Putin’s invasion and the failure of peace

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The West is no longer the hegemonic power.

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The war began today (24 February 2022). A sentence you hope never to have to write. Starting at about 5 am local time, Russian forces launched missiles, rockets and artillery shells into the sovereign country of Ukraine. Armoured vehicles and troops have crossed into Ukraine from both Belarus and Russia. From Ukraine’s far west to its east, airports have been targeted. A few hours after the invasion the Russian military claimed to have degraded Ukraine’s air defences and capabilities significantly.

And this is despite a raft of Western sanctions over the past couple of days to prevent Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, from invading. Germany terminated the completed €9,5 bn Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which would have brought incredible amounts of Russian gas to the country. The UK, European Union and the Americans have targeted Russian oligarchs, politicians and high-ranking government officials.

The West froze bank accounts and Putin launched cruise missiles. 

Much more death is to come. At least in these early stages, on the first day of the largest war in Europe since 1945, the invasion appears to be massive and aimed at, to put it bluntly, conquest. There are no moral justifications for this war, like there aren’t for almost all wars. 

But from Putin’s point of view, this is not a war of conquest but of reconquest in the face of an existential threat to Russia itself.

When nations decide to embark on a war of aggression they usually say why and what they are going to do in advance. In the lead-up to the second invasion of Iraq the Americans were quite clear that unless Saddam Hussein handed over the weapons of mass destruction that threatened the West, they would topple his government by force. Since the Iraqis had no weapons of mass destruction and thus could not meet American demands, Iraq was invaded and the entire region became destabilised. The Middle East remains unstable today with outright and extremely nasty wars in Yemen and Syria.

Putin is no exception in this regard. Two days ago he addressed the Russian Federation and said that “modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia – by separating, severing what is historically Russian land. Nobody asked the millions of people living there what they thought.”

Basically, according to Putin, Ukraine is not a country but has been a part of Russia and should be again. Adding to this revisionist history, Putin also thinks that Russia is under direct threat from America. In his address he also said, “NATO documents officially declare our country to be the main threat to Euro-Atlantic security. Ukraine will serve as an advanced bridgehead for such a [military] strike. If our ancestors heard about this, they would probably simply not believe this. We do not want to believe this today either, but it is what it is.”

And these remarks are nothing new. In July 2021 he wrote an essay, “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, in which he claimed that Ukrainians and Russians are one people. He also accused the West of “turning Ukraine into a barrier between Europe and Russia, a springboard against Russia”.

When presidents and military leaders make these kinds of declarations and historical statements, we should resist the temptation to dismiss them as the absurd mad ravings of a warmonger. Instead, we need to understand that people like Putin believe what they say. Only then can we act appropriately in the cause of peace. Put another way, when Julius Malema says he wants to nationalise the land, be under no illusions that the land won’t be nationalised under an EFF government. He’s not joking.

Diplomatic efforts to prevent this war have, quite obviously, failed. If Putin’s invasion of conquest is successful, a betting proposition since Ukraine is vastly outgunned, then the sovereign nation of Ukraine will be a tattered rump at best. Exactly the outcome that diplomacy was supposed to prevent.

Why did the negotiations fail? Historians will debate this in years to come, but the West’s bellicose statements in the run-up to the conflict and its inflated faith in sanctions are partly to blame. The UK’s defence minister, Ben Wallace, said only yesterday that “The Scots Guards kicked the backside of Tsar Nicholas I in 1853 in Crimea. We can always do it again.” He also said, “Tsar Nicholas I made the same mistake Putin did … he had no friends, no alliances.”

US President Joe Biden also penned an essay on relations between the West and Russia. In Foreign Affairs in 2018 Biden states that the Kremlin “is brazenly assaulting the foundations of Western democracy” and that it was time for America to “fight back”. Biden’s view is also one of winning a war, not of achieving a peace.

For the past few months, and often without Ukraine being in the room, the Americans and Russians have been trading insults and talking to each other in terms of threat, conflict and mutual suspicion. Hardly the kind of atmosphere that leads to a diplomatic solution.  

Biden also described Russia as “weakness dressed up as strength”, which best describes not his ideological foe but rather America, the EU and the UK’s threats of sanctions. For South Africans the use of sanctions was part of the country’s liberation. Elsewhere, Western sanctions have caused pain for ordinary people but haven’t changed other countries’ behaviour: North Korea keeps on testing missiles, communists still run Cuba, Iran is building the bomb, ZANU-PF remains in power.

Declaring massive sanctions on Russia if it invades hasn’t worked and represents a blind spot on the part of the West: Economic welfare does not often trump other considerations. For Putin, “reconquering” Ukraine is a higher goal that negates any economic pain. Sanctions are a market mechanism. Protecting an Islamic revolution, for example, is a sacred position in which money has no meaning.

Not only does Putin’s invasion prove that sanctions have lost their effectiveness, those very same sanctions are helping to bring about an unstable world divided into powerful blocks. The West is no longer the hegemonic power. On February 4, 2022, Putin and China’s president, Xi Jinping, met for the 38th time and declared a no-limits partnership. Only a fool would think that China will stop buying Russian gas and won’t help Russia evade US sanctions.

Out of all the initial reactions from governments regarding the invasion, China’s is perhaps most chilling. Hua Chunying, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said, “When the US drove five waves of NATO expansion eastward all the way to Russia’s doorstep and deployed advanced offensive strategic weapons in breach of its assurances to Russia, did it ever think about the consequences of pushing a big country to the wall?”

China is a big country with the stated aim of reuniting Taiwan with the mainland. By force if necessary.

Today represents the world’s failure to find peace for Ukraine. Unfortunately, tomorrow won’t be any better.

Tristen Taylor is a freelance journalist and photographer. He is also a research fellow in environmental ethics, Stellenbosch University.

Also read and view:

Die Rusland-Oekraïne-konflik: die geskiedenis en Poetin se wêreldbeskouing

Reguit met Robinson: ’n videogesprek met Leopold Scholtz

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