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As his relentless war on Ukraine drags on, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to grow paler by the month.

At his virtual appearances at the Brics summit last week he looked deathly white, like someone rising from the underworld, his eyes emotionless as he spoke of a multipolar world order and other grand ideas. He certainly could have done with some SA sun. And his rhetoric remains as shadowy and Orwellian as before.

In his virtual statement to the Brics Business Forum at the summit on Tuesday, Putin expressed support for grand ideas ranging from sustainable development and industrial modernisation to equitable technology transfers. Ironically, he spoke of “improving citizens’ wellbeing”. But a day is a long time in politics.

By the very next day another one of Putin’s opponents was dead. It is widely believed that Putin had the Russian plane carrying Wagner group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin shot down. Various credible news sources, such as The Guardian in the UK and The Wall Street Journal in the US have reported the incident as an assassination.

Prigozhin’s mercenary group gained prominence for its brutal methods worldwide, not just in Ukraine. This does not change the fact that his killing was most likely a serious violation of international law. Of course, for Putin this is nothing new. He has a long track record of trying to get rid of political opponents. Yet unflinchingly, he expressed his condolences to Prigozhin’s family, describing him as a “talented man”, a sardonic compliment if ever there was one. 

Putin also has a track record of invading sovereign countries and annexing territory — think Georgia and Crimea — which made the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine less surprising than it appeared to many at the time. It also made Putin’s repeated reference to “neocolonialism” during the Brics summit particularly ironic. 

Ironic also were Putin’s references to international law and the principles of the UN Charter in his speech at the summit the day after Prigozhin’s death. The Russian leader has previously distorted terms in international law, for example by describing the 2014 annexation of Crimea as a “humanitarian intervention”. I could not help but wonder what UN secretary-general Antonio Gutierrez, who was present at the summit, was thinking during Putin’s strategic invocation of the UN Charter.

No-one batted an eye about Putin’s latest assassination. It was all rather otherworldly

But Thursday morning, the morning after the latest killing, it was business as usual in the Sandton Convention Centre. President Cyril Ramaphosa was in high spirits as he introduced the Johannesburg 2 Declaration and announced the six new Brics members: Argentina, Ethiopia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran. He even congratulated India on its successful moon landing. No-one batted an eye about Putin’s latest assassination. It was all rather otherworldly.

The Brics world seems to have much space and tolerance for the narratives of dictators. It provides a platform for leaders such as Putin who have diminishing platforms elsewhere. In his address on Tuesday he stated that the Russia-Ukraine war was unleashed by the West and its satellites against the people who live in the Donbas.

Putin made full use of the propagandistic potential of this platform, saying Russia’s actions in Ukraine have only one aim: to end the war unleashed by the West. He said his actions were a forced response by Russia to Kyiv and Washington’s hostility. Since none of the Brics countries has outright condemned Putin’s aggressive invasion of Ukraine, his words seemed to fall on receptive ears.

In a fairly meek response to Putin’s speech, Ramaphosa said Brics members would continue to support efforts to bring the conflict to an end. The Kremlin’s narrative went largely unchallenged. There was also no opportunity for journalists to ask questions at the end of the press conference.

Predictably, Putin used his virtual addresses to attack the US. Increasingly, the raison d’être of Brics seems to be to challenge the common enemy. He praised Brics as a counterbalance to US global hegemony and said it was a “desire to maintain this hegemony that led to the severe crisis in Ukraine”.

In future questions will be asked about everything that has been sacrificed on the altar of anti-Americanism. Continuing his anti-Western tirade, Putin used the opportunity to speak of the “illegitimate sanction practice and illegal freezing of assets of sovereign states”, which in his opinion tramples on all the norms and free trade rules of economic life. 

Tepid soup

Putin spoke of the skyrocketing of food and agricultural product prices and volatility in energy and food markets, but failed to draw any link between this and his war in Ukraine, particularly reneging on the Black Sea Grain Initiative on July 17. This initiative aimed to establish a route for agricultural exports from Ukraine, to help lower global food prices.   

Putin’s summit speeches made for a tepid soup of ironies. If his appearance and policies are anything to go by, the brave new multipolar world he and others wish for will be a scary and dystopian place indeed — if it ever comes into realisation. It will be a world in which one will have to watch one’s back, and where writing an article of this kind would land one in jail or worse.

Judging from the fate of Prigozhin and now-jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, one would certainly need to avoid aircraft. That world might resemble Dr Strangelove meeting The Hunger Games. The thought sends a chill down my spine. 

• Swart is visiting professor at the Wits Law School.

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