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Somewhere, something is gonna blow: Your questions on Putin’s War answered, sorta

Somewhere, something is gonna blow: Your questions on Putin’s War answered, sorta
Illustrative image | Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: EPA-EFE / THIBAULT CAMUS / POOL) | Protesters outside the Russian embassy in Madrid, Spain, on 24 February 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / RODRIGO JIMENEZ) | A joint funeral takes place at 'Saint's Peter and Paul Garrison Church’ for two soldiers who died in the east of the country during recent fighting, on 8 March 2022 in Lviv, Ukraine. (Photo: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images) | Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with US President Donald J Trump during their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 leaders' summit in Osaka, Japan, on 28 June 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / MICHAEL KLIMENTYEV / SPUTNIK / KREMLIN POOL) | Members of the Territorial Defence Forces learn how to use weapons during a training session in a public park on 9 March 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo: Chris McGrath / Getty Images)

The invasion of Ukraine raises a myriad puzzling questions. Readers responded to an invitation to put their queries to writer Richard Poplak in the wake of a webinar he hosted called The Inside Track: Putin’s War.

Oh man. Here we are, more than two weeks into a war almost no one except Vladimir Putin, Tucker Carlson and the Jacob Zuma Foundation wanted. 

It’s a war fought at the apex of the disinformation era, following the greatest public health emergency in a century. But this much is clear: as I write these words, people are dying. And they’re dying for no reason.

Like all wars, this one is rife with historical shadows and influences. Nothing about it is simple. But this much is clear: it was started by a single aggressor. This will always be remembered as Vladimir Putin’s war. 

Where it ends, no one – not even Putin – knows. But the suffering has just begun, and no amount of spin or whataboutism will wash the blood from his hands. 

‘He’s like the Tinder Swindler’: Magnitsky Act architect Bill Browder on Putin’s War

What is the cause of this war and why are they fighting?

Eish. This is the most common question, and it’s the most difficult to answer, largely because the answer depends on who you ask. 

Putin has made his case very clearly: he believes, or says he believes, that Ukraine has no legitimate claims to nationhood. He believes, or says he believes, that it is a country that has become Nazified – a problem that needs to be cleansed. 

He believes, or says he believes, that the fall of the Soviet Union was a tragedy, and that its borders must be restored if Russia’s prestige and rightful place in the world is to be restored. (Ukraine was an integral part of the Soviet Union.) 

And he claims, with absolutely no evidence, that Russian-speaking Ukrainians are being ethnically cleansed in the country’s eastern redoubts. 

Putin insists that Ukraine’s pull to the West is a direct challenge to Russia’s sovereign integrity, and that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) poses an existential threat to his country. He believes Russia has been disrespected by the West, who have courted his neighbours and thus courted war. 

And so: invasion. 

I buy none of this. As I recently noted, “By all means, indulge in theories explaining Putin’s Ukrainian adventure. But if those theories aren’t premised on the fact that, for the past 25 years at least, he’s helped run the largest organised crime syndicate in history, then they aren’t worth shit. 

In a gangster state, corruption defines every single political and geopolitical consideration. (I know this because I live in one.) Ideology, messianic spins on history, suppurating territorial grievances – all that is secondary to unhindered accumulation.

Example: former president Jacob Zuma justified the impoverishment of black South Africans under his industrial-scale corruption machine by insisting – wait for it! – he was redressing the economic crimes of apartheid.

Yup. True story

Simply, Putin is a mafia don. If he sleeps, if he fails to expand his dominion, if he loosens his grip? He and everyone he knows and loves (yes, I know, I know) will die. Badly. 

Sure, he might be moonlighting as a revanchist Czarist imperialist. But that’s not his day job.

None of this excuses the stupidity and myopia of the Americans and their Western allies. The (neo)lib elite have no empathy or imagination. But if you want to be mad at the useless fucks for anything, be mad at them for enabling Putin and his men to stripmine Russia for parts.

After all, Putin has enjoyed the immense fortune of leading Russia in an era of boundless cravenness and stupidity. The smugness of the Clinton administration, the endless mendacity of the Bush cabal, the blind technocratism of Obama Inc – all contributed to the current morass.

And then came the Comedy Central Special that was Donald Trump, during which the two mafia dons made out on camera while the actual administration continued behind the scenes with business as usual.

Could ‘the West’ have been more respectful to Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union? No question.

Was Nato’s expansionist pantomime provocative? Yup.

Should Russia’s neighbours have been courted with more tact and nuance? Surely.

But here’s the thing – Putin wasn’t a victim of these successive blunders. He was a beneficiary. 

Western greed and stupidity were Putin’s greatest enablers. The legit financial system was where he and his men cleaned their cash, accountability free.

So unfolded an unprecedented era of gorging that made a tiny cohort of Russians and Western enablers richer than any humans in the history of our species, while generating gilded-age levels of inequality – much of it driven by filthy Russian black cash.

The bosses of that system ignored warning after warning from the usual schleps in journalism and civil society. 

And so here we are, watching the spectacle of a country with an economy smaller than Italy’s flop around in the Ukrainian mud.

So please: this isn’t about Nato or territorial integrity or Nazis. Those are red herrings, pun intended. Slap the next person who parrots that nonsense.

The cause of this war? The realpolitik of rampant unchecked corruption.

Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Do you think Russia will stop at Ukraine or will Putin try to gain more territory like Belarus, Moldova, Romania?

Well, first of all, Belarus is already a Russian client state. Second, at the weekend, the Russians took the war right to the Polish border, seemingly intent on provoking a military response from Nato. 

I can’t pretend to know Putin’s mind, but this war is not about gaining territory in the conventional sense, so much as it is about asserting Russian regional dominance and resetting the post-Berlin Wall geopolitical chess board. 

Why is the Ukraine government using civilians as human shields? Secondly, why did Ukrainian militants commit genocide on its people?

Hoo boy. Let’s start with the second question first. The word “genocide” is being bandied about these days with a little too much abandon. A reminder that the Oxford dictionary defines it as “the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular race or nation. The term is recorded from the 1940s, in relation to Nazi rule in occupied Europe”. 

Despite what Putin says, there is no evidence that “Ukrainian militants committed genocide on its people”. That is a lie. The term “genocide” is used so sparingly – at least by smart people – because it activates all sorts of international obligations and human rights triggers. 

None of this has happened in Ukraine, because there is no genocide. 

As for the first question: in almost every country, military or government offices and facilities are often in or near civilian buildings. For instance, if South Africa was being attacked by – I dunno – Botswana, Denel’s Lyttelton Campus in Centurion would be considered a legitimate target. But it’s situated in a neighbourhood that includes many civilian sites. 

Is Denel using, say, the adjacent Bothabile African Language Institute as a “human shield”? I don’t think so. The military industrial complex is woven into everyday life to such an extent that we don’t even notice it. 

Do you think Russia would still have invaded Ukraine if they had agreed to not join Nato?

This, for me, is a hard no. After all, Russia DID invade Ukraine during a political phase of Nato non-alignment. Memories are short, but the war in Donbass and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 coincided with the early days of the Yatseniuk government, which was – at least ostensibly – against joining Nato. Ukrainian public support for joining the alliance has historically been low – until Russia took Donbass and Crimea. Not so surprisingly, that changed public opinion. 

But Nato is a red herring. This is about Putin’s political survival, which is tied to his vision for Russia dominating the region politically and militarily. His objective was to project strength and project it quickly. Instead, Russia has been exposed as a third-rate military power with first rate nuclear weapons. In this way, his sordid war has already proved a failure.

Why is everyone ignoring that Russia feels threatened, the same way America felt threatened by Gaddafi in Libya, Saddam in Iraq or Isis?

This little exercise in whataboutism answers its own question. Let’s focus on Saddam Hussein in Iraq. I think we all remember that the invasion in 2003 was premised on faulty intelligence – which is another way of saying “a lie”. The Bush administration’s determination to depose Saddam had devastating consequences, and the reverberations are still being felt today. 

The Americans lied (or, if we’re feeling charitable, relied on threadbare intelligence that aligned with their regional ambitions). Sure, one could argue that Saddam presented a threat to American security, but the American response was nowhere near proportional. A crime against humanity followed, for which Bush and his cronies will never have to answer.

The point? Very often, war is premised on total bullshit. Such is the case in Ukraine. 

How is the war going to affect us economically? 

It’s early days, but the war comes at an interesting time in the history of human economics. The global economy is still juddering from the Covid-19 pandemic, where skyrocketing rates of inflation and “supply chain issues” have made life vastly more expensive and inconvenient, especially for countries like South Africa, in which almost nothing is manufactured. 

What is plainly obvious is that, with Russian oil and gas now mostly off the table, the cost of energy will keep increasing. The breach between the Biden administration and the Saudi leadership is significant, and the latter are refusing to turn on the taps. 

Without more supply in the market – and remember, Russia is a small player in terms of global output – prices will continue to rise. This will hammer South Africans not only at the pumps, but also in the shops. The inflation we’re experiencing is unsustainable. 

Something, somewhere, is going to blow. 

War is bad. But why must I, an African, feel sorry or sympathise with the people of Ukraine when they are so brutally racist to African people?

Well, I guess any war-torn country – victim or aggressor – is riddled with biases, chauvinism and truly awful people. If that war is happening in Europe, add mucho racism into the picture. And so, where you choose to place your sympathy is a decision that only you can make. 

Indeed, there is plenty of conflict in Africa, so there really is no need to send your sympathy any further than the Mediterranean. Of course, South Africans tend not to give a shit about the rest of Africa, so perhaps just focus on our own local simmering nightmares. Most of them come true. 

I want to find out how I can go and help out in Ukraine. I want to help in the fight against Russia.

Stay home and make sandwiches for the poor.

Why will the ANC clowns not stand with Ukraine? Is it because they owe something to their tjommas in Moscow and the Kremlin?

The ANC are reflexively anti-Western. They refer to Western aggression in Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. They have historical ties with the Soviet Union and contemporary ties with Russia due to the botched “nuclear deal”. 

They are ideologically more aligned with eastern kleptocratic authoritarianism than sclerotic Western liberalism, despite governing a constitutional democracy. They are “aligned” with Russia in the BRICS formation. And they have a strongman fetish. DM

See also a report on other questions from Daily Maverick Webinar participants here

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