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US President Joe Biden. Picture: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS
US President Joe Biden. Picture: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

The SA government has been criticised for not taking a hardline stance against Russia in the ongoing conflict between it and Ukraine. This stance is informed by the idea that only Russia is in the wrong and has no justification in feeling wronged and threatened.

But nothing in life is clear-cut, particularly in foreign relations and geopolitics, where grey is the official colour and the inability to see nuance leads to the trap of believing you’re either with us or against us.

Let us be clear: Russia’s adventurism into Ukraine is wrong. It violates international law, and it may well result in the deaths of thousands of innocents and millions more being displaced. There will be enormous infrastructure damage and economic fallout. The effects of this conflict will be felt for many years to come.

But none of this means we should not confront the double standard in how the international system works. Since the end of World War 2 the US has determined what is presented as wrong and right in the international system, and has acted unilaterally or with its allies to enforce its version of how the world should be.

Just as Russia’s entry into Ukraine is wrong and needs to be condemned, so too should the US incursions into Korea, China, Congo, Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and many others.

This is not whataboutism. It is a statement of fact and a lesson in history. One of the enduring failures of humanity, a failure made worse in a technologically advanced world where the scale and speed of flow of information is seldom matched with depth, is to forget history.  However,George Santayana’s words, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, are as true today as when he wrote them in 1902.

We continue to behave as if the past is done, but history lives with us — its consequences are all around us. Russia traces its roots to the second millennium BCE. It has a long memory, a strong sense of nationhood and national pride runs deep. Civilisations such as Russia have an immense sense of honour and feel wrongs deeply. The West’s reneging on concessions made at the end of the cold war left Moscow feeling betrayed. The issue of Nato expansion into the former Soviet republics has been contentious and has been raised by Russian leaders since 1991.

President Vladimir Putin has been talking about this since the Munich Security Conference of 2007 — “I don’t want to suspect anyone of aggressiveness ... (but) why do you need to move your military infrastructure to our borders?” The West has consistently dismissed Russia’s concerns, saying the missile shield erected in Poland and Romania is defensive and does not threaten anyone.

The West’s and especially the US’s interest in the Ukraine is not merely to protect the Ukrainian people. This is about protecting US interests and influence. This is about trying to prevent the galloping reconfiguration of the international system that is being led by an ascendant China and a Russia that wants to reclaim its lost empire.

Having tried in vain to talk to the West, there was a significant risk that Putin would take the steps he’s taken. He feels he has been betrayed, disrespected, and treated as unimportant. Moreover, he believes he has been shown that international law is only applied to some, while those who hold power do as they please. It has been clear since Putin extended the length of his term in office that he believed he had a job to do and a mission to accomplish.

The Russia-Ukraine crisis is also about the battle for supremacy and an attempt to upend the status quo. The Donald Trump years tested Western alliances and strained relations between the US and Europe. More than a year since Joe Biden took office the US remains divided along party lines. The politicisation of responses to Covid further complicated the wins he initially secured. That, together with rising inflation, have led to him having some of the lowest approval ratings in living memory.

Not only is Biden fighting divisions within his own party, but he is working to ensure the Democrats hold on to Congress in 2022. This is complicated by Trump’s refusal to leave the political stage and his continued stirring and pushing of Republicans further and further towards extremism. All these internal issues have been distractions and have made Biden appear weak to his foreign foes. The US’s foreign policy outlook has not been robust apart from an increasingly belligerent focus on China.

In the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been fighting for survival amid his many scandals. In France, President Emmanuel Macron has faced growing resistance over his Covid regulations as he fights for a second term in office. Germany has a new chancellor after 16 years of Angela Merkel. And of course, Ukraine’s president is a former actor and comedian.

All this must have made it seem to Putin that there was no better time to launch his campaign of rebuilding Mother Russia and reshaping the geopolitical configuration. Also, Covid must have given him pause and the chance to look his mortality in the face. He may have thought that acting now would give him time to reconstruct and put together that which he would first have to destroy.

Furthermore, Russia knows it is not alone in its ambition to dethrone the US at the helm of world affairs. Russia has a powerful ally in China. China will understand why the encroachment of Nato is seen by Russia as a major slight, given that it is grappling with similar issues with the US in the South China Sea. Moreover, the US has for years been engaged in a battle of wills with China, with the US doing everything in its power, bar war, to contain China and ensure it does not achieve economic and political supremacy over it. Whether China would physically join Russia in the ongoing conflict seems highly unlikely though, given its long-standing policy of non-intervention.

The US and the West are disingenuous for behaving as if Russia has no reason to feel concerned and threatened. The Bay of Pigs is instructive in this regard. On foreign issues Putin is a realist and acts in a Machiavellian way — he is clear, ruthless, unapologetic and determined to protect and pursue what he perceives to be Russian interests, at whatever cost. The US’s hegemonic stability is being threatened by Russia and China, and by arming Ukraine it is engaging in another proxy war where Ukraine does its dirty work. Ukraine, for its part, is also pushed by self-interest and is now using the conflict to further its goal of getting into Nato.

Pretoria should not be compelled to denounce Russia for the sake of getting on the bandwagon when a lot of the countries now imposing sanctions on Russia never imposed sanctions on the US and its allies, even when there was proof that the “weapons of mass destruction” used as a pretext for invading Iraq never actually existed. No-one was brought to book for the destruction of Iraq and the millions of lives that were shattered. Libya has been destroyed and countless people killed due to the West’s imposition of a “no fly zone” and the killing of Muammar Gaddafi, yet no state has been held accountable for that or had sanctions imposed on them.

We must be interrogative and not accept as fact what is being said simply because it comes from a source we like or identify with. There are no innocent parties in this conflict — not Russia, Ukraine, the US or EU. It is dangerous to live in a world with only one narrative.

• Hlela is a researcher for the SA office of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, a Global South think-tank

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