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Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: REUTERS/SPUTNIK
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: REUTERS/SPUTNIK

It’s no great surprise that SA’s ruling party has shown all the backbone of an eel in its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

First there was the ANC statement issued on Sunday, while shells were raining down on the cities of Ukraine. It was predictably incomprehensible, carefully avoiding any reference to “sovereignty”, “territorial integrity” or “aggression”, and calling instead for such delights as “conglomerating around a negotiating table”.

The government’s position at the UN General Assembly on Tuesday was similarly anodyne, paying lip service to the mounting civilian casualties, providing a potted history of the UN, and calling for a “diplomatic solution to address security concerns of the parties”.

It was an exercise in cherry-picking, flagging some provisions in the UN Charter while ignoring Article 2 in its entirety. You know, the part about “refrain[ing] from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”. It studiously avoided any mention of Russia’s aggression, leaving the impression, instead, that the invasion arose from some valid grievance that needs to be addressed.

By far the most putrid, though, was the statement from Mathu Joyini, our ambassador to the UN, explaining SA’s abstention from a General Assembly resolution condemning the invasion.

Here the good ambassador finally acknowledged the importance of sovereignty and territorial integrity – while justifying utter inaction in support of these principles. The hypocrisy of proclaiming the need for the UN “to take decisions and actions that will lead to a constructive outcome” while doing nothing to support those very decisions and actions is breathtaking. To blindly insist the Security Council must “play its role” is astoundingly naive, given how obviously hog-tied it is by Russia’s veto.

Most offensive, however, is the disingenuity of claiming SA abstained from voting because the resolution didn’t do enough to offer support or make recommendations for the parties to reach a compromise, de-escalate tensions, cease hostilities, and build trust and confidence.

Only, the resolution very clearly derives from the prescripts of both the UN Charter and the Declaration of Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation Among States, both of which highlight the importance of settling disputes by peaceful means – specifically, by negotiation, inquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration and the like. The text of the resolution itself expressly calls for political dialogue, negotiations, mediation and resolution through other peaceful means.

We didn’t abstain from voting because the resolution didn’t do enough to encourage negotiations. We abstained because we’re a minor power in Vladimir Putin’s pocket.

So much for the protection of innocents and the safeguarding of human rights.

Champagne socialism

Of course, we should have expected as much from our political masters. Particularly after it came to light that defence minister Thandi Modise found herself at a soiree hosted by Ilya Rogachev, Russia’s ambassador to SA, on February 24.

The event was marking Russia’s Defender of the Fatherland Day on February 23 – an annual celebration of the country’s armed forces. The festivities traditionally involve parades and processions, and women presenting gifts to men. This year they included the invasion of a small neighbouring state, the gift of Russian imperialism.

One can but wonder if Modise saw the irony in it all: while she no doubt sipped cocktails and made small talk over finger food, the tanks of the very army she was toasting were rolling inexorably – and unprovoked – towards the cities of a sovereign state. Talk about the elephant in the room.

I’d like to think she felt at least a twinge of unease about it all – a stab of angst at the hypocrisy. But that’s unlikely, given her unapologetic response to the backlash. In a dashing example of the incoherence we’ve come to expect from the government, Modise’s spokesperson told TimesLive her presence at the event was “integral to defence international affairs, of which the defence establishment has several with many countries”.

She was there, we are told, because she was invited. Apparently it never occurred to her to just say no.

Four days later, as the death toll in Ukraine crept ever higher, other ANC officials attended a cocktail do at the Russian consulate in Cape Town to celebrate 30 years of friendship between the ANC government and the Russian Federation. There, they apparently discussed the “need to seek solutions that would achieve lasting peace”. In the power-crazed worldview of Russian autocrat-in-chief Vladimir Putin, one assumes that means the complete capitulation Ukraine. Welcome to St Putinsburg.

Rules schmules

Let’s take a moment, though, to consider the human cost of this conflict. Just six days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, upwards of 350 civilians have died, more than 2,000 have been injured, and the number of displaced has edged past the million mark.

And it’s not likely to let up. Quoting a senior Western intelligence official, Canada’s Globe & Maill, for example, reports that the conflict is looking to become more deadly, as Russia rolls out more, better-equipped troops, “more long-range artillery, heavier weapons that are not just more destructive in their nature, but, frankly, are also less precise”.

Already there are concerns about what weapons Russia may be using – and how problematic they are for delineating combatants from civilians.

War-watchers, for example, have become concerned by social media posts and reports suggesting Russia’s TOS-1 heavy flamethrower has been deployed to Ukraine. The multiple rocket launcher, mounted on a tank chassis and bearing the cutesy nickname “Buratino” (Russia’s version of Pinocchio), can carry 24 thermobaric warheads – so-called vacuum bombs.

Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the US, claims 70 Ukrainian soldiers were killed by a thermobaric weapon. Now, she didn’t specify where this event took place – and no thermobaric attack has yet been independently verified on Ukrainian soil. But analysts fear it’s just a matter of time before it is used, if it hasn’t already.

Used in cities, thermobaric weapons would extract a heavy and entirely unacceptable civilian cost. “Those near the ignition point [of a thermobaric explosion] are obliterated,” international NGO Human Rights Watch quotes a declassified Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) document as saying. “Those at the fringe are likely to suffer internal, and thus invisible injuries, including burst eardrums and crushed inner-ear organs, severe concussions, ruptured lungs and internal organs, and possibly blindness.”

The concern lies in Putin’s apparent lack of regard for such conventions as the protection of innocents and the laws of war. Despite claims of “precision bombing” of military targets, for example, there’s already increasing evidence suggesting indiscriminate cluster munitions are being used against civilians.

Banned by more than 100 countries, these scatter smaller “bomblets” over a wider area, increasing the potential for casualties and damage. Unexploded remnants remain a threat to civilian populations long after war has passed.

Investigations and verification outfit Bellingcat has located multiple sites where cluster munitions seem to have been used – including at a preschool in Okhtyrka, and at various locations in the second-largest city, Kharkiv. Human Rights Watch claims a cluster munition struck outside a hospital in the town of Vuhledar.

In a sign of indiscriminate shelling, a maternity hospital was reportedly hit when the residential area of the city of Zhytomyr came under attack.

It is stomach-turning to see an indiscriminate attack on a nursery and kindergarten where civilians are seeking safe haven,” Amnesty International’s Agnès Callamard said of the Okhtyrka attack. “Plain and simple, this should be investigated as a war crime.”

It’s all but certain that it will. International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Karim Khan has announced he is launching an investigation into possible war crimes in Ukraine, after an unprecedented 39 referrals from member states.

Given our toadying to Putin, I imagine it’s only a matter of time before our fearless leaders renew their call to withdraw from the ICC.

What a disgrace.

De Villiers is the editor of the FM’s Features section

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