By Gerard Boyce
Nearly a month after Russia invaded neighbouring Ukraine and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is still coming in for sharp criticism of his administration’s lacklustre policy response to the Ukrainian Conflict which, till now, has been limited to expressing concern for human rights and calling upon both sides to ‘seek a diplomatic solution’ all while offering platitudes that recognise the culpability of other actors (viz. ‘the West’) in creating the conditions that allegedly lie at the root of the current conflict. Critics can be found on all sides of the political spectrum and appear to be evenly split between those who demand expressions of greater solidarity with Russia and those who demand South Africa adopt a more ‘moral’ stance and condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Despite these differences, all have become more vocal of late while their tone has become harsher as the extent of destruction has become clearer and predictions of the costs which experts warned this conflict would impose on the global economy begin to be realised.
Notwithstanding growing criticism, there are sound reasons to believe that the fairly prosaic approach the South African government has taken might be the best course of action for it to follow to defuse current tensions and secure a durable long-term peace in the region, more so as indications are that Russia’s special military operation has not proceeded as smoothly as many analysts predicted it would thus fuelling the bitterness of the enmity that will remain long after hostilities have ceased. Indeed, at some level President Ramaphosa’s approach can already be said to be working, if his reported invitation to mediate talks between Russia and Ukraine turns out to be genuine that is. Granted, there always exists the possibility that the government’s hamstrung position merely reflects incompetence on our diplomats’ part rather than some clearly defined strategy of government. Regardless of the reason why or rumoured pending involvement in conflict mediation, taking a fairly lukewarm stance might be the best strategy for South Africa to adopt, not only for Ukrainians who now suffer under constant bombardment or Russians who face isolation from the West but for a deeply divided world at a time when global geopolitical rivalry has intensified and nations are rapidly being forced to pick sides.
By way of support for this assertion, consider that adopting a passive role is likely to serve a useful purpose within Russia; not for the reasons one might immediately suspect but for would-be dissidents within President Putin’s inner circle who will lose the bruising ideological battle that will inevitably play out between members of the Russian elite as the war grinds on and the economic and political costs thereof start to mount. The inevitability of this battle stems from the main war aims that Russia has set: the denazification of Ukraine and its demilitarisation. Setting such broad and, frankly, maximalist targets is tantamount to declaring that the only war outcomes that would be acceptable to the Russian government are the total subjugation of Ukraine or the emasculation of the current Ukrainian administration under President Zelensky – doubtlessly a far more desirable prospect from the Russian perspective given the heroic status President Zelensky has achieved in many quarters since the start of the war. Short of demanding the annexation of Ukraine or squeezing astronomical levels of war reparations from that country in the event of victory, it is hard to imagine the conditions under which the Russian government would be able to move the country to the general mobilisation without which it seems it will be impossible for Russia to achieve these ambitious war aims. Whilst both these aims could be achieved at great cost in the near to medium term by forcing Ukraine to accept a one-sided peace treaty or abide by the terms of a sham mediation process for example, neither of these outcomes is likely to inspire goodwill toward Russia among its neighbours or persuade them to reverse plans to ostracise Russia politically and economically. If so, the only outcomes Russia is likely to achieve are ones that are unfavourable to its long-term geopolitical position like the stoking of dangerous nationalisms in neighbouring countries and fostering of greater European unity of purpose. Coupled with the erosion of commercial and social ties between Europe and Russia due to sanctions and the innovation that will be spurred by Europeans’ desire to wean themselves off Russian energy exports, it is fairly reasonable to presume that Russia will grow increasingly estranged from her immediate neighbours and their allies. One does not have to be a great military strategist to grasp that victory on these terms would make Russia less not more secure, both militarily and economically. Since a surfeit of reports and informed analyses cite Russian fears of encirclement as the root of the current conflict, it will only be a matter of time before the next great conflagration engulfs Europe.
This scenario can be prevented should President Putin and the Russian leadership be convinced to compromise on their country’s immediate war aims and rethink the nature of the long-term relations they hope to cultivate with their neighbours and their allies farther West before making any decisions on how to prosecute the war. Doing so requires leaders to be willing to seek and explore alternate outcomes that would be acceptable in that they would enable Russia to backtrack on its initial aims without losing face among supporters or in the eyes of the international community. Anecdotal evidence with all the error this entails and the increasing number of media reports that the state is beginning to crack down hard on dissent suggests that this exercise will not be easily tolerated by President Putin or members of his inner circle. As a result, any ideas about acceptable compromises that could be up put up for consideration would have to emerge from within the Russian elite. For this to happen, insiders and high-ranked officials would have to exhibit a degree of bravery far greater than that they have hitherto displayed.
By portraying itself as a loyal, albeit silent partner, South Africa may serve to embolden would-be dissidents in the inner circle by providing a bolthole for those who will lose the battle of ideas that will eventually break out within the Russian camp. South Africa makes the perfect choice for Russian patriots who may wish to stray from the orthodox script but are loathe to betray their country’s legitimate long-term interests. Besides, exile in sunny Cape Town or the leafier northern suburbs in Johannesburg is likely to present a much more appealing prospect than bunkering down in fear of being poisoned in a grey Yorkshire hamlet. Affording Russian insiders this option also opens the possibility of South Africa providing a back-channel via which Western and Russian stakeholders can communicate. Fortunately, this should not be too difficult to arrange given the number of senior South African figures who go there to coalesce.
Only South Africa is able to fulfil this role in international affairs. Whilst BRICS allies India and China appear to have more in common with large and fellow ancient civilisational power Russia, superficially at least, they can be discounted from fulfilling this role given the delicate balance which Russia strives to strike between these two aspiring Great Powers. It is also difficult to see how Russia, a traditionally strong land-based military power with a shrinking population and a moribund economy that is only a fraction of the size of these other two powers’ economies and is highly dependent on commodities exports, would accept these allies acting in this capacity for fear that disunity among Russian elites might be interpreted as weakness and harm perceptions of their stature in these countries. Neither can the Russians trust Brazil, an erratic ally that seems to oscillate between orientation towards the West and the new BRICS configuration, to play this role. For similar reasons, neither will President Macron of France or President Erdogan of Turkey be fully trusted to act as a go-between for all their eagerness to boost their profile on the global stage, not to mention their electoral chances back home. One exception might be former German Chancellor Merkel. American fears of greater German-Russian rapprochement, however, and the consummation of the marriage between German technology and Russian natural resources will probably block her from being tasked with performing this task for which she seems eminently capable. This leaves South Africa as the only party outside of the UN that could possibly fulfil this role or at least so it would seem from the Russian perspective. Tentatively, Ukrainians might share a similar view to their Russian counterparts on this. With little to fear from South Africa directly, unlike allies such as Belarus and Kazakhstan for instance which have seen fit to provide materiel aid to Russia, there is little reason to assume that Ukraine would object to South Africa taking on a facilitatory role.
It is also practical for President Ramaphosa to avoid expressing views that could be perceived as being too supportive of either side lest South Africa risk being drawn into this conflict, diplomatically for now but possibly militarily in future given the widening of the front to the economic and sociopolitical domains and the determined efforts that belligerent nations are making to recruit foreign allies. The main reason he would choose to act so cautiously is because he is unlikely to be able to devote sufficient time and energy to playing the active role in resolving this conflict or influencing its outcome in ways that detractors demand he should. Given the urgent domestic factors he will have to attend to, like navigating the growing differences between the various factions within the ruling party to which he belongs and softening the blow which the economic fallout associated with the war will deal South Africa’s post-pandemic recovery, it does not appear feasible for the president to play a more active diplomatic role in mediating this conflict. Moreover, with the ruling party’s elective conference looming at the end of the year and some stiff internal political challenges surely ahead as he attempts to act on the long-anticipated findings of the judicial commission into corruption, he may deduce that the prudent course for his administration to take would be to steer clear of high-profile foreign policy ventures where the prospects of success appear low and hence the risk of political backlash domestically are high. As such, or so the astute political operator might rationalise, it would be far safer to devote greater attention and resources to this foreign-policy affair only after seeing off any potential challenges to their leadership and consolidating their grip on power. This is not to suggest President Ramaphosa will, or should, ignore his humanitarian instincts to stop the bloodshed in Ukraine by heeding reported calls to mediate the conflict for example. Far from it. Rather, it means not being surprised if he opts instead to play a safer hand in conflict resolution by restricting his involvement to consistently making statements denouncing human rights violations or calling for the negotiation of a UN-brokered ceasefire.
Maintaining this non-committal anti-war policy while assiduously avoiding being perceived as being anti-Russian or indifferent to Ukrainian suffering is likely to become extremely difficult, especially if the Russian War Machine steps into higher gear in response to stiffer than expected Ukrainian resistance. It might even become untenable once South Africans become fully aware of the awkward choices that would have to be made to see this policy through and are apprised of the additional costs the country will have to bear as a consequence thereof over and above the anticipated harsh criticism the government will receive internationally. Additional costs range from the cost of hosting individuals whose reputations may be far from exemplary to providing the blanket layers of security that are somehow always necessary whenever oligarchs are around. Included therein are the opportunity costs of politicians having to forgo the ‘incentives’ that will invariably be offered to sway domestic policies in matters of energy policy for example. Bearing these costs will test the resolve of the most ardent of government critics, those now protesting that the South African government is not doing enough to promote peace probably the most.
Yet if we South Africans are sincere about desiring an end to current hostilities and defusing underlying long-term tensions in future, we would embrace our president’s limp policy position on the conflict in Ukraine and be prepared to endure the condemnation this will draw from international friends and foes alike along with the unhappiness this policy will evoke amongst members of certain vocal local groups. Given the size and nature of our trade relations with Russia and Ukraine and our global diplomatic stature, calling upon government to do anything else is nothing more than political theatre aimed at a domestic audience and an attempt to reduce our foreign policy to an exercise in virtue signalling where the supposed choice is between demonstrating fealty to our allies or feigning sympathy with an ‘underdog’.
* Gerard Boyce is an economist and Senior Lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Howard College) in Durban, South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.