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Jaw-jaw is better than war-war — and there is only a small window of opportunity for talk in Ukraine

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Paul Hoffman SC is a director of Accountability Now.

The sooner the mediation route is explored between Russia and Ukraine the better for all parties. The zero-sum game of a scorched earth policy (such as that used by the British against the Boers in the Second South African War) does not belong in the 21st century.

Sir Winston Churchill, wartime British leader, who had plenty of experience of talking and of fighting, is credited with originating the phrase “jaw-jaw is better than war-war”. He did not reach his aphorism as a consequence of pacifism, he knew war has its place, but he also recognised that conflict situations are better resolved by talking than by fighting.

Branko Brkic, the editor of Daily Maverick, has drawn up what may be regarded as a fairly comprehensive charge-sheet for Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and he does not go so far as to accuse Putin of interfering in American politics via social media manipulation of the presidential contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. To this day Trump remains a Putin fan.

In short, Brkic suggests that Putin has:

  • Decimated Russia’s democratic society;
  • Made a mockery of elections and accountability;
  • Created one of the world’s most unequal societies through never-before-heard-of levels of corruption;
  • Militarised the country through years of propaganda;
  • Spread that propaganda through media that has been brought under Russia’s full and total control;
  • Based Russia’s future on oil, gas and other fossil fuels in a time of global climate emergency;
  • Essentially gifted the country’s economy to a few fee-paying oligarchs, ensuring that it cannot grow through entrepreneurship and has no chance of being competitive;
  • Fought six bloody wars (Chechnya 2000, Georgia 2008, Syria 2012, Crimea, Donbas 2014-2022, Ukraine 2022);
  • Fought the same wars by laying waste to everything before them — the corruption has robbed the Russian army of the capability to conduct modern precision warfare;
  • Sprayed Wagner mercenaries across Africa and the Middle East, in service of the nastiest, most murderous regimes;
  • Presided over a state-sponsored global network of cybercriminals, bullies and propagandists who are responsible for most of the hate on social networks;
  • Helped fan the flames of reactionary racism from Europe to Africa, from the Americas to Asia;
  • Killed and maimed political opponents and activists in other countries in total disregard of international law;
  • Engaged in a planetary-reckless war in Ukraine against a state that did not endanger Russia in any way while being begged by the whole world not to do it; and
  • Brought in laws that punish telling the truth by up to 15 years in a penal colony.

Is this what YOU really want, South Africa?

Professor William Gumede of Wits has a different take on Putin. He regards him as a practitioner of the “strategy of ‘maskirovka’, a military doctrine of deception, manipulation of facts and doing the opposite of what one says, to catch Western powers off-guard with his war on Ukraine”. As a former KGB spy, Putin is described by Gumede as “a man deeply immersed in the philosophy of deception”.

There is nothing deceptive about the bombed-out Russian tanks on the streets of Kyiv, nor are the more than 2.5 million refugees fleeing Ukraine a figment of the imagination of a movie director. The images on the news channels on television around the world show that there is a real shooting war in Ukraine, one that threatens to boil over into regional or even global conflict on a scale unprecedented in human history.

Professor John Mearsheimer of Chicago University has a different take on the cause of the situation in Ukraine. He is the author of the theory of offensive realism. He believes the US is to blame for the aggression orchestrated by Putin in response to what he calls the aggressive geopolitical activities of the US creating an existential threat to Russia. His approach is well documented on YouTube and in Wikipedia.

Peace and security were uppermost in the minds of the survivors of World War 2 when they hammered out the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the wake of the human misery and suffering that the war against Germany and Japan caused. Today Germany is a leading member of the European Union and Nato. Japan has one of the biggest economies in the world. World War 2 ended in unconditional surrender brought about by force of arms in Europe and the use of the nuclear bomb on Japan. Mearsheimer argues that the vaporisation of Japanese cities via US Air Force aerial bombardment was conducted out of fear of a ground war in Japan.

Since the establishment of the United Nations it has become possible to end conflict using means other than force of arms.

Alternative dispute resolution has become a niche industry in the worlds of commerce, litigation, diplomacy and international relations. Mediators abound in settings in which the fabled “win-win” solution to conflicts of all kinds is a possibility. Mediation has become a highly professional endeavour, not to be attempted by amateurs if success is the aim. When politicians are used as mediators they should be advised and guided by highly skilled and experienced mediators.

The current situation in Ukraine lends itself to the use of mediation to arrive at an outcome that is mutually acceptable and less bloody than that promised by the conflicts in various parts of the country. There are advantages to both sides in accentuating the positive and seeking means of peacefully addressing various negatives that have given rise to the conflict in Ukraine, especially in the Donbas and Crimea regions.

Mediation is often resorted to when negotiation has not borne fruit. Such negotiation as has taken place thus far has not had any positive effect, indeed, on the contrary, the conflict appears to be escalating in Ukraine. The role of the mediator, or of the team of mediators, is to turn down the heat and bring light to bear on the issues between the warring parties.

The first requirement for success in mediation is that the right mediator or a “dream team” of mediators is appointed with the consent of the warring parties. This can be arrived at in various ways via unlimited permutations. If they are unable to agree among themselves as to who should mediate, they can ask a neutral umpire or body to appoint the mediator(s) for them. No mediation is ever successful unless the parties are in agreement as to its outcome. A good mediator addresses the hopes and the fears of both sides and seeks to constructively address the fears so that the hopes are given a better chance of success.

When neither party, or even one of them, is prepared to consider a mediation, the circumstances conducive to mediating have to be created. In a situation such as that currently pertaining in Ukraine the chances of getting to mediation are enhanced if the disadvantages of fighting on increase due to sanctions, arms build ups, stout resistance, successful complaints to the International Criminal Court concerning the crime of aggression and other war crimes, a humanitarian crisis in both countries at war, hunger, need and want. A rout in the fighting, no matter who is vanquished, tends to lessen the chances of taking the dispute to mediation.

The sooner the mediation route is explored the better for all parties, including neighbouring states and those parts of Ukraine which may freely and fairly decide to split from the country rather than continuing indefinitely to be contested territory.

Skilled mediators managed to get the warring states of Israel and Egypt to agree on the fate of the Sinai Peninsula via a mediated settlement which has held for many years and has improved relations between the two countries, despite their many obvious differences.

Internecine strife between Slavs ought, at least in theory, to be easier to resolve, provided that the right mediators are given a fair chance of applying their skills to the issues before tensions are exacerbated in the crucible of conflict and rendered intractable due to the hardening of positions over time. The zero-sum game of a scorched earth policy (such as that used by the British against the Boers in the Second South African War) does not belong in the 21st century.

The need to move with speed when the circumstances are ripe for a successful mediation is critical. Mediation may only enjoy a short window of opportunity before a war of attrition becomes more attractive to the combatants. The human cost of war is so prohibitive as to render a concerted effort to get to mediation (preferably after a ceasefire) as soon as is humanly possible is a more humane approach.

The position taken by South Africa in relation to the conflict in Ukraine is both morally and legally indefensible. Our Constitution requires that we take our rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations. Our state must respect, protect, promote and fulfil human rights. Our treaty obligations bind us to promoting peace in the world as does our membership of the UN since its inception.

The vote to abstain on the UN resolution concerning the situation in Ukraine is conduct inconsistent with the sovereignty and freedom-loving, peaceful ethos of our Constitution. Our leaders could — and should — do better. Promoting the idea of mediating over the conflict in Ukraine and creating circumstances propitious for its success is probably the best way of doing so. DM

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