The Ukraine war: A view from South Africa


South Africa and other non-aligned states should muster their energies to drive a peace wedge between belligerent blocs and wind down the crises they force on us all.

The war in Ukraine badly affects us all. The capitalist powers of the West — NATO and the European Union — are involved in a proxy war against capitalist Russia that threatens to spiral out of control. As the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres put it on April 13: “The impact of the war is global and systemic.”

The Ukraine war and the West’s sanctions against Russia are choking food, fuel, and raw material supplies, hitting countries in Asia, Africa, and South America the hardest, and according to the UN heralding a global hunger crisis. As with all imperialist wars, it’s the workers and poor who suffer the most. Now globally.

Guterres continued: “As many as 1.7 billion people — one-third of whom are already living in poverty — are now highly exposed to disruptions in food, energy and finance systems that are triggering increases in poverty and hunger.”

Regardless of the causes of the war, the justifications declaimed or sides taken, the impacts of the conflict, including sanctions, remain the same: catastrophe for the working class and poor in Ukraine, Russia, and in the many countries across the world that rely on imports from them. We’re only beginning to see the effects of this.

The majority of grain (wheat and barley) bought by the top 36 grain-importing countries, which include the poorest, comes from Russia and Ukraine. Ukrainian and Russian grain accounts for 30% of the world’s grain supply. This is now all on hold. A fifth of the world’s fertilizers are produced by Russia and its neighbor and ally Belarus. The sudden reduction of supplies to Kenya, to take just one of many examples, now imperils local food production there.

No cool heads

The West is hell-bent on stoking the tensions that shape the context of the conflict but which stretch beyond: cold war with China, placing Russia on embargo well into any foreseeable future, vilifying approaches that don’t toe the Western line, a reckless polarizing of international relations. Russia has referred obliquely to its possible use of nuclear weapons, a nightmare scenario that contrasts sharply with the 1982 Soviet commitment to no first use of nuclear weapons. NATO has an unequivocal first-use policy.

There are no cool heads among the immediate or wider belligerents in the war.

The 20th-century Cold War saw the Soviet Union issue a constant stream of peace proposals to wind down the nuclear arms race and encourage neutral and non-aligned countries to host peace and security forums (the momentous Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Finland in 1975 was one). Most but not all such communist pressure for peace was met with cynicism and rebuttal by the U.S. Some of it succeeded in calming tensions and creating crucial disarmament agreements.

Widening polarization

There’s now no such restraining influence between the West and Russia. Quite the opposite. The U.S.’s pumped and primed regime-change rhetoric (“Putin must go”), massive weapons supplies to Ukraine (worth $US1.6 billion between the end of February and the beginning of April), bellicose sanctions against Russia and vilification of all things Russian, troop deployments to Poland and the Baltic States — all adjoining Russia — increase the likelihood of the war spilling over beyond Ukraine’s borders.

The same goes for the hawkish slant of the European Union’s 27 member states. Twenty-one of them are members of NATO. EU-NATO members are arming Ukraine. The EU itself has now pledged to send it €1 billion in military “aid,” the first time the bloc has directly sent weapons to a country at war.

Like the U.S., the EU and the UK have imposed sanctions against Russia and banned all aircraft from their airspace. They are also targeting the Russian energy sector. Once neutral and pacific, Finland and Sweden are now part of the problem, clamoring to join NATO and sending arms to Ukraine.

NATO, created in 1949 to muster Western military superiority over the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe, kept its sites on Russia after the Soviet collapse in 1990. It absorbed new members eastward (the Baltic States, Poland) and reached Russia’s Central European borders, despite pledging not to. So Russia — which alone lost nearly 14 million of its people in World War 2 following Nazi Germany’s invasion (total Soviet losses were some 27 million) — has a deep-rooted fear and suspicion of any military posturing from the West.

But as the Communist Party of Greece sagely pointed out at the start of the Ukraine war:

Irrespective of the pretexts used by both sides, the military conflict in Ukraine is the result of the sharpening of competition between the two warring camps, primarily focused on spheres of influence, market shares, raw materials, energy plans and transport routes; competition which can no longer be resolved by diplomatic–political means and fragile compromises.

The widening polarization now gripping global politics and the rippling threats and crises it prompts reflect this.

Deep propaganda mode

Countries that try to stand outside the inter-imperialist conflict — especially outside the Western orbit — are populistically condemned as pro-Putin. Much Western mainstream media has gone into deep propaganda mode over the war, castigating any country that does not roundly condemn Russia or unequivocally support Ukraine. All nuance is gone. Within parts of the Left in the West there’s an often opportunistic loss of bearings, reminiscent of the pro-war stance of some social democratic parties during the First World War and which led to the collapse of the Second International in 1916.

“Does SA support this?” thundered the front-page headline of the April 9–10 edition of Saturday Citizen. The accompanying photo showed the aftermath of a Russian rocket attack in Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine. The blurb read, “Minister Naledi Pandor stood firm, backing SA’s pro-Russia stance in the Ukraine war, despite a Putin rocket with the words ‘For our children’ on it yesterday tearing through a train station packed with civilians waiting to flee, leaving behind dozens of bodies — including kids — in pools of blood.”

For the Saturday Citizen, and in line with the West’s torrent of war propaganda, if you don’t condemn Russia, you support the slaughter of civilians, including young kids. But South Africa has very clearly not voiced support for Russia since the start of the war. South Africa’s first statement on the war, issued February 24, called on Russia to “immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine.”

South Africa’s stance

South Africa later abstained, together with 37 other countries, in a UN General Assembly vote on a resolution drafted by Ukraine on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine that pinned the blame on Russia. It was titled “The Humanitarian Consequences of the Aggression against Ukraine,” and it was supported by 140 states with 5 against.

South Africa didn’t take a pro-Russian position by abstaining. But it did fault the slant of the resolution, where, as SA’s ambassador to the UN, Mathu Joyini, cautioned, “instead of placing the humanitarian crisis and our [the UN’s] response at the center of our deliberations, the political divisions in the Assembly suggest that perhaps, in the minds of some delegations, the humanitarian response is secondary to geopolitical objectives.”

For much the same reason South Africa also abstained in an earlier vote on an emergency resolution of the General Assembly, passed immediately after the Russian invasion.

South Africa’s own resolution on resolving the humanitarian crisis was titled “The Humanitarian Situation Emanating out of the Conflict in Ukraine.” It avoided apportioning blame for the humanitarian crisis, and for good reason: the only way to mediate an easing of tensions in any armed conflict to aid civilians is not to mouth off about blame.

That’s basic to the ABCs of peace mediation. Unless, that is, you don’t really want such mediation in the first place. Ukraine’s resolution, which had 90 sponsors, was more about using the UN as a circus to isolate and castigate Russia than doing anything to ease the horrific plight of civilians in Ukraine, which would require bringing Russia on board.

South Africa’s resolution was defeated by a vote of 50 for and 67 against. Its UN officials were, according to the Daily Maverick (March 23) “not too dismayed because they had not lobbied anyone very hard to support their resolution.”

Maybe they should have, because South Africa’s approach relates strongly to how countries like it could bring about positive change amidst today’s triple horrors of the climate emergency, the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, and a sharpened imperialist war drive.

A non-aligned approach

There’s a desperate need now for the creative diplomacy, peace mediation, and non-offensive defense modelling that non-alignment in global politics could provide.

South Africa’s UN resolution on Ukraine hinted at this. It was a serious but not serious enough attempt to achieve something worthwhile that entailed going against the grain of Western (US-NATO-EU) diktat. It’s made all the harder because the UN, once central to efforts to reduce inter-state tensions, is increasingly and all too often sidelined, becoming, as we have seen recently, a catwalk for imperialist swagger.

Non-alignment is not fence-sitting, nor, as the Citizen and other mainstream media would have it, is it brownnosing an aggressor. It’s tuned into the need to end war and conflict and build international relations on purely cooperative bases. That’s precisely what workers and the poor in SA and around the world sorely need.

Non-alignment often means standing up to imperialism’s ready resort to war, but also developing forms of common security that work. Recent calls to revamp and reassert the Non-Aligned Movement suggest that such ideas are now spreading. South Africa has a clear role to play here, and it should do so urgently because we’re really running out of time to avert the worst.

First published in Umsebenzi, a publication of the South African Communist Party.

Image:  CodePink (Facebook).


Source: Communist Party U.S.A.