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Opinions of Monday, 28 February 2022

Columnist: Mahmud Jega

We, the African bystanders

Mahmud Jega Mahmud Jega

I personally had my doubts when, for several weeks, the US government predicted that Russia would launch a full invasion of Ukraine. Why should it when, as many analysts said, President Vladimir Putin could achieve his goal of preventing Ukraine from joining NATO by putting military pressure but stopping short of a resort to war?

Besides, US government and its intelligence agencies failed big time in 2002-03 when they claimed that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. They launched a war that cost over a million Iraqi lives, without UN Security Council authorization, found no WMDs, caused absolute chaos in Iraq, created a vacuum which ISIS filled, never apologised for it, while former President George W. Bush and his recently deceased Secretary of State Colin Powell were still walking the streets as free men.

This time around, Russia did launch a war against Ukraine. So far the airstrikes and ground skirmishes have been less than what you expect in an all-out assault, but it was a horrible shock all the same. It has gripped the world’s attention like nothing since the Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003. It could turn out to be a Russian mistake of historic proportions because Ukrainians could remember this for centuries to come.

This war in Ukraine is a terrible turn of events for the modern world. Not only because of the human toll, which so far is limited, the humanitarian calamity for citizens and the material losses, but also because this is a problem that wisdom and a few cool international heads could have solved. Russia’s biggest demand is that NATO should stop expanding eastwards and Ukraine should not join NATO. Why won’t the United Nations broker a treaty in which Ukraine pledges not to join NATO for the next 50 or 100 years in return for a Russian pledge to respect its territorial integrity and guarantee its peace?

Ukrainian President Vlodomyr Zelensky said in a tweet that “We will be defending our country, because our weapon is truth, and truth is that this is our land, our country, our children, and we will defend all of this.” It is a stirring speech but you know what it reminded me of? A passage in Frederick Forsyth’s novel Dogs of War, in which a mercenary soldier cynically said that in war, God is on the side of the bigger battalions. Truth is irrelevant in war and the righteousness of your cause does not guarantee victory.

By far the biggest battalions in this war are Russian. Ukrainian military has been described as a David ranged against a Russian Goliath. Russia has 900,000 active duty troops and 2 million reservists, to Ukraine’s 190,000 active duty troops and 900,000 reservists. Russia has 16,000 armoured fighting vehicles, 1,390 warplanes, 1,000 helicopters and 50 submarines, compared to Ukraine’s 3,300 armoured fighting vehicles, 132 warplanes, 55 helicopters and no submarines. Not to mention nukes, of which Russia has thousands and Ukraine has none, having transferred all its nukes to Russia when USSR broke up in 1991.

In Africa here, in situations from football to war, our sympathy is automatically for the underdog, in this case Ukraine. Yet, Russia attracts some sympathy because most African intellectuals harbor a deep suspicion of the Western powers, because of the wide discrepancy between their leaders’ moral preachments and their actions where selfish interests are concerned.

Unjust though the world order has always been to poor and weak countries, the post-World War II order and its discouraging the resort to war in pursuit of national aims is something that we Africans applaud. Never mind that it is selectively applied. We cannot possibly wish for a return to a situation in which countries could lightly resort to war in pursuit of national aims, especially when peaceful options are still available. That we have not had a war involving the most powerful nations since 1945, except through proxies, is a situation that we should uphold and try to correct its imperfections. Russia’s ongoing attack on Ukraine is evidence of the order’s imperfections.

In a long, televised speech that he made on Friday, President Putin made Russia’s case for resorting to war. From my own little recollections of history, his speech contained an admixture of truth, stretching of truth and outright lies as well. Putin talked about “tragic events taking place in the Donbas,” where he last week recognized the break-away Donetsk People’s and Luhansk People’s Republics. In both places, ethnic Russians have been fighting secessionist wars, with Russian support, for a decade. We Africans cannot support secessionist bids in Donbas because if ethnic groups who believe they ended up on the wrong sides of colonially drawn borders all take up arms to “correct the wrong,” Africa will become a total wreck.

Next, Putin spoke about “the key issues of ensuring the security of Russia itself…those fundamental threats that year after year, step by step, are rudely and unceremoniously created by irresponsible politicians in the West in relation to our country. I mean the expansion of the NATO bloc to the east, bringing its military infrastructure closer to Russian borders.” In this claim he finds much sympathy in Africa. Western powers, how could you possibly insist on your so-called right to continue expanding eastwards and gobble up more and more, not only former East Bloc countries but former Soviet Republics, with the obvious aim of encircling Russia, and not expect a terrible backlash? What is NATO still doing on the world stage after the Cold War ended and Warsaw Pact disbanded in 1990?

Putin said with USSR’s collapse, Western powers arrogantly rewrote rules of international conduct that were there since World War II ended. He said “previous treaties and agreements are no longer in effect…Everything that does not suit the hegemon is declared archaic, obsolete, unnecessary. Everything that seems beneficial to them is presented as the ultimate truth, pushed through at any cost.”

This is true of Western double standards, except that some of the examples the Russian President cited to buttress this point were problematic. He cited the 1999 US and NATO bombing of Serbia,
“without any sanction from the UN Security Council,” and lumped it together with US/Western attacks against Iraq, Libya and Syria. He said attack on Libya “led to complete destruction of the state, emergence of a huge hotbed of international terrorism, the country plunged into a humanitarian catastrophe.” We Africans agree with this point because African Union [AU] pleaded with the Western powers not to bomb Gaddafi’s army. Bombing of Serbia was however different, far as we Africans can see, because Bosnian Serbs, armed and supported by the war criminals Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic carried out genocides in Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo. Serbs, who are Eastern Orthodox Christians, are traditional allies of Russia.

Putin said the West made promises to Russia “not to expand NATO by one inch to the east.” He was referring to a promise said to have been made by then US Secretary of State James Baker in 1990. If indeed such a promise was made, it should have been kept no matter the desire of some former East bloc and ex-Soviet countries to join the essentially anti-Russian NATO military alliance. That breach of promise has now exploded in everyone’s face.

Putin said despite modern Russia’s “readiness to work honestly with the United States” and its “virtually unilateral disarmament, they immediately tried to squeeze us, finish off and destroy us completely.” He said the West “actively supported separatism and mercenary gangs in southern Russia,” i.e. Chechen and other separatists. I concede to this KGB agent that he had information that we Africans didn’t have; otherwise, it is difficult to see the Western interest in supporting Muslim Chechen separatists.

Putin also described Ukraine’s leaders as “extreme nationalists and neo-Nazis…Hitler’s accomplices” who killed ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. His aim is “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine, he said. This was propaganda for domestic Russian audiences. USSR suffered 60 million casualties in World War II, so nothing is viler in Russian eyes than a Nazi or Adolf Hitler. I don’t think Zelensky remotely measures up to that description.

Vladimir Putin concluded his speech with a threat. He said Russia “is today one of the most powerful nuclear powers in the world and, moreover, has certain advantages in a number of the latest types of weapons.” He said “whoever tries to hinder us… should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences that you have never experienced in your history.” Is he threatening to unleash nukes? That could only lead to Mutual Assured Destruction. Military strategists’ acronym for it is, MAD.