Lest one day we forget: With Putin’s Russia, South Africa is committing a historic mistake
A prisoner of his own incompetence in the fortress of the Kremlin on Saturday, fearful for his presidency, his own legacy and his very life. As Sunday dawned, he emerged greatly weakened, his brutal grip on power shaken. Why is this man still the South African ruling elite’s best friend, leader to so many?
Russian President Vladimir Putin faced a dilemma on Saturday that many failed dictators have faced before. Should he leave the country on one of his many private jets? Should he push on to spill more Russian blood, to attempt to destroy his erstwhile chef, the Wagner Group’s mercenary owner Yevgeny Prigozhin? Or should he cut a deal to negotiate his way out of the existential trouble that he himself has created.
At the end, he chose to cut a deal.
Yes, the Wagner mutiny may fade one day into a historical footnote. But Putin’s problems, which can sometimes seem like blood-soaked farces, are entirely of his own making.
By any and all measures, Putin’s multiple presidential terms have proved a gigantic failure. He presides over a country that has been blessed with natural resources like no other. The Russian people supply human capital that in some respects is unmatched in the world today. Russia’s culture and rich history should supply a solid intellectual and emotional foundation. By far the biggest country by size in the world, Russia has all the potential to be wealthy, prosperous and indeed a superpower for good.
And yet. And yet.
Russia under Putin has turned into the purveyor of hate and violence.
Even before the invasion of Ukraine in February last year, the Mighty Russia’s GDP was smaller than Italy’s, a country that itself has never been considered the world’s best-run place, whose surface area is 57 times smaller than the giant in the north and is not blessed with almost any natural resources. Russia’s economy, regardless of truly awesome skill sets and goodwill from ordinary Russians, was mostly a one-trick resource pony, even before Putin committed economic and military suicide.
Rise of the oligarchs
In times of a necessary global switch towards renewable energy, Putin’s Russia heavily depends on the sale of oil and gas. His mediaeval-style granting of sectors to oligarchs meant not only that he collected all dues and off-shored them to the Western world, but also that the oligarch-controlled sectors of the economy allowed no space for genuine entrepreneurship – for the small guys who could bring their expertise and superior products at better prices than Putin-approved businesses.
Travel through Russia, away from the big cities, and you will see a hinterland that has not changed much from the days of the USSR, apart from the local bosses now driving Bentleys and Gelandewagens instead of Chaikas. Mud is still the main building material for most of Russia’s roads and houses. People are still poor – but this time they are also hopeless. Communism abandoned them and capitalism mostly meant they could now window shop without being able to afford windows. The net result is a rancid cynicism that pervades the land.
Failed leader as he is, Putin did bring peace to the streets of Russia in his early years – and to outsiders it is difficult to understand just how deeply grateful the Russians were to him for that achievement. Russia during the nineties was a truly awful place, where violence and bloodshed buried law and order. As a securocrat of the highest calibre, Putin brought in his old KGB buddies, re-negotiated the deal with oligarchs (you don’t challenge my power and you get to live and enjoy your caviar, hookers and Big Macs) and took many men with AK-47s out of circulation.
But he needed to do more than that to reclaim Russia’s sense of exceptionalism, and re-igniting the war with Chechnya was an obvious candidate.
Russia prosecuted this war in retaliation for the “fact” that Chechen terrorists were behind multiple blasts in Russia’s smaller cities in 1999. Independent investigations have since concluded that it was in all likelihood Putin’s people who perpetrated these atrocities, to manufacture the nation’s consent to war. This was not too difficult, given that the Russians were still smarting from the horrific first Chechen war, a ghastly conflict in 1994 that left them covered in blood and shame. And Putin delivered by not just defeating Chechnya – he razed it to the ground. Russia was once again led by a bulletproof tsar, and felt good about it.
But being a mightier thug than the next guy is not a sufficient qualification for running a country with 7,000 nuclear warheads, one that is in dire need of improving the lives of its people. At some point, you need to show actual aptitude for governance. Once the street fights were over, Putin still didn’t feel like swapping his natural brutal style for something more appropriate.
The Stalinesque style of prosecuting wars helped him keep the nationalists happy through conflicts in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine (Crimea and Donbas) in 2014, and Syria a year later. The Chavez-style spending of oil and gas revenues bought him decades of goodwill, peace and control.
Through all of this, he remained a thug, always after someone else’s lunch money. And he remained deeply fearful of losing his life, his total control, and for the safety of the billions he’d stashed in the West – exactly the place he officially disdained and yet privately committed a large portion of his illegal wealth to.
But you can’t count on luck and the commodity cycle to carry you forever. The Obama administration’s push to lower the global price of oil and gas would end up hitting the kingdom of Putin badly. The Magnitsky Act, also pushed by Obama, angered Putin even more after limiting the places he could stash his money overseas.
The decades of incompetence also started to take their toll. The ‘mighty’ Russian Army is now in direct combat against a Nato-equipped Ukrainian army, and we can clearly see that outdated and poorly maintained equipment is no match for high-tech Western technology. It turns out that the myth of a modern, powerful, well-supplied and well-organised Russia under Putin was exactly that, a myth. Its mighty army was not an exception.
Instead of benefiting from its incredible human potential, Russia under Putin solidified its top spot as a great exporter of hatred, racism and authoritarian control, constantly circling the drain around the ultimate cultural and political issue – is the world better under democracy or autocracy? Putin’s “success” gave space to Xi Jinping, Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Recep Erdogan, Victor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and so many more.
Even the obvious mistakes could not deter Putin. The 2020 Covid-19 anti-vaxxing campaign, in good part fed by the trolls from St Petersburg’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), which is owned by Prigozhin, boomeranged into his face, with only 30% of Russia’s citizens electing to get vaccinated (hesitancy was also fuelled by the Russian vaccine’s unproven record and outdated technology – more proof of the wholesale deterioration plaguing the second half of Putin’s 23 years of rule).
The IRA trolls are still a massive spreader of hatred around the world, but Putin does not sweat over the details, it appears.
So, we must ask, why did the government of South Africa decide to take Putin’s side so hard following his invasion of Ukraine – even while doing the weak-but-vicious passive-aggressive thing, claiming that it was neutral?
Beats me. And so many others. But let’s discuss it.
A historic mistake
It was always a kind of macabre fun since late February 2022 to wait for the next rationale from the comrades in the ANC and their assorted allies in EFF and elsewhere. These followed the rhythm of the dancing rationales that Putin put forward for his invasion: Ukrainians are Nazis, gay-lovers, Ukraine does not exist but it brought Nato to the Russian border and set up bioweapon laboratories … Remember the laboratories? Whatever happened to them? And remember when Putin’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, who recently awarded Independent Media’s Dr Iqbal Surve a medal for cooperation, said to a laughing global gathering in India that Russia was attacked first?
South Africa’s Putin fanboys at first insisted that the Russians helped the ANC when it needed it the most, and so comrades must stick together because, you know, a truly good friend will help you bury the body.
Except that is not entirely true. Russians were of course part of the USSR, but so were Ukrainians. Somehow the comrades also managed to forget that after the USSR’s near-economic collapse in 1987, and even before that, it was the Swedes who jumped in and helped the ANC by donating tens of millions of US dollars a year. Rather convenient selective memory, knowing now that Sweden is so bitterly opposed to the Russian invasion of Ukraine that it has decided to break hundreds of years of neutrality in favour of joining Nato.
Why so, comrades?
Perhaps the most cynical rationale goes something like this: If the US was allowed to invade Iraq and bomb Yugoslavia and Libya, why is the Western world so up in arms about the one tiny mini invasion of Ukraine? QED.
Well, where does one even start with this one?
The simple response to this logical fallacy is that one evil does not justify another. But let’s put more detail in it.
A great majority of people condemning Russia today also condemned the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia.
My own parents, family and friends suffered terribly through those harrowing 79 days of bombs and cruise missiles, and still suffer to this day. I was here in South Africa, and it’s difficult to explain the pain of being 10,000km away from your loved ones as bombs and missiles ruined the country, killed more than 5,000 people and caused estimated $80-billion damage.
What the US and Nato did from March to May 1999 is unforgivable and will never be forgotten. And yet, I refuse to allow the suffering of my people to justify the suffering of Ukrainians at the hands of Putin. What have the people of Ukraine done to you, dear ANC comrades and other assorted propagandists, to deserve your disdain for hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees?
The next rationale is very similar, with an important broadening of the argument: the US behaved horribly so many times over, with their neo-colonialism and spate of coups in sovereign countries, while the USSR was always helping out liberation movements.
Let’s say it up front: The global suffering caused by the US policies and actions devastated vast areas of the globe during the Cold War. The Vietnam War, the coups in Latin America and Iran, to say nothing of the post-Cold War invasion of Iraq and the botched 20-year occupation of Afghanistan, along with so, so many other examples. Only a person living under a rock could deny that.
But Putin’s disciples have a two-continent-wide hole in the middle of their argument: the USSR occupied half of Europe for more than 45 years, and big swathes of Asia for much longer. How do they explain the rush of the USSR’s former European vassal states to join Nato and the EU other than as a legitimate and existential wish not to be occupied ever again?
Stemming from the last point, there was also the claim made that because Nato spread towards Russia, that justified anything Putin would do to Ukraine. But Ukraine is not a Nato country. The followers of that logic mostly know but do not care to admit that the Russian nuclear doctrine states that nuclear weapons can be used even if only one foot of Russia’s territory is invaded; the argument falls apart immediately as only suicidal nations would have dared to do so before February 2022.
It is obvious that none of these rationales is anchored in reality. They are talking points, possibly cooked from inside Putin’s massive propaganda machine, which, incidentally, is one of the few sectors where Russia remains a true global power. These talking points sound good on social media and to people who prefer not to use their own brains. Everywhere else, they melt like Putin’s army in the face of Ukrainian, and even Wagner, fighters.
Russia has committed some of the worst human rights abuses in recent history and yet the party of Mandela supports them.
Russia is ranked as South Africa’s 51st economic partner. It has no technology of note to export to South Africa, other than those that can kill people, and maybe some cheap-ish oil, should China and India leave anything on the table.
Continuation of the obvious, if unspoken, support for Russia will cost South Africa billions of dollars in trade and millions of jobs once some of our biggest trading partners come to the point of no return, which is approaching fast.
SA has mortgaged its moral compass
So, why are we supporting Russia, Mr Ramaphosa? Why are we tethering the future of our 65-million people to the rapidly deteriorating fortunes of the world’s most hated man and his murderous cronies? We have mortgaged our most precious moral compass, for which many millions suffered for way too many decades, to provide a cover of respectability for one man, who happens to be devoid of all values that made South Africa’s sacrifice so important a moment in modern history?
Why, Mr Ramaphosa and the ANC government?
How much more do you need to know about just how catastrophic Putin will be for South Africa? The new world order you might help birth will rely upon some of the nastiest, cold-blooded killers alive today. Is that really the strategic direction to take for the country that can still benefit from great relations with the democratic world? Because there is no doubt that, should South Africa publicly decide to once again stand for what is right, the world would come our way overnight.
This weekend, Putin was challenged for the first time by someone who is even more disdainful of morals and norms, a man who values human lives the same way Stalin did a long time ago, back when sacrificing 20-million people was good politics. Putin has emerged as the “winner”, but he is now a damaged goods in the eyes of so many. His armour is getting rusty. The man’s word will be much less trusted than ever before.
Mr Ramaphosa. Dear African National Congress:
If you are fully intent on taking South Africa down this path, the least you can do is tell the truth to your fellow people you still (apparently) aspire to lead. But never forget this: you are making a historic mistake. And we deserve to know why. DM