Any conflict between America and Russia over Ukraine will have a global impact, even on South Africa

Any conflict between America and Russia over Ukraine will have a global impact, even on South Africa
A frame grab taken from a handout video made available by the Russian Defence Ministry Press Service shows a Russian navy ship preparing to take part in exercises in the Black Sea, in Sevastopol, Crimea, 26 January 2022 (issued 27 January 2022). More than 20 ships from Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet took part in the exercises in the Black Sea. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Russian Defence Ministry Press Service Handout)

The other day, the US Secretary of State responded to Russian positions on Ukraine, setting out a soft cop/hard cop agenda on the volatile issue.

Recently, in Inside Vladimir Putin’s head — what it may mean for Ukraine and everybody else, Daily Maverick sketched much of the historical background to the current question of the Ukraine/Russia conflict. 

In that same article, we pointed to the psychological background of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s obsession over reasserting a degree of control over Ukraine, despite that nation’s independence since the breakup of the old Soviet Union.

So far, tensions have increased, not lessened, as intense diplomatic activity continues behind the scenes.

russia putin ukraine america nato

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery in St Petersburg on 27 January 2022 to mark the 78th anniversary of the lifting of the Leningrad siege in World War 2 . (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aleksey Nikolskyi / Sputnik / Kremlin Pool)

These tensions are mostly being fuelled by the stationing of about 100,000 mechanised Russian assault troops at the border between the two nations, and by nicely timed, suddenly announced joint military exercises between Russia and Belarus. The latter is already closely aligned with Russia’s position on Ukraine, so this run of exercises should not be much of a shock.

Over the past few weeks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and several of his colleagues seem to have been rather ubiquitous on the global news and cable channels, and not just on Russia’s own television network, RT, although comments emanating directly from Putin have been relatively scarce. 

They have been articulating a version of the story that paints Russia as the soul of probity and reason with carefully modulated positions, in contrast to the impertinence of the Ukrainians, as well as the aggressiveness and not-so-latent hostility of Nato, the West generally, and, of course, the United States towards Russia. 

In reply, for the most part, the West and Russia have been kept on the collective back foot, forced to respond to a Russian depiction of the shape of the dispute. 

On Wednesday, 26 January, American Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg attempted to turn things around with their own media blitz, aimed at advancing their case and tidying up various (and occasionally somewhat confusing) comments by US President Joe Biden. 

Blinken (and Stoltenberg’s comments) have come in addition to formal written comments in response to Russian demands. Those demands principally included a formal undertaking that Ukraine would not join Nato (or the EU for that matter); that future Nato member troops would not be assigned to the Baltic states near Russia, and that what they termed “offensive” weapons would not be positioned in the eastern-most reaches of any current Nato member states.

The Western response was delivered by letter to the Russian government on Wednesday, and while Blinken declined to release the specifics, the general outline was clear. 

There would be no strong-arming of Ukrainians to give away more territory or draw down on their sovereignty to make the Russians feel better, and to come one step closer to Vladimir Putin’s dream of reuniting the old Soviet Union. Blinken said his statement offered “a serious diplomatic path forward, should Russia choose it”.

“The document we’ve delivered includes concerns of the United States and our allies and partners about Russia’s actions that undermine security, a principled and pragmatic evaluation of the concerns that Russia has raised, and our own proposals for areas where we may be able to find common ground.” 

Observers can see in Blinken’s statement an effort to move the Ukraine/Russia contretemps away from direct confrontation between the two nations and on to consideration of a much more general security discussion for Europe in the post-post-Cold War world.

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A Ukrainian serviceman on a frontline near the Avdiivka village, not far from the city of Donetsk, Ukraine — controlled by pro-Russian militants — on 25 January 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Stanislav Kozliuk)

“We make it clear that there are core principles that we are committed to uphold and defend — including Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and the right of states to choose their own security arrangements and alliances.

“We’ve addressed the possibility of reciprocal transparency measures regarding force posture in Ukraine, as well as measures to increase confidence regarding military exercises and manoeuvres in Europe.

“And we address other areas where we see potential for progress, including arms control related to missiles in Europe, our interest in a follow-on agreement to the New START treaty that covers all nuclear weapons, and ways to increase transparency and stability.

“We’ve put these ideas forward because they have the potential — if negotiated in good faith — to enhance our security and that of our allies and partners while also addressing Russia’s stated concerns through reciprocal commitments.

“Our response to Russia reflects what I said in Kyiv, Berlin and Geneva last week. We’re open to dialogue, we prefer diplomacy, and we’re prepared to move forward where there is the possibility of communication and cooperation if Russia de-escalates its aggression toward Ukraine, stops the inflammatory rhetoric, and approaches discussions about the future of security in Europe in a spirit of reciprocity.

“Additionally, Nato developed and will deliver to Moscow its own paper with ideas and concerns about collective security in Europe — and that paper fully reinforces ours, and vice versa. There is no daylight among the United States and our allies and partners on these matters.”

That, of course, was the well-modulated, oh-so-diplomatic “good cop, play nice” language. The “bad cop, or else” language came through in the second half of Blinken’s statement. 

For that, Blinken summarised the inventory of military measures being ratcheted upward in the face of Russian moves with its troops. 

“Three deliveries of US defensive military assistance arrived in Kyiv this week, carrying additional Javelin missiles and other anti-armour systems, 283 tons of ammunition and non-lethal equipment essential to Ukraine’s front-line defenders. More deliveries are expected in the days to come. 

“We have provided more defensive security assistance to Ukraine in the past year than in any previous year. Last week, I authorised US allies — including Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — to provide US-origin military equipment from their inventories for use by Ukraine.”

Blinken said a number of military-style helicopters are being transferred from US inventories to Ukraine, and that 8,500 US military personnel, already stationed in Europe or the US, are now on heightened readiness, as well as noting that other Nato allies are also taking related steps. 

Moreover, the US is coordinating with Nato allies on potential, severe economic sanctions and/or export controls towards Moscow. 

While it was not part of Blinken’s statement, there were coordinated announcements in Washington about the release of petroleum from the national strategic stockpile to militate against the effects of sudden price surges in fuels. 

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A Ukrainian serviceman and a cat shelter on a frontline near the Avdiivka village, not far from the city of Donetsk, Ukraine, on 25 January 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Stanislav Kozliuk)

This might happen down the road if Russia elected to shut off its flow of natural gas and petroleum to western European nations — or if circumstances interrupted that supply for other reasons, such as a cancellation of deliveries via the almost operational Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia as part of economic measures enacted against that country. Just how the Germans might react to such a decision, once the pipeline is operational, is still up in the air.

Clouding the atmosphere in the US are perverse, even bizarre, attacks on American support of Ukraine by a portion of the Republican Party and from Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, who have instead been throwing their support behind Russia — as if to say that the US should be lining up behind the Russian bear and effectively tossing Ukraine overboard on the theory that Eastern Europe, along with some of the former Soviet states, is part of Russia’s natural sphere of influence. Lining up Carlson’s and Lavrov’s statements provides a particularly awkward similarity.

We are entering a profoundly uncertain time with regard to a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine. One of the biggest uncertainties is in how united Americans will be behind any potential response. 

As Aaron Blake reported in the Washington Post on 26 January, some prominent voices on the right — particularly the likes of Tucker Carlson, but also some of the more extreme members of the House GOP conference — are pushing the idea that the United States basically has no business getting involved in Ukraine, militarily or otherwise. 

“This follows on years of portions of the right, including Donald Trump, building up Vladimir Putin and effectively rationalizing his actions and territorial ambitions,” writes Blake.

“Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) has now offered a striking anecdote to the Washington Post’s Ashley Parker and Marianna Sotomayor:

“Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), an Air Force veteran, said he recently ‘unleashed hell’ in a text message chain with fellow Republicans serving on the House Foreign Affairs Committee after a colleague shared an article about the United States approving the dispatch of Javelin missiles from the Baltic to Ukraine and asked, ‘Why is Biden being allowed to provoke Russia?’

“Surprised that a Republican would not support mobilizing to protect a fellow democratic nation, Kinzinger said he pushed back. ‘I think the vast majority of Republicans would certainly support Ukraine, but there is a very loud minority’ who do not, he said.

“Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) has also reported an uptick in calls to his office echoing the sympathetic view of Russia’s actions promoted on Carlson’s show.”

Meanwhile, a different group of Republican congressmen have chosen to attack the Biden administration for not being harsh enough towards Russia.

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Ukrainian servicemen check the situation at positions near Avdiivka village, near the city of Donetsk, Ukraine, on 25 January 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Stanislav Kozliuk)

These kinds of things may serve to undermine any sense of unity among Americans on foreign policy (even if there is clearly no intention of sending American troops to confront Russian ones) and thus also undermine efforts to keep all Nato members onside, rather than somehow providing any kind of “aid and comfort” to Vladimir Putin’s position. 

By contrast, it is likely that Putin does not have to put up with much dissension in his Duma — unless he actually orders an attack on Ukraine and the military campaign “goes south” on them. But for Biden, of course, keeping any sense of unanimity of purpose among US allies becomes that much more complex if an articulated policy is constantly being sniped at by Republicans from two directions simultaneously.

At this point, pretty much everybody is awaiting the Russian response to the letter and public statement from Tony Blinken to see where things go next. 

While this whole question is a long way from South Africa, any roiling of the global price of petroleum can have serious effects. And any sense of greater tension, let alone the possibility of actual conflict, will have, as it usually does, significant repercussions on currency exchange rates among middle income/emerging market countries like SA. 

Together, those two outcomes will affect pretty much everyone in the country, regardless of their view of Russia or Ukraine. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    South Africa abstained from the UN General Assembly resolution on the territorial integrity of the Ukraine on March 27th 2014 post the Crimean invasion by Russia, which resolution was passed with a 100 majority. This despite the stance previously by South Africa on the inviolability of state borders. But membership of BRICS seems to be high on the RSA priority list – and to hell with what is right and wrong.
    By the time that RSA issued a plea for diplomatic resolution of the Crimean occupation, the situation on the ground had changed irretrievably – Crimea had been incorporated into Russia and eastern Ukraine was under threat from Russian backed insurgents. A negotiated political settlement was not possible, and our plea was pathetic.
    Any guesses what will happen this time around? Whose borders do you think Gwede Mantashe will feel are inviolable? Especially since he and his colleagues have an unpaid debt to Russia over the “postponement” (let’s say) of the nuclear program?

  • Rob Wilson says:

    Ukraine has a complex history, and it has by no means always been unified. Much like Poland, it has been a battle ground between east and west many times. Having worked in Ukraine in the 2003-2007 period, I noticed a massive pro-Russian sentiment in the east of the country (where the border troubles are now) and the pro-western sentiment in the west-particularly around the capital Kyiv. In Kyiv, western standards prevailed. In the east, not so much. One wonders whether division is not on the cards.

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