INTERVIEW WITH US DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE
United States slaps down Ramaphosa’s criticism of Biden’s pre-war Russia diplomacy
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved