WAR IN EUROPE
Ukrainians ‘enjoying’ Russia’s ‘special military operation’, claims ambassador to SA Ilya Rogachev
Moscow’s envoy to South Africa says his nation is de-Nazifying Ukraine and is ‘doing its best’ to avoid injuring civilians.
Russian forces are being welcomed by Ukrainians and are doing their best to avoid hitting civilian infrastructure and injuring civilians, according to Ilya Rogachev, Russia’s ambassador to South Africa.
Ukrainians were “enjoying” Russia’s “special military operation” because it was freeing the country from its neo-Nazi and militarised government, Rogachev said with a straight face in a webinar on 16 March.
Rogachev offered a forecast which took no account of any negotiated peace deal which might theoretically emerge from the negotiations Russia is conducting with Ukraine.
“We are going to demilitarise and de-Nazify Ukraine. After three weeks of this limited military operation, half of Ukrainian military infrastructure is destroyed and it will be destroyed entirely. I hope so,” he said.
“We hope that most of the population of Ukraine will support that. It is supported so far. Just as they got rid of the Nazi battalions and security apparatus of the present government, people are forthcoming and they really enjoy this institution.”
The webinar was organised by the University of Johannesburg’s Future of Diplomacy Research Group. The Ukrainian embassy was invited but declined to attend.
The war in Ukraine is proving sharply divisive in South Africa, reflecting domestic political dichotomies. The Democratic Alliance and other moderate parties strongly support Ukraine, the leftish Economic Freedom Fighters fervently back Russia, whereas the ANC is more or less sitting on the fence, though also tilting towards Russia.
After being briefed by the Russian embassy this week, EFF deputy president Floyd Shivambu tweeted that “Nato is not an instrument of world peace, but one which serves the imperialist interests of the United States. It has now decided to encircle Russia, which is a security threat that must be averted.” He also echoed the Kremlin’s line that Ukraine is being run by “neo-Nazis”.
Observers have been surprised at how the much smaller Ukrainian military has stalled the Russian invasion. But Rogachev put a positive spin on that at the seminar, saying the Russian military was advancing very slowly and carefully because it was avoiding cities and populated residential areas.
“That slows down their progress. We take precautionary measures not to destroy civilian infrastructure,” he added.
Rogachev claimed that the Ukrainian military was deliberately positioning its heavy weapons in residential areas, so Russia injured civilians. Ukraine was using civilians as “human shields”, just as Isis did in Syria and other places, Rogachev claimed.
Steven Pifer, former US ambassador to Ukraine and now at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University, California, completely dismissed Rogachev’s contention that Russia was conducting a limited military operation to avoid civilian casualties. “Just watch the news,” He suggested.
“Far from being limited in scope, or just to protect Donetsk and Luhansk, this is an invasion of Ukraine by 200,000 Russian soldiers. Thousands have already died on both sides and three million Ukrainians have fled the country. Russia’s army has laid siege to Kharkiv and is preparing to lay siege to the capital Kyiv.
“This is the largest war in Europe since 1945. This is also a war of choice. Ukraine presented no security threat to Russia,” he said. The Russian military has four times the number of personnel on active duty as Ukraine, the annual Russian defence budget is 10 times that of Ukraine and Russia has 4,400 nuclear weapons, whereas Ukraine has none.”
David Marples from the Department of History, Classics and Religion at the University of Alberta, Canada, rejected Rogachev’s claim that Ukrainians were welcoming the Russian invaders.
“It is opposed by virtually everybody in Ukraine. And I’ve been surprised by the unity of Ukrainian people and all residents of Ukraine, in rejecting the notions that are coming out to Moscow, as official reasons for launching this war.
“The ambassador said they’d avoided civilians. That’s not the impression we get from the attacks on Mariupol, where hospitals, kindergartens and other buildings have been destroyed. [Or] in Kharkiv where I have many friends, where buildings, again, have been ransacked and destroyed by bombs and by missiles coming from miles away.”
Rogachev said the immediate cause for Russia’s military intervention was to pre-empt what he said was an imminent attack by Ukraine on the pro-Russian separatist “republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, which Russia recognised on the eve of the war.
The Ukraine military and “neo-Nazi” nationalist battalions have been conducting a “genocide” against these two areas, shelling and bombing them and killing about 15,000 civilians, he said.
Russia had also been prompted to attack by Ukraine’s desire to acquire nuclear weapons and by “hard evidence” that Ukraine, assisted by the US, was conducting secret research on biological weapons.
“Nuclear weapons and biological weapons in the hands of neo-Nazis and radical nationals is a very, very dangerous thing to the world,” he said.
Rogachev also repeated that Russia felt threatened by the expansion of Nato — the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation — up to the Russian frontier, and by Ukraine’s desire to join Nato. He said Nato had, for two decades, dismissed Russia’s concerns “with contempt”.
But Pifer said Nato had put no military force or infrastructure on the territory of new member states until 2014, after Russia used military force to seize Crimea and provoke a conflict in Donbass.
“And, as the Russian government knows, the issue of Nato accepting Ukraine now is simply not an offer, particularly with Russian forces occupying Ukrainian territory.”
Marples added that an important reason for the expansion of Nato was that some countries felt threatened by Russia. Pifer also dismissed Putin’s claim of genocide in Donbass to justify the invasion, saying he had “perverted” the meaning of the word genocide; 14,000 people had died in the conflict in Donbass.
“That was not a genocide, though it was a tragedy. But it was one caused by Russian security forces that provoked a conflict there.”
To Rogachev’s charge that neo-Nazis were in charge of Ukraine, Pifer recalled that, in 2019, 73% of Ukrainians had voted to elect Volodymyr Zelensky, who was Jewish, as president. The previous prime minister of Ukraine was also Jewish.
He said Russia had only made the claim that Ukraine was seeking nuclear weapons in the past three weeks to justify its invasion.
“The Russians have not been able to point out a single piece of evidence,” Pifer said.
There was no evidence of a facility to enrich uranium or a plant to process spent nuclear fuel into plutonium, either of which would be necessary to develop nuclear weapons, he said.
The real reasons for the war, Pifer said, were that the Kremlin wanted to have a significant say over Ukrainian foreign and domestic policy as it feared Ukraine was slipping out of Moscow’s orbit.
Yet nothing had done more to push Ukraine away from Russia and towards the West than Russia’s own policy over the past eight years, including the seizure of Crimea and Moscow’s support for the conflict in Donbass.
Pifer said another reason for the invasion was that the Kremlin feared a Western-oriented, democratic and economically successful Ukraine would prompt Russian citizens to ask why they couldn’t have the same political voice and democratic rights that Ukrainians had.
The third reason for the invasion, he said, was Putin, “who gets quite emotional about Ukraine” and who, in an essay he wrote about Ukraine last year, had denied Ukraine the right to exist as a sovereign state, presenting a distorted view of it — as an integral part of Russia.
Pifer added that the war could have been avoided if Russia had taken up the offers from the US and Nato to negotiate arms control, risk reduction and confidence-building measures. Instead, Russia wanted Nato to renounce all plans to enlarge in the future and to withdraw all its forces from the former Warsaw Pact countries, which had joined it after 1997.
The effect has been just the opposite. Nato forces in eastern Europe had been gradually declining. In 1990, there were 300,000 American troops in Europe, which shrank to 60,000 in 2014 when, for a brief period, there were no American tanks in Europe.
“One of the consequences of this conflict is that Nato now has really galvanised and Nato does see a purpose. Nato sees Russia as a military threat in a way that was not the case prior to three weeks ago.” As a result, Nato is now taking steps, such as reinforcing its eastern flank.
Germany, for instance, has decided to add €100-billion to its normal defence budget to counter the military threat that Russia has now shown itself to pose.
He noted that Zelensky had shown, over the past 10 days, that he was prepared to reconsider Ukraine’s desire for Nato membership and to discuss neutrality.
“And the question then becomes, if Ukraine were to accept some kind of neutrality, what would be the guarantee?”
Pifer said that Ukraine had adopted a neutral stance until 2013 when Russia pressured the Ukrainian president not to enter an association agreement with the European Union.
That was what triggered the Maidan revolution and ushered in a more pro-Western government in Kyiv. DM168
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