South Africa

INTERVIEW WITH US DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE

United States slaps down Ramaphosa’s criticism of Biden’s pre-war Russia diplomacy  

Illustrative image | US President Joe Biden. (Photo: EPA-EFE / JIM LO SCALZO) | Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: Ian MacNicol / Getty Images) | EPA-EFE / DIEGO FEDELE | Erin Trieb / Bloomberg via Getty Images | EPA-EFE / ROMAN PILIPEY | EPA-EFE / SERGEY DOLZHENKO

The US has dismissed President Cyril Ramaphosa’s suggestion that if President Joe Biden had agreed to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin unconditionally days before, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would have been averted.

“The United States left no diplomatic stone unturned,” to avoid war, US deputy secretary of state Brian McKeon insisted in an interview with Daily Maverick this weekend.

He was asked to comment on Ramaphosa’s remark on February 25, the day after the invasion began, that; “Some of us were very disappointed when the meeting between President Biden and President Putin did not happen. 

“Because if that meeting had gone ahead without any conditions, I’m sure we would have avoided the calamitous situation that is unfolding now,” he told journalists then.

McKeon said, in fact, the US had exhausted all diplomatic options.

Puzzling — the ANC government’s priorities during a time of great upheaval

“The President [Biden]  spoke to President Putin several times in the last few months. The Secretary of State [Antony Blinken] spoke to his counterpart foreign minister Lavrov. 

“The National Security Adviser Mr [Jake] Sullivan spoke to his counterpart in the Kremlin several times. We had diplomatic meetings in Europe, both bilaterally and in the Nato context and in the OSCE [Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe].

“We exchanged documents with the Russians both bilaterally and in Nato. There were security issues Russia said it was concerned about, nuclear forces and conventional forces in Europe, which we were prepared to address and speak to. 

“But the territorial integrity and sovereignty and sovereign choices of Ukraine, those were for Ukraine to make,” McKeon added, in an apparent reference to Putin’s principal and apparently non-negotiable demand that Ukraine renounce any application for membership of Nato.

“We were not going to negotiate for Ukraine. So I think we went the last mile, seeking to address Russia’s concerns diplomatically. And President Putin chose war.”

On the day of the invasion, Pretoria called on Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine and to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in line with the UN Charter. 

But South Africa then abstained from a UN General Assembly resolution last Wednesday which condemned Russia’s “aggression” against Ukraine and also called on it to withdraw its forces immediately and unconditionally.

On South Africa’s abstention

Asked how the US viewed South Africa’s position, McKeon noted that Blinken had said the US was not going to “parse” every country’s vote.

“South Africa abstained on the General Assembly vote. That’s a lot better than joining Russia. Russia was effectively alone with only four other countries. And in some respects that silence has a sound which has been heard. They (South Africa)  didn’t endorse what Russia did.  We would have preferred a yes but certainly abstention is a lot better than a no.” 

Read in Daily Maverick: Zuma backs Russia once again, calling Putin ‘a man of peace’

And McKeon said South Africa’s relations with the US would not be harmed as a result.

“No. We seek strong relations with the Republic of South Africa and one vote is not going to change our view on the importance of the bilateral relationship.

“South Africa is one of the leading countries on the African continent obviously because of its political and economic size and consequence. No, we will continue to try to strengthen our partnership with South Africa.”

Africa’s position

Daily Maverick asked McKeon how the US viewed the overall African vote on the General Assembly resolution, for which 28 African nations voted in favour, only Eritrea voted against, 17 nations abstained and eight were absent. This was a lower percentage of African nations for the resolution than among the UN’s membership as a whole.

“What we saw was an historic vote in favour of the General Assembly resolution with 141 yes votes,” McKeon said. “That pleased us. We are happy with that vote, the vote in the IAEA Board of Governors and in the Human Rights Council.”

Twenty six of the 35 members of the board of the IAEA – the International Atomic Energy Association, the UN’s nuclear watchdog in Vienna – voted for a resolution on Thursday, also condemning Russia’s invasion and demanding that Moscow allow Ukraine to control all its own nuclear facilities.

Russia and China voted against the resolution. South Africa, Pakistan, India, Senegal and Vietnam abstained. Mexico and Burundi were absent.

And on Friday the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva decided – by a vote of 32 in favour, two against and 13 abstentions – to strongly condemn Russia’s violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in Ukraine and to establish an independent international commission of inquiry to investigate all these alleged violations.

South Africa is not currently on this council though it is campaigning for membership.

“In the course of several days we demonstrated in these international fora that Russia is greatly isolated,” McKeon said. “And when you even have Cuba abstaining, one of its longtime friends, that sends a message to Russia that it is alone.”

Cuba abstained from the UN General Assembly vote along with 34 other nations. Only Eritrea, Syria, Belarus and North Korea voted with Russia against the resolution.

Isolating Russia

Daily Maverick asked McKeon if the US hoped African nations would go further in isolating Russia, for example by boycotting the second Russia-Africa summit scheduled to take place in St Petersburg in November.

He said the US and its allies in Europe and Asia were seeking to isolate Putin and the enablers around him, diplomatically, politically, economically. This included financial and export control sanctions and diplomatic isolation. 

African countries would have to make a choice about whether they wanted to participate in a summit with the leadership of the Russian Federation. 

“That would not be our choice, to have a summit right now. But Russia needs to understand, the Russian people need to understand, that their president and their government are taking them to a very isolated place in the world community. We don’t have a war with the Russian people who have a proud history and culture but their government is taking its people over a cliff economically with the actions that President Putin has taken here.  And if that war continues, that diplomatic isolation is going to continue.”

War and sanctions

Asked if the US was concerned that African countries close to Russia might instead help Moscow circumvent sanctions, he said there was always a concern with any sanctions regime that someone – not necessarily in Africa – would try to make money off it.

“I won’t be surprised if some countries seek to make money off this.  And we’ll be watching very closely to close any loopholes and ensure that that does not occur.” 

On Thursday, US assistant secretary of state for Africa Molly Phee said a discussion was underway on how to help countries that would be suffering from the economic dislocations of the war. This would include restoring African supply lines to Europe.

McKeon noted that the US and others had tried to address the shortages and economic disruptions that had resulted from the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“And if this war goes on and has some similar effects on economic growth and the supply chain, the US and other partners, [like the] World Bank, will all be working together on finding ways of helping countries that are most affected by this economic dislocation.”

It was hard to predict the full impact of the war and the sanctions on South Africa and Africa more generally, McKeon said.

“It depends obviously on how long the war goes on. Any war, particularly one of this size, is going to have disruptive effects on the economies and global order and on humans.  

“We’ve already seen a million humans moving. So inevitably it’s going to affect every region of the world in some way or another. 

“Russia and Ukraine are both big wheat exporters so that’s going to affect countries that are dependent on wheat imports.  Several North African countries including Egypt will be affected so they will be looking for new suppliers to sustain their wheat requirements.” 

And many of the Russian investors in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent would have their money blocked by the sanctions which the US, Europe and some Asian countries had imposed. 

“It’s hard to predict how this is going to affect every country or region of the world but there’s no question that every region of the world is going to be touched in some way.”

Politically, the principle of territorial integrity and sovereignty and not using force to change borders, which was central to the UN Charter, was at stake. 

“And if the world stands by and watches that happen without consequential action, then we’re in a different universe of international relations which is not a place where we as the United States want to be and where most of the world want to be, as demonstrated by the very strong vote in the General Assembly and in the Human Rights Council yesterday.”

Daily Maverick asked McKeon if the US was indeed concerned, as reported in the New York Times, that growing sanctions might provoke Putin into even greater aggression, such as increased shelling of Ukrainian cities, cyber attacks on the American financial system, attacks on other countries or even nuclear strikes. 

“We’ve seen Russian military tactics in Syria and Grozny (capital of Chechnya) in the past couple of decades. They’re not always discriminating in their use of their aerial attacks or their artillery or their multiple launch rockets systems. 

“And we’ve seen them hit civilian targets such as schools and hospitals, whether intentionally or not. And so that’s a concern because war always brings human suffering. If they start hitting power plants and water plants the humanitarian costs will be catastrophic. It’s already quite substantial. 

“We’ve certainly thought about the possibility that he could retaliate with some cyber capabilities so we’ve tried to plan as a government for that possibility.

Nuclear threat

“And on his, shall we say, less than responsible rhetoric on nuclear weapons, that’s not contributing to stability. He signed up to a statement not long ago with the other P5 countries [the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, the US, the UK, France and China, which also have nuclear weapons] that a nuclear war should never be fought and cannot be won. 

“So his irresponsible rhetoric is not in harmony with that statement. We’re not going to meet his rhetoric with any escalatory measures. We’ve seen in fact that the Department of Defence postponed a scheduled test of an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile). 

“Which is a routine matter. But we decided to forego the test right now to make it clear that we are not seeking to match President Putin with nuclear-related activities.”

McKeown explained that the US usually fired four to six ICBMs a year from Vandenberg space force base in California into the Pacific Ocean to test them.

One such test had been scheduled for this month but the US had postponed it “so that there would be no misunderstanding about what it was, even though whenever we do these tests we notify the Russian government, consistent with our agreements.

“And they see it, they know what it is. But we have decided to postpone it in any event.”

Putin’s objective

What is Putin’s ultimate objective? To take the whole country, to carve out a bigger pro-Russian component or to topple the regime, Daily Maverick asked McKeon. 

“I don’t know for certain. But it’s very likely he wants to decapitate the current government and see a friendlier government, if not a puppet government installed in Kyiv.

“Whether that involves holding and taking the whole country I don’t know. You can see what they’ve done so far. They’ve invaded from the north, the east and the south. They have not invaded in the west yet.

“It’s a pretty big country and with over 40 million people, many of whom are ready to fight. So I think they’re in for a long war if they try to take the whole country.”

Which is maybe not their objective?

“I still think they’re in for a long ride. I don’t think the Ukrainians are going to be happy with a puppet regime. I’m not threatening that. I’m just commenting on what I think the Ukrainians are prepared to do.” 

If Ukraine lost its independence now, would it only recover it if the Putin regime imploded, as many Soviet satellite states only gained their independence after the collapse of the USSR in 1991?

“War is a pretty unpredictable undertaking. I would hesitate to predict how this plays out… 

“The Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian military are fighting bravely against the Russian military. And the United States and Europe are supporting Ukraine and working to push for an end to the war. 

“And if there’s a negotiated resolution to the end of it – we’ve had representatives of the two governments meet twice in the last week – so much the better. War is terrible for everyone involved in this. And we want this invasion to stop.” DM

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All Comments 43

  • Mr Ramaphosa, are you seriously trying to say that Ukraine being systematically demolished, and children and civilians dying through brutal unprovoked attacks by Russia is somehow the fault of the Americans not sitting down at a table?

    I would laugh, but it’s just too sad.

    As an aside, I do hope you don’t have any Russian related skeletons in your closet, because you will have certainly p****d off the Americans, and I have no doubt they will now try very hard to find them.

    • No, no, no. At the moment, based on the ANC buddy-buddy system and tradition his likely replacement is David Mabusa. Ramaphosa may be bad, but Mabusa would be terrible as president. That’s the choice the ANC gives South Africa – bad or TERRIBLE. Given that choice, I would go for bad.

  • In not condemning this the ANC and their supporters have Ukrainian blood on their hands. I can proudly say I am not complicate and feel strongly for the Ukrainian people. I hope this move results in Putin losing power. That will be hilarious a comedian being the causes of a US president being impeached and the same comedian resulting in the fall of Putin.. the two most powerful people in the world taken down by a comedian… if I were the Chinese president I would proceed with caution this may not be as funny as it appears…😂😂😂

  • This sucks… Our forebears fought on the allied side during both World Wars. Now this government is going to drag us into WW3 on the wrong side.

  • It would be best if Ramaphosa subscribed to the maxim, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.”

  • The South African government and the ANC have lost their moral compass, they’re an absolute disgrace. How can they justify not condemning Russia for declaring war on the Ukraine and committing war crimes against civilians?

  • I am interested in the comment about how much Russian investment is in this country which might (or will) be sanctioned by the world. Can your wonderful investigative journalists find out, which might give us a better idea of why the ANC is being pro-Putin at the moment. I think it might be more than just loyalty to the USSR for past support against the previous regime.

  • Can someone please follow the money? The ANC has lost some of its corrupt sources of funding, it needs to pay the cadres; isn’t it obvious that the ANC’s lack of principles today has the same root cause it has always had: money?

    • No need to follow the money Edwin. we all know for a fact that the anc is corrupt and without morals and integrity. It’s all about deployed cadres feeding at the trough.

  • This is an embarrassment to the country. For most of my 70 odd years this country has been one of the most obnoxious as far as the rest of the world is concerned. And so we continue…..DM should create an annual, no monthly, maybe weekly, award for people who put their foot in it. I suggest it be named The Order of the Pit Latrine

  • How do we as ordinary South Africans let the ANC government know how disappointed and angry we are about their response to the Ukraine invasion?
    It seems we have little chance to change matters using the ballot box, but there has to be some way that we the everyday man and woman can say ‘stop’ this is not what we all think, it’s not what we believe the government should have done.
    That aligning our country with the values of China, India and Brazil is not what we want.
    We wanted a Visa granted to the Dalai Lama in 2011 to attend the Nobel Summit.
    Omar al-Bashir should have been arrested when he visited South Africa in 2015
    We didn’t want our government to stand by as Robert Mugabe destroyed Zimbabwe
    We do want Jacob Zuma and his cronies as listed in the Zondo Commission report held to account.
    We don’t want the ongoing corruption and kleptocracy that is our government.
    There is absolutely nothing – no economic ties, no history – that can override absolute and unequivocal condemnation of the horrors unfolding in Ukraine.
    Please Mr President – find your spine! Do something different, show us you are a man of courage and that you too believe in the rule of law, that you do hold dear the precepts of democratic freedoms and that war and aggression cannot be acceptable anywhere in the world.
    Speak up Mr President, I dare you!

    • He thought by being present at the Arch’s funeral and mumbling a few platitudes, he could create the impression he was a supporter of the Arch and what he stood for – fearless integrity ! How mistaken we were ! Just another gutless ‘cadre’ !

  • I was hoping that Ramaphosa’s response would clarify “our” position on this war (let’s hear him out, right?). The fact that he then also called it a “military operation” shattered any hope I had.

    Perhaps we should start referring to World Military Operation I and World Military Operation II, since the agressors and their supporters seem to consistently confuse the terms “war” and “military operation”.

  • Mr President, if you had been watching the news or listening to the radio you would have see, heard and read of the many meetings albeit telephone/zoom the USA did do all you are accusing them of not doing. It is obvious that Putin had no intention of meeting or doing anything that would spoil his reincarnation of the old USSR. the guy has gone bonkers!

  • “… in an apparent reference to Putin’s principal and apparently non-negotiable demand that Ukraine renounce any application for membership of Nato.
    “We were not going to negotiate for Ukraine. So I think we went the last mile, seeking to address Russia’s concerns diplomatically.”
    The USA, speaking for NATO, could have said: “Should the Ukraine apply for membership of NATO, it would be refused.” – Problem solved.

    • The USA does not have any right to speak on behalf of NATO. Why does Putin fear democracies joining a defensive alliance? NATO has no desire to attack Russia. What could possibly be gained by doing so?

  • Elon Musk for President! Apart from anything else he would soon fix the mess in our economy. And comrades did you perhaps notice that before Mr Putin told the world that the purpose of his “special miltary operation” was to “deNazify” Ukraine, he stated that actually “The modern Ukraine was entirely and completely created by Russia, or rather, the Bolshevik, Communist Russia.”

    Now comrades I would also like you to take note of the fact that within the ranks of the elderly currently being evacuated from various parts of the Ukraine, there are a number of surviving veterans of “The Great Patriotic War”. Far more than yourselves such heroes are true “comrades” – I am not even sure that I should have begun this paragraph with “now comrades” since you do not deserve any such accolade.

  • We only need to think back to the Omar al Bashir faux pas and the soft-cock approach to Zimbabwe to know that our tepid response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is simply another manifestation of the ANC’s venal qualities.

    • Had the same thoughts, so the ANC decision should not be surprise to anyone. Al Bashir tried to wipe out the the so called African population (he’s African-Arab) in Sudan, but yet, he got all the support when he came to visit SA.

  • Why would we have expected a different response to the disgraceful war waged by Putin and his acolytes in Ukraine? For quite a long time now , the ANC led government has espoused or condoned persons and states of dubious integrity both domestically and and internationally. This is but the latest example of seriously skewed moral values

  • We all know that this is a NATO attack on behalf of the USA, the aggressor is not always the person who throws the first stone.
    Follow the money, follow the resources, then follow the true aggressors

    • So in your opinion the bombing of civilian targets, escape routes & invasion is all a big hoax?
      Is it fake news?
      Or alternatively, by default, you agree with the action by Putin & his thugs & believe that what is happening to innocent people is justified because of some previous action by some or other country some time ago?

    • Are you talking about some other war? Despite propaganda to the contrary, NATO is a DEFENSIVE alliance and has no aggressive inclinations. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is exactly why so many Eastern European democratic nations are queuing up to join NATO.

  • A totally fair rebuttal to the idiotic 3 act soap opera of condemnation, celebration and abstention, performed by Dirco and the Presidency followed by Zuma’s last minute attempt to steal the limelight with his off-key aria about Western aggression. 🤦🏾‍♂️

  • While I consider the invasion of the Ukraine a “War Crime”and deserving sanctions from all
    democracies I think for the Ukranian Forces to try and fight back will lead to thousands of casualties and billions of dollars damage to homes and infrastructure. Millions of people will become refugees,
    and the dreadful situation will go on an on. Civilians preparing petrol bombs and using them against
    the Russian Forces only makes matters worse. I believe the Russians should have been allowed to invade and no resistance against them should have been allowed. An impossible situation like this needs thinking out of the box. As far as possible the people should have behaved civily and acted as
    though the Russians were very unwelcome, which they were, but without trying to resist. Just think how unbalanced the Russians would have been. No one killed or injured, no one fleeing the country, just unwanted visitors making a nuisance of themselves. Too late now I fear!!!

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