Ukraine ambassador urges SA to use ‘diplomatic leverage’ with Russia to push for humanitarian corridors

Ukraine ambassador urges SA to use ‘diplomatic leverage’ with Russia to push for humanitarian corridors
Refugees from Ukraine gather near the Polish-Ukrainian border in Hrebenne, southeastern Poland, on 3 March 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Wojtek Jargilo / Poland Out)

Ukraine’s ambassador to Pretoria says abstention in UN vote on the war was ‘not useful’, but the country can still help — with refugees and influence in Moscow.

South Africa’s abstention from the UN vote condemning Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine has prompted a “dismayed” ambassador Liubov Abravitova to plead for South Africa instead to use its diplomatic leverage with Russia to push for humanitarian corridors.

These would allow civilians to leave safely and supplies to enter.

“The strong voice that South Africa can raise now, not with the UN, but on the bilateral level [with Russia], that can save a lot of lives now,” Ukraine’s ambassador to South Africa told DM168 on Friday, 4 March.

She has not been able to secure any meetings with South African officials on such political matters as yet.

More than a week since Russian tanks first rolled into the territory of its smaller neighbour, more than a million people have fled the former Soviet republic.

Those still in the country “are now without food, electricity, water, stuck to their places of location”, Abravitova said.

She was also concerned about foreigners, including about 16,000 African students, who are in Ukraine, and the country’s ability to get them out.

“We have to really push through your government [South Africa] and to Russians to help open secure corridors to let people out,” said Abravitova.

Ukraine has given preference to women and children wanting to flee the country, whereas men aged 18 to 60 are at the back of the queue.

Abravitova, during a joint media event with the US chargé d’affaires to South Africa Tod Haskell, at his residence in Pretoria on Thursday, expressed dismay and puzzlement at South Africa’s decision to abstain from the vote on a resolution on Russian aggression in the UN General Assembly on Wednesday.

“We consider this approach taken by South Africa as not being useful for the resolution of conflict. We are aware of the reasons that South Africa has given for their stance, but even in that we still find it very alarming,” she said.

On Friday, she pointed to the Russian shelling attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant — the largest in Europe — as an example of the “consequences” of not voting for the UN resolution.

Although it cannot be enforced in any way, supporters of the resolution, such as the US, believe that the 141 votes in favour showed widespread condemnation for Russia’s actions.

Refugees from Ukraine upon arrival at the assistance point organised in the sports hall at a primary school in Lubycza Królewska in Lublin Voivodeship, Poland, on 4 March 2022.  (Photo: EPA-EFE / WOJTEK JARGILO / Poland Out)

Assistant secretary in the bureau of African affairs Molly Phee, during a telephonic press conference this week, said “African voices matter” in the global context because “it is critical at this moment in time that the entire international community demonstrates unity and speaks with one voice against this aggression and in support of principles” such as sovereignty, territorial integrity, peaceful dispute resolution and protection of civilians.

Twenty-eight African member states voted in favour of the resolution, and 25 either actively abstained or did not vote at all. Only Eritrea voted against.

Phee quoted Secretary of State Antony Blinken as noting that, “in some cases, an abstention actually speaks loudly itself, as opposed to a no vote”.

South Africa’s ambassador to the UN, Mathu Joyini, in an explanation of South Africa’s vote, said, despite the country’s concerns about the conflict and its socioeconomic implications, the resolution in question “does not create an environment conducive for diplomacy, dialogue and mediation”.

She said the text as it stood “could drive a deeper wedge between the parties rather than contributing to a resolution of the conflict”.

South Africa wanted the text to include a positive word about the commencement of negotiations between the parties and for more prominence to be given to the role of the UN Security Council as well as the good offices of the UN Secretary-General.

There were efforts to negotiate the text beforehand, diplomats said, but it is unclear to what an extent South Africa was involved.

Joyini said South Africa would have “preferred an open and transparent process to negotiate the resolution”, which would have allowed “all of us, as equal members of the Assembly, to present our views and ideally reach a level of understanding before the text was tabled”.

Ukrainian refugees arrive by bus at the sports hall De Dreef in Waddinxveen, the Netherlands, on 4 March 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Marco de Swart)

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s government has been calling on Nato to declare Ukraine a no-fly zone.

However, this would oblige Nato member countries to go on the offensive and shoot down Russian planes when they transgress the zone.

Blinken on Friday, ahead of a meeting of Nato foreign ministers at its headquarters in Brussels, said the alliance was “defensive” and that they “seek no conflict”, Reuters reported.

Ukraine’s possible membership of Nato is one of the issues that provoked Russia’s “military exercises”, an issue South Africa believes should have been acknowledged in the UN resolution.

In 2011, the declaration of a no-fly zone over Libya ended with the assassination of its leader, Muammar Gaddafi. South Africa was a member of the UN Security Council at the time and voted in favour of the no-fly zone, but afterwards slammed Nato about the outcome.

With no immediate end to the conflict in sight, Abravitova said a number of Ukrainians holidaying or living and working abroad have been stranded.

“They can’t go back any more,” she said. “There must be a process of negotiation with each country on how we can assist.”

She says she did request help from South Africa through diplomatic channels. This included “the possibility of receiving a number of people from Ukraine” who had fled the country.

Some of these would include the families and children of those who are abroad and who might not have passports or documents.

“We met with Dirco [the Department of International Relations and Cooperation] on the level of the desk to discuss the technical issues,” she said, “and also a special visa regime for those who have to join their relatives in South Africa, and the Ukrainians stuck in South Africa.”

But the biggest part of her work so far has been to coordinate safe passage out for the African students in Ukraine.

Abravitova also said she requested a meeting with Defence Minister Thandi Modise at the start of the attacks last week, to ask for help with evacuations and to secure corridors, but she hasn’t received a reply.

Modise’s office could not immediately provide comment, but she told a press conference last week that the defence force had received no requests to help with evacuation.

Such requests are, however, usually channelled through Dirco.

Government officials did not reply to requests for comment at the time of going to press. Modise reportedly attended a Russian embassy function last Thursday, soon after the attacks on Ukraine started. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Craig B says:

    Let Zelensky know of your experiences here, that’s all that I can say so that the international community knows about these situations

  • Ludovici DIVES says:

    International community leaders are well aware of the stance taken by Ramaphosa’s ANC government, the current spotlight on them will further expose their failures and the extent of the corruption within the organisation resulting in continued irreparable damage to the ANC both internationally and domestically
    Ramaphosa just scored an own goal. The cartoons of Ramaphosa with Putin have just become a part of his legacy.
    As sure as this not ending well for Russia the same applies to the ANC.
    The next issue in the news will be Russian owned assets being uncovered in South Africa and how the ANC deal with it.
    The hole just gets deeper from here and the ultimate losers will be the man on the street if the International community decide to punish the countries that have not condemned Russia’s actions

  • Fritz Eckl says:

    When the wall in Berlin came down end of 1989, M.Gorbachev was very much in favour of a united Germany, unlike the UK, and withdrew his troops and agents from East Germany.
    All he was asking for:
    “Please do not extend NATO to the east” and the USA and West Europe agreed!
    I do certainly not agree with PUTINS WAR, and hope that inside Russia, more and more people will stand up to his dictatorship, but again, the WEST has a lot to answer for of what unfolds now and more important, of how to handle TOMORROW and the FUTURE with a guy like PUTIN!!??!!

    • Ludovici DIVES says:

      This is the future, there is no more tomorrow, the world needs to deal with him now.

    • Irene Baumbach says:

      But what about countries wanting to join NATO, or the EU for that matter? Should they be kept out?

    • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

      Why does the west have anything to answer for. Countries should be allowed to choose their own direction without assault.

      Further, despots need to stop kidding themselves. This is no longer a world of countries. It is simply the world – an ecosystem supporting us all; in which we all succeed or we all fail together.

      So, why would Putin resist the will of a sovereign people.
      Why would he not want to be part of NATO and join a broader union of free countries working in harmony for our collective future.

      The answer is simple. He has too much to answer for in his personal capacity. This and only this is what makes the man so dangerous.

  • Shirley P says:

    I would appreciate if anyone can share platforms through which South Africans can put pressure on our government to act! Even if only to mediate and secure safe corridors for refugees to leave Ukraine.

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