals. Notably, both China and South Africa have not been frugal with words against the West and have come short of blaming the whole war on the West and NATO, arguing that NATO’s expansionism agenda in Eastern Europe has led to the war. They further argue that Russia has the right to protect its territorial integrity (against the perceived NATO threat), hence the reason for Putin’s war. But these leaders also fail to condemn the fact that Putin invaded a sovereign country at peace, thereby going against the UN Charter (Article 2, 4) on sovereignty and the maintenance of territorial integrity of nations. They have not condemned Putin’s war, which is a threat to global peace and world order. Furthermore, the hypocrisy is evident in the condemnation of America and the West for the atrocities committed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the world (rightly so), but these countries have not been vociferous in condemning Putin for doing the same in Ukraine. South Africa, for example, has been vocal against the plight of Palestinians under Israel’s ‘apartheid repression’, but the country and its leaders have been indolent in calling Putin out regarding the war crimes going on in Ukraine, in which he has been implicated personally. Hence, in my view, this war has revealed the double standards by different countries of the world when it comes to the issue of maintaining the values enshrined in international humanitarian law and the fundamental principles of human rights as encapsulated in different UN documents. In more recent times, there have been denied reports that South Africa is supplying Russia with arms to aid its war in Ukraine; if true, this is the highest form of hypocrisy from a nation that trumpets respect for human rights and the need to maintain international order.

War in Ukraine is a war of choice

Rather than telling Putin to get out of Ukraine as a way of ensuring a genuine cease-fire, China and South Africa, for example, are going around in circles using some diplomatic approaches such as peace talks that propose peace plans, which they know Ukraine will reject. It should not be forgotten that this war in Ukraine is a war of choice, and it was Putin’s choice to invade a nation he saw as helpless and thought he could conquer within weeks. One wonders whether Putin did not foresee that America and NATO – which supported Ukraine even before this war – would come to Ukraine’s aid. On this, I think it is rather disingenuous that some argue that America and NATO could stop the war by ending the supply of arms to Ukraine to defend itself. The insincerity in this proposal is that these people are saying – just fold your arms and allow Putin to have what he wants and grab as much land as he wants in Ukraine. The hypocrisy also plays out here; they assert that Russia has the right to engage in this war to protect its territorial integrity against NATO’s expansionism, but it is not right for Ukraine to engage in the war to defend its territorial integrity. This kind of thinking is what ultimately led to WWII, because world leaders at the time turned a blind eye to Hitler's first land grabs (Czechoslovakia and Austria for example) until it was too late.

It may sound rather simplistic, but there is truth in the proposal that those who want true peace in Ukraine and Eastern Europe should just advise Putin to withdraw from Ukraine and stop this NAZI-style land grab he has engaged in since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. In my view, this war in Ukraine is going on today because some countries did not condemn that first flaunting of the stipulation of international law on the sovereignty of nations. This, in my view, emboldened Putin, hence his engagement in this war against Ukraine. Putin started this war. He can easily stop it, and the nations that have aligned themselves with Russia (including China and South Africa, and other African countries) can genuinely assist in stopping the war by jettisoning the double standards that are rife in the international relations arena, advising Putin to withdraw from Ukraine. We must not forget that if they keep quiet and Putin’s expansionist move is allowed to stand, it is open season for such a scenario to replicate itself elsewhere in the world. The big elephant in the room remains China, with its eye on Taiwan.

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