Why Ukraine’s inevitable victory against Russia will be a win for Africa

Why Ukraine’s inevitable victory against Russia will be a win for Africa
The memorial for the Holodomor victims in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo: Joern Pollex / Getty Images)

Ukraine should continue to inspire African democrats to fight back. To neglect the Ukrainian struggle or, worse, to take the side of Russia, is to take the side of authoritarianism over democracy, of might over what is right.

Ukraine will win this war against Russia. When it does, it will be a victory for Africa, since oppression threatens freedom everywhere.

It’s not just because Ukrainian commanders have outwitted their Russian counterparts, and that a combination of Western weaponry and Ukrainian skill has the invaders on the run in the east and under siege in the south. It’s because the Ukrainians have something to fight for.

A visit to the Holodomor Memorial in Kyiv gives you an idea of how deep this goes. Hauntingly simple, with the statue of a young girl holding a stalk of wheat surrounded by 12 milling wheels, it’s a stark reminder of the cost of Russian arrogance and the depth of Ukrainian passion in this fight. As many as seven million people (some say as many as 10 million) were starved to death in a state-engineered famine in 1932/3 which some historians argue was used to eliminate the Ukrainian independence movement. Others say it was because of a poor crop due to the inefficiencies of Soviet collectivisation.

Either way, contrary to the argument that Ukraine is Russian, it’s an indication of the depth of emotion behind this war. And, with thousands of civilians killed now and destruction wrought countrywide, there is no going back.

Ukraine will win because it is fighting this war on its territory for its survival as an independent nation. As Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister of Ukraine, says: “It’s a sacred fight for our people, but it’s a joint fight, a common fight. A defeat of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will produce a chain reaction for democrats.”

Russia’s colonial conquest

For Russia, and Putin, this is a war of choice, to return Ukraine to its status as a former Tsarist and Soviet colony, something, says Tymoshenko, “Ukrainians will never allow to happen.”

Nearly four centuries of Russian imperialism came to an end in 1991 with Ukraine’s independence. But Ukraine’s comparative fighting performance, notes Serhiy Leshchenko, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, is founded on a sense of cultural identity and unity forged over centuries and not decades.

“Ukraine was created centuries earlier than Russia. It has a different culture, different church and political culture. It respects human rights and minorities. It is a democracy, with six presidents since 1991. And ask any Ukrainian,” he points out into the darkening street, “and they identify as anything now but Russian.”

One measure of the difference, he smiles, is that “Ukraine is perhaps the only place where soldiers pay bribes to join the army if they are not accepted.”

Now this unity of purpose is stronger than ever, driven by the clear existentialist threat from Russia. And it is evident in the relative performance of the two militaries.

In contrast to the relative autonomy of Ukraine’s mobile brigades, the Russian army has been shown to be poorly equipped, inflexibly hierarchical, corrupt, weak, unmotivated, old-school and with an “appetite”, says Oleksandra Matviichuk of the Center for Civil Liberties, a Ukrainian human rights organisation, “for impunity in its use of war crimes as a tactic. They consider terror against civilians rape, torture, chemical weapons [in Syria], and the deprivation of critical infrastructure in winter, including electricity, as ‘normal’ means of waging war.”

Following Ukrainian successes in Kharkiv, the Russians attacked electrical infrastructure and dams in a direct assault on the health of civilians.

Such qualities are a metaphor for the Putin regime, which she describes as “dangerously unaccountable” in a world where the international system of justice is weak and incapable.

‘Monkey and grenade’ scenario

Russia is still a dangerous foe, of course, especially now it is wounded and if the Ukrainians take their foot off the gas and give Moscow a chance to rest, regroup, rearm and fight another day. There is always the threat, too, that Putin will escalate if cornered, or shamed, and deploy chemical weapons or tactical nukes. Such a “monkey and grenade” scenario could be threatened to argue for a temporary truce, a means of shaking European resolve in backing Zelensky’s government, but it’s an incredible threat, not least since it explodes completely Putin’s liberation myth.

Many challenges lie ahead for Ukraine, make no mistake. There will be pressure to sue for peace for Russia as winter approaches and Russian gas supplies are manipulated. But such a peace would only be a pause enabling Putin to regroup and try again. His alternative is to accept his failure and Russia’s defeat, a potentially fatal admission in the devious and brutal world of Kremlin politics.

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Ukraine should continue to inspire African democrats to fight back. To neglect the Ukrainian struggle or, worse, to take the side of Russia, is to take the side of authoritarianism over democracy, of might over what is right.

The idea that countries need a benign dictator has, time and time again, proven to be false. Putin’s costly miscalculation is a reminder of the folly of unchallenged one-man bands.

Most times, dictators are not benign or good for development, but far worse in every respect than their democratic counterparts. And time and time again, history, including Russian history, shows that authoritarians are vulnerable to international solidarity, and are as shaky as the values on which their rule is based.

There are other good reasons for Africa to hitch itself to the Ukrainian story.

It is “humiliating”, reminds former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko, “for Africa to be part of a union with an empire”.

Yushchenko, who led the Orange Revolution in 2004, and who was poisoned by his Kremlin-backed opponents, leaving him disfigured, recalls that his fight was not, as now, against Russians, but rather against Russian influence and Russian corruption, against “our slavery” in Russia’s greatest colony.

“We had,” he reminds, “two divergent views: between Ukraine’s path to Europe, which we had aspired to for more than a century, and remaining within the Russian fold, the russkiy mir.” Ukraine, under Yushchenko, chose then the European path, the benefits of which are now clearer than ever.

But Putin, says the man who confronted him two decades ago, is not to be underestimated. He is someone who did not regard the first and second world wars (in which Russia lost altogether 30 million soldiers and civilians) as the biggest tragedies of the 20th century, says Yushchenko. For Putin, the greatest tragedy was the end of the Soviet Union. “It’s the struggle of two divergent views, of those between Europe and Siberia,”’ says the former president.

We all must play our part

The war in Ukraine is one about freedom of choice, of rights, of a world order that respects the rule of law and order over the rule of the jungle. If we want outsiders to take human rights in Africa seriously, we all must play our part in ensuring justice, now and in the future, and place ourselves on the right side of history.

To do this we need to act with moral clarity. We must reverse the trade in lies and propaganda and, instead, state the facts. This war was started by Russia, not Ukraine. It is aimed at recolonising Ukraine, whatever the cost.

It reflects the difference between an exclusive system shaped by one man’s thinking to that which is finding a brave, new and inclusive way in a complex world. It calls for fresh thinking and leadership, one that speaks to the needs of the next generation in reviewing global security and development architecture which have proven unfit for purpose, and looks forward to future challenges rather than back to past glories. 

In this way, far from the image of a country at the mercy of a great power which faces imminent collapse, Ukraine is a model for Africa. Kyiv, of course, needs to match its actions in a way that supports this image: if it wants the support of democrats, it needs to support democrats and not appear the victim, but rather the solution in Africa.

Africa’s autocrats will invariably label Ukraine’s supporters as puppets of democracy. Presumably, this precisely makes them puppets of Putin and authoritarianism. The defeat of Russia in Ukraine will in this way be a victory for democracy in Africa.

Ukraine and Russia today is a David and Goliath story, of a highly motivated underdog that uses its speed and technological flexibility to the best advantage on its home ground against the neighbourhood bully. It’s only the bullies — and their following packs — who won’t like the inevitable ending. DM

Wine heads the National Unity Platform in Uganda; Kabwe is leader of ACT in Tanzania; and Nwokolo and Mills are with the Brenthurst Foundation. All have been in Ukraine.

A version of this article appeared earlier in African Arguments in The Guardian


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Sheda Habib says:

    “The bullies and their following packs.”
    Nothing like a woke styled statement to give strength to a weak argument

    • John Cartwright says:

      Kindly explain.

    • Konrad Hauptfleisch says:

      Why “woke”, exactly? And how about justifying your glib comment with some substance, rather than dismissing an article as weak because it’s “woke”? Nothing wrong with the arguments in this piece just as there is nothing right about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I’d rather go for a “woke”-styled argument based on facts than a justification for aggression based on fiction.

    • Glyn Morgan says:

      There is nothing “woke” about Putin’s War or this very informative article about it!

  • Sam Spade says:

    The ever increasing use of wokeness as a wannabee Trump card often demonstrates the lack of intellectual capacity for the making of a cogent counter argument these days, and at the very least adds nothing to the discourse.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    Now THIS is a great article by DM! Thank you. It is a great motivation for DM’s journalist crew to support democratic parties in this corner of Africa. I hope that Ramaphosa reads it.

    I once sailed world-wide with a Ukrainian Chief Officer from Mariupol on a merchant ship. He was (I hope still is) a Russian speaking Cosak. I asked him if he could ride a horse, DO NOT ASK a COSAK if he can ride a horse! We spoke at length about the Russian/Ukrainian relationship. He was proud to be RUSSIAN and just as adamant and proud that he was a UKRAINIAN CITIZEN. He told me about his very personal family history in the Holodomor.

  • Tods The Toed says:

    It is enough for Africa NOT to be seen to be backing a LOSER. That alone is a good enough reason.

  • Richard Coetzee says:

    This simplification of a complex issue into a good vs evil argument to push a specific narrative is rubbish journalism. That narrative being that we should all unite to protect the ‘western rules based order’. There is no such thing. The ‘west’ invokes international law and democracy when it suits them. This is about power, and specifically American hegemonic power.
    What is happening in Ukraine is an absolute tragedy, but not one western country has tried to stop this war or try to negotiate a peace deal. On the contrary they are doing everything they can to prolong this war as long as possible. They do not care about the Ukrainian people or peace. The goal is to destabilize Russia (my opinion).
    In 2019 the Rand corporation published a report “Overextending and Unbalancing Russia” in which it basically describes what we are seeing now; by destabilizing Ukraine, you ultimately destabilize Russia. But nothing to see here…
    Looking at the sanctions map it is clear that for the most part the ‘global south’ is not going along with the sanctions. Maybe that is because they have all been on the receiving end of western ‘democracy’ projects.

    Ukraine is not and was not a shining democracy; it is the 2nd most corrupt country in Europe (after Russia) has alarming far right elements and all pro Russian opposition parties have been banned.
    I agree African countries should strive to move towards democracy, but I fail to see how supporting Ukraine will get them there.

    • Peter Hartley says:

      Ukraine might not be a perfect democracy – what country is – but this does not give Russia to right to declare war against Ukraine. The people of Ukraine have the right to determine their own destiny and Russia has no right to intervene.

      Concerning a negotiated settlement to this conflict – how do you suggest the western nations achieve this? The only accept condition is for Russia to withdraw and you know this is not going to happen. So democratic nations have no choice – they have to support Ukraine to avoid authoritarian rule.

      • Richard Coetzee says:

        I’m sorry I don’t understand your comment. There is such a thing as diplomacy and negotiation. As with any previous war/conflict the international community or whoever tries to get the disputing parties to negotiate or settle the dispute before things escalate. This has happened countless times in the past.
        But yet this time it is somehow impossible. Somehow we have to believe that Putin is the ultimate evil who can’t be negotiated with and we have to save the liberal world order.
        I reiterate again; at no point did any government from the west try get a peace deal in this conflict, either before or during. Their solutions has been to fuel the conflict and make the possibility of peace impossible.
        So we must just escalate the war until we start using nuclear weapons, because we have to destroy the evil Putin. This is insane.
        Ukraine needs peace, and you will only get that through dialogue. The other option is world war. I don’t want to be around for that thank you.

    • Tim Price says:

      I suppose allowing pro-Russian parties to operate and campaign for incorporating Ukraine in Russia would be a bit like having the EFF campaigning for SA to become part of Zimbabwe – tantamount to treason? It is also widely reported that pro-Russian parties and militia are backed/supported by Putin. When this didn’t work Putin decided to invade and take Ukraine by force.

  • Peter Hartley says:

    An interesting article. I hope the ANC take note and stand up and be counted – for democracy – and not continue to support this Russian tyrant. I will not be holding my breath though! The democratic nations of the world must support Ukraine no matter what it takes.

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