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Ramaphosa calls Putin and offers to mediate — but there’s scant hope of peaceful resolution

Ramaphosa calls Putin and offers to mediate — but there’s scant hope of peaceful resolution
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: EPA-EFE / YURI KOCHETKOV) | South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

President Cyril Ramaphosa called Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday and said afterwards that South Africa had been approached by a third party to mediate a peaceful resolution to the war in Ukraine.

South African officials have privately acknowledged that South Africa is very unlikely to be able to exert any influence in the conflict. Ramaphosa thanked Putin on Twitter for taking his call, “so I could gain a better understanding of the situation that is unfolding between Russia and Ukraine”. Ramaphosa seemed unable to call it a war.

“I outlined our position on the conflict that has unfolded as well as our belief that the conflict should be resolved through mediation and negotiation between the parties and — if need be — with the help of agencies that can help bring a solution to the conflict.

“President Putin appreciated our balanced approach. We believe this position can enable both parties to subject the conflict to mediation and negotiation. Based on our relations with the Russian Federation and as a member of BRICS, South Africa has been approached to play a mediation role.”

Ramaphosa did not say who had approached South Africa to mediate.
Officials in Pretoria had indicated before their telephone conversation that Ramaphosa — like many other world leaders — was growing increasingly alarmed by the mounting civilian casualties as the Russian military bogs down and Moscow turns instead to intense bombardment of Ukraine’s cities.

On Wednesday, for instance, three people including a child were killed and 17 injured in a Russian strike on a maternity and children’s hospital in the city of Mariupol, officials said.

South African officials said Ramaphosa would have “strongly underlined” to Putin that the war would achieve nothing and was only causing pain to many, including small countries like South Africa, because of the economic fallout. He would have urged him to seek a negotiated political solution. 

But if Ramaphosa really did give Putin a lecture, this was certainly not apparent from the Kremlin’s statement about the call, which said Ramaphosa had expressed support for Russia’s “political and diplomatic efforts”.

South African official sources Daily Maverick spoke to acknowledged that Putin would, in any case, have been very unlikely to pay attention to a call for peace from Ramaphosa. That’s because they don’t see Putin ending the war until he has gotten rid of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“Zelensky has indicated recently that he is no longer pushing for Ukraine’s membership of Nato,” one official said. “But Russia does not trust him. What’s to stop him saying that and then reneging once the Russians have withdrawn?

“Russia believes he is part of the EU and Western camp” — and so will only be satisfied when he has been toppled. The Kremlin said Ramaphosa had initiated the call and that at his request Putin had informed him “about the reasons for and goals of the special military operation to protect Donbas, as well as about the situation at the talks with representatives of the Ukrainian authorities. 

“The President of South Africa expressed support for the ongoing political and diplomatic efforts. It was agreed to continue contacts.”

Ramaphosa confirmed in his social media statement that, “We are encouraged by the talks taking place and the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Russia and Ukraine in Turkey today.”

Ukrainian sources were dismayed at these statements as they doubt the sincerity of Putin’s peace efforts. In any case, those talks seem to be going nowhere. On Thursday they were elevated to their highest level so far as Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov met his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba in Turkey. 

Both sides suggested afterwards that no progress had been made and Kuleba added that Lavrov had even declined a 24-hour ceasefire to allow civilians to escape the bombing. He said Lavrov had told him the military operation “was going according to plan”.

One South African official told Daily Maverick about Ramaphosa’s call to Putin that, “The most important thing was we kept open the lines of communication.” This seemed to indicate the minimal expectations of the call which seemed to be a rather pro-forma affair. 

To some degree, South Africa seemed motivated by group pressure as the three other leaders of the BRICS bloc — which comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — had all engaged Putin. Pretoria might also have felt it was a little behind the pace as Senegalese President Macky Sall — acting in his capacity as chairperson of the African Union — had called Putin on Wednesday, urging a peaceful solution. 

The official acknowledged that within BRICS, only China first, and then India, had any hope of influencing Putin. But they noted that Putin had carefully courted Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the run-up to the war, so neither was likely to turn his back on him, despite their concerns about the growing death toll in the war. 

In particular, they said Putin and Xi had “carefully coordinated” on the war, a reference to the general belief that Putin had agreed to delay the invasion until after the Winter Olympics in Beijing. 

Brazil surprised some observers by apparently stepping out of the BRICS line and voting for the resolution in the UN General Assembly last week, condemning Russian “aggression” and demanding it withdraw its forces.

But South African officials said this had resulted from tension between the Brazilian foreign ministry and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who had visited Putin just before the invasion and had expressed solidarity with Putin. The officials noted that Putin had probably raised concern with Ramaphosa about the statement the South African government had issued on the day of the invasion, calling on Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine. 

But Putin would probably have been reassured by South Africa abstaining from last week’s UN General Assembly resolution. In doing so South Africa had “fallen back into line” with the BRICS, the official added. 

The Kremlin statement gave the eerie impression of absolute normality in relations between Russia and South Africa. It said Putin and Ramaphosa had “exchanged congratulations on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and South Africa and reaffirmed their intention to further develop the Russian-South African strategic partnership. 

“In particular, they noted the readiness to expand cooperation in the trade, economic and humanitarian spheres, as well as in the fight against the spread of coronavirus infection. The importance of continuing interaction within the BRICS framework and on other international platforms was emphasised.”

But then the statement turned to the discussion of the two presidents of the war — or as the Kremlin prefers to put it, “the special military operation to protect Donbas”.

This alludes to the Kremlin’s justification of the war as an operation to protect pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine who Moscow claims were being shelled and otherwise persecuted by the “Nazi” regime of Zelensky. DM


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