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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at an event at the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Russia, on April 12 2023. Picture: SERGEI KARPUKHIN/POOL via REUTERS
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at an event at the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Russia, on April 12 2023. Picture: SERGEI KARPUKHIN/POOL via REUTERS

I vividly recall the pride I felt when Nelson Mandela excoriated George W Bush after the invasion of Iraq. “What I am condemning,” thundered Mandela, “is that one power, with a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust”.

This was not the carefully calculated response of a mere national political leader. This was a cri de coeur from a great humanitarian. Mandela couched the political content of his opposition to the invasion in terms of the disregard it so clearly demonstrated for the UN.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, in another flagrant violation of the UN Charter, I hoped for a response along the same lines, perhaps not resonant with the moral authority of Mandela, but equally respectful of the UN.

That is initially what we got. The department of international relations & co-operation’s statement called on Russia “to immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine in line with the UN Charter, which enjoins all member states to settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered”.  

But this stance was immediately qualified. SA has joined a number of other nations in withdrawing to the fence. While still calling for the cessation of hostilities, it has abstained from two resolutions of the General Assembly condemning the invasion and demanding the withdrawal of the invading Russian forces.

Subsequent joint military manoeuvres, a Russian ship’s secret night docking in Simon’s Town and a scheduled meeting between an ANC delegation and Putin’s United Russia Party demonstrate that while SA may be on the fence, it leans heavily in Russia’s direction.

The abrupt change in SA’s position has never been clarified, though several explanations have been posited. These range from the tawdry (financial support from Russian oligarchs to the cash-strapped ANC) to the hubristic (future participation in mediating between the warring parties); from diplomatic awkwardness (with Brazil, India and China abstaining, it would have been difficult for SA to be the only Brics member condemning the action of their Russian partner), to the sentimental (the Soviet Union’s support for the ANC during the liberation struggle, albeit that the Soviet Union no longer exists and Ukraine was the second-largest Soviet republic).

However, the rationalisation of the abstainers’ position that intrigues me is that rooted in great power politics. The argument goes like this: the eastward expansion of Nato after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact already threatens Russia’s vital security interests. By contemplating Ukrainian membership of the EU and Nato, Russia’s security interests are further threatened. It was accordingly left with no alternative to military intervention. Proof of the threat to Russia’s security interests posed by Ukraine drawing closer to the West is the US’s resolute political and material support for Ukraine.

And so, the argument goes, this has become — indeed always was — a big power conflict with the US and its EU and Nato satraps pitted against Russia, the other great power. But since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and with it the Soviet Union, there has been only one great power: the US. And so this war has become an instance of a former great power, Russia, attempting to rebuild its power, enabling it to recreate a multipolar world with itself at the top of one pole.

These arguments are easily dismissed. The Berlin Wall was not dismantled by the West but by the people of the east, oppressed by decades of Soviet rule, a union comprehensively dominated by Russia. Several Warsaw Pact countries had famously attempted on previous occasions to escape the dead hand of Russian domination, attempts brutally put down by the Russian military.

Nor were the liberated countries of Eastern Europe or the former Soviet republics dragged kicking and screaming into the EU and Nato. Quite the contrary, they viewed membership of these institutions as vital routes to economic prosperity and as guarantors of their independence and sovereignty. Russia was the source of the perceived threats, and the invasion of Ukraine has vindicated their neighbours’ concerns a million times over.

The irony, of course is that the invasion has driven Finland, and soon Sweden, two of Europe’s most competent military powers, into Nato. The fact is that Russia’s national security interests are guaranteed by its nuclear arsenal. The threat of the Balkanisation of Russia — a threat regularly referenced by Putin and Russia’s supporters — emanates not from Nato but from internal regional dissatisfaction at Russian domination of the ethnically, spiritually and culturally diverse country. Vide Chechnya.

Any pretence that Russia may have had to great power status has been eliminated by the Ukraine war. It is diplomatically weak; it is beset by glaring governance shortcomings characteristic of autocratic regimes; its armed forces have proved to be incompetent, demoralised and corrupt; Russia’s natural resource-dependent economy is smaller than that of Italy, Canada or South Korea, and declining.

Russia’s quixotic, imperialistic effort to reconstitute its Eurasian empire has failed. Far from a great power, Russia is simply a petrostate with nuclear weapons, highly and increasingly dependent on its neighbour China. This war confirms China as the only possible counterweight to the US’s global power. It is already a great economic power, though its economic stability and future is threatened by several gross imbalances and unstable sectors. It appears politically stable, but who knows — my sense is that the critics of President Jinping Xi’s apparent centralisation of power underestimate the degree of effective decentralisation of decision-making power to cities, provinces and enterprises. It is militarily powerful.

But do we really want to return to a bipolar world order, this time dominated by the US and China? Did 50 years of Cold War not teach us that a world, the stability of which is rooted in the nuclear power of its leading countries, is a tension-ridden affair? Nor is a bipolar world free of armed conflict — while the nuclear deterrent may have averted war between the principal adversaries in the Cold War, it encouraged vicious proxy wars in the rest of the world. Nor does China’s conduct in the developing world suggest it is any less imperialistic than the US.

Rather imagine a world in which both great powers — the US and China — are constrained by a nonaligned movement comprising the rest of the world. French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent suggestion that Europe distance itself from the US’s aggressive stance towards China’s rise is a helpful pointer in this direction.

Concrete steps in the realisation of this objective should start with the reform of the UN. Can’t we envisage a UN where the power of the General Assembly is strengthened relative to that of the Security Council; where veto powers on the Security Council are eliminated or, at least, drastically curtailed by requiring any country to recuse itself from decisions that directly affect its interests?

Can’t we envisage a world where we aren’t confronted by the unedifying spectacle of an International Criminal Court whose powers may be invoked by a country that has not subjected itself to its jurisdiction? And could Nato not be placed under the command of a single global authority and used as a global peacekeeping force?

Pope Francis’s persistent plea — “do not be afraid to dream great things” — resonates strongly in these troubled times.

• Lewis, a former trade unionist, academic, policymaker, regulator and company board member, was a co-founder and director of Corruption Watch.

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