Ukraine: It will be difficult to sit on the fence – Chatham House’s Christopher Vandome

Geographically we may be far from Ukraine, the country that the Russian president Vladimir Putin’s forces has invaded at the end of last week, but this does not mean South Africa will be able to sit this one out. While some South Africans joined protests across the world against the invasion, on social media, opinion is leading heavily towards, “This is not our war.” Christopher Vendome, a research fellow at the London-based international think-tank, however, says it would be difficult for South Africa to escape the economic impact of the war and ultimately South Africa may be forced “to answer questions that it did not necessarily want to answer”. – Linda van Tilburg

The end of peace in Europe? 

I think that kind of language is referring to the end of the norms-based international system, where there’s a respect for geographically defined boundaries of nation states and the states that have emerged and participated in the United Nations and the European Union, for example, during that time. So, when you talk about of the largest breach of that system since the Second World War, it’s referring to that, too. Here is a nation state that has been invaded by another nation state against the accepted norms and systems of the UN.

South Africa will be impacted whether or not it stays out of the fight

There are three tiers of impact on South Africa and three tiers where South African decision-makers have to place the emphasis right now.

1. Immediate impact: South Africans stuck in Ukraine and helping other Africans

The first of these is the immediate response, which is about South African citizens who were directly caught up in what’s been going on. The ambassador on the ground there, André Groenewald, has been quite active in communicating their response. There are a number of South African students, for example, whom they were concerned with, particularly in the medical sciences. There are several doctors being trained in Ukraine, and that’s clearly a priority, as is ensuring the security and safety of South Africans caught up in this. Beyond that, he’s also been talking about other African countries that don’t have diplomatic or consular presence on the ground. Some of that is being done by the South Africans as well and they’re taking a wider responsibility for the Africans who are caught up in what has been going on.

2. Mid-term impact: SA can’t shield itself from volatility and higher food prices

The second tier is the mid-term. How does it affect South Africa in terms of a very practical economic base? This is where you see high volatility in the markets. Oil and gas prices have gone up. Clearly this is going to have an impact on global energy supplies, inputs and food prices. When these high-risk events occur, the capital tends to migrate back to secure locations and places that are perhaps perceived as high risk, such as South Africa. We will see a withdrawal of capital from places like this, which is why there will be a slight depreciation of the rand. There is going to be volatility there. Ukraine is a significant grain producer, for example, so there will be global economic impact from which South Africa is not shielded.

3. Higher level impact: South Africa could be forced to take a stand

That there are geopolitical impacts is a question mark over things like BRICS. How does South Africa square its membership of BRICS now that a member of that organisation or cluster has done something like this? How does that relate to say, the African Union’s position on non-interventionism? I think South Africa and other African countries have been widely respecting the speech given by the Kenyans at the UN this week, forcefully saying we in Africa are the products of colonialism and invasion and occupancy and we do not stand for it. South Africa has also issued a statement, perhaps a little bit softer, but it is the same thing… Some of the larger world powers adjusted in a changing international system since the Cold War. You had American hegemony or a type of global multilateralism with multiple sources of dominant powers as these things shift. South Africa and other African countries have sought to balance these relationships. When we have such a divide within the United Nations and within those systems of international governance, it’s going to force these nations to take a stand on some of these issues. It will mean South African leadership has to take a position and you can see that already with the way in which Cyril Ramaphosa spoke about engaging with the Russians and the Americans. It raises questions about why South Africa is getting involved when we have so much at stake at home.

Can South Africa yield soft power? 

During the late ‘90s and early 2000s, the process that South Africa went through in creating our Constitution and moving towards democratic participation in 1994 became part of South Africa’s soft power of what it was trying to sell to the world. We were a nation born around human rights and negotiation and that was a key part of our foreign policy objective. Obviously, there is debate about whether or not that ever materialised. Under the recent Zuma regime but also under Ramaphosa, there are going to be questions about whether or not it sits at odds with a more pragmatic self-interest view of foreign policy. There is a soft power angle of what South Africa sees as its foreign policy. And then there is the other view that South Africa does have some traditional ambition on the global stage within the United Nations. There has long been a debate about the expansion of the P5, the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council. There are non-permanent members, of course: Kenya is one, and South Africa has held that non-permanent position, I think three times now. This isn’t only about South Africa having a position on Ukraine specifically, but about South Africa wanting to represent the continent and continental ambitions on a whole range of global issues. When something like this is the centre of global debate, SA feels it needs to have an opinion on it, because if it doesn’t have a position on such a prominent issue, it’s difficult to justify having a greater role on other issues.

Putin’s end game? 

This is the golden question. Even reading opinions from various Russian analysts, I don’t think there’s a unified opinion of that. We at Chatham House have got a collection of Russia experts who are going to be doing an event on this at some point this week. I advise people to watch it and hear those views. Whatever his intention is, South Africa cannot necessarily influence or impact this. Bringing it all the way back to Ramaphosa and Naledi Pandor, and DIRCO and where South Africa sits in all of this. It’s a question of choosing your alliances and positioning yourself. There is not a huge amount of domestic appetite here in South Africa for its leadership to get involved in grand matters of global geopolitics right now. This change of global thinking – of how the country positions itself – is going to have to answer questions it did not necessarily want to answer.

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