WAR IN EUROPE
Pretoria calls on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine
After initially calling on both sides to exercise restraint, South Africa has taken a strong stance against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, urging it to withdraw its forces.
The South African government has surprised the international community by calling on Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine. Before that, Pretoria had remained silent on the crisis in Ukraine or had adopted an even-handed approach, calling on both sides to seek a peaceful, diplomatic solution to their dispute — as though Russia and Ukraine were equal culprits in the conflict.
But on Thursday, after Russian troops rolled across the Ukrainian border, Pretoria issued a statement much closer to what many had demanded.
“South Africa calls on Russia to immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine in line with the United Nations 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,” the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) said.
Pretoria said Russia should withdraw from Ukraine out of “respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states”.
Ukraine’s ambassador to South Africa, Liubov Abravitova, welcomed this Dirco statement as a “strong message to Russia”. She had expressed dismay about the previous Dirco statement on Wednesday which had called on both sides to exercise restraint and pursue dialogue.
South Africa had until Thursday been constrained by its joint membership with Russia in the BRICS Forum, its strong bilateral relations with Russia and its suspicions about Nato expanding its powers in Europe.
At a press conference on Thursday, Abravitova called on Pretoria and other countries to join the G7 and European Union in imposing severe sanctions on Russia in retaliation for its invasion of Ukraine.
Asked if she had tried to contact her Russian counterpart in South Africa, Ilya Rogachev, she said she had not because she had nothing to say to him.
“Their hands are in my people’s blood,” she said, expressing concerns about her relatives in Odessa, the southern Ukrainian port city which was among the targets of Russia’s attack.
The EU and G7 organisations were due to meet late on Thursday to decide on what was expected to be a tough package of measures against Russia, including many directed at the country’s leadership. Some Western governments are calling for Russia to be completely cut off from the international financial system. One diplomat told Daily Maverick that although it was a major military power, Russia was economically weak, with an economy no larger than Spain’s.
“If we cut them off from global finance, it won’t bring change to Ukraine now but it will eventually bring down the Russian regime.”
French officials briefing journalists in Paris said the sanctions could also include measures directed personally at Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is believed to have vast assets abroad.
However, it was not clear that EU countries were united in seeking such tough measures, which would also have a blowback effect on the European and Western economies.
Western governments also expressed concern that China might seize Taiwan while the world is distracted by the conflict in Ukraine.
Dirco’s strong statement said: “South Africa is dismayed at the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. We regret that the situation has deteriorated despite calls for diplomacy to prevail.
“Armed conflict will no doubt result in human suffering and destruction, the effects of which will not only affect Ukraine but also reverberate across the world.
“No country is immune to the effects of this conflict,” Dirco said, endorsing UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ concern that the invasion would have a huge impact on the global economy — particularly developing countries — just as the world was emerging from the Covid pandemic.
It added that as a nation “birthed through negotiation”, South Africa appreciated the potential for dialogue to avert or de-escalate crises.
“South Africa urges all parties to devote increased efforts to diplomacy and to find a solution that will help avert further escalation.”
Pretoria implicitly also deferred to Russia’s demand that the West should not extend the frontiers of Nato up to Russia’s border, calling on all parties “to resume diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the concerns raised by Russia”.
The statement also called on all parties to respect human rights and international and humanitarian law, to pursue regional peace initiatives such as the Minsk Agreements, and those of the Normandy Format, the Trilateral Contact Group and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It urged the UN Security Council to play its role in the search for peace.
In Paris, the French government defended the continuing resort to sanctions on Russia, despite the apparent failure of the sanctions imposed by Western nations after Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
French officials said the earlier sanctions had for some time succeeded in changing the way Moscow behaved. “Right now, clearly that’s not enough,” said one French official regarding the invasion.
Nevertheless, he said, tougher sanctions could deter Russia from further military actions beyond Ukraine. “It’s a deterrent on what’s happening next,” he added.
The point of the sanctions would be to deter Putin from proceeding from Ukraine to attack neighbouring countries which were members of Nato.
“You can agree or disagree with this, but quite early in the discussion the US and Nato have made clear Ukraine is not an ally, so therefore there is not the same kind of security degree as towards Nato allies,” the French official continued.
“It is important to make clear that the Nato alliance is a big difference. And our assessment is that there is no temptation in the Kremlin towards further military operations towards the Nato alliance because the alliance is much more credible now than it was before.”
The deterrence against attacks on Nato included not only tougher sanctions, but also the reinforcement by Nato of its forces in Nato countries bordering Russia, he said.
Daily Maverick sought comment from the Russian embassy in Pretoria, which had not responded at the time of writing. DM