In October 2016, British civil servant Cormac Smith was seconded to Ukraine to take up a special appointment as the strategic communication adviser to then-foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin. For the 18 months of his posting, Smith was embedded in Klimkin’s department, the first foreigner to be given unfettered access across the ministry. He says trust was built up through a strategy of gaining a rapid understanding of the culture, issues and history of the hugely complex nation. During his time in Kyiv, he advised and provided training for five other government ministries and worked directly with the deputy prime minister; and the ministers of health and education. Smith says he came away from Kyiv with a “deep understanding and empathy” for Ukraine and its people. He is now in daily contact with a range of former Ukrainian colleagues in government and friends who are in the middle of the conflict. In this special podcast, he gives BizNews editor Alec Hogg an update on the latest developments, the roots of the war and delivers a clear message to a ‘confused’ South Africa.
Cormac Smith on the Revolution of Dignity/Maidan Revolution
I spent two years in Ukraine as a British diplomat between 2016 and 2018 and was effectively loaned to the Ukrainian foreign minister as part of Britain’s ongoing support for Ukraine in its journey to democratise and deal with corruption. Ukraine, like South Africa in many ways, is a very young state. It is only 31 years old; 92% of the population voted for independence from Russia in 1991 after the breakup of the Soviet Union. So, like all new states, they deal with lots of issues. Unfortunately, Ukraine has one more issue. It has the worst neighbour in the world who invaded Ukraine eight years ago with the illegal annexation of Crimea and further invaded Donbas in the east. The reason they did that goes to the heart of what is happening today. There was a popular revolution known as the Revolution of Dignity or the Maidan Revolution because it centred on Maidan Square in Kyiv, the capital. It was in protest of a president who had been democratically elected in 2010 but turned out to be very corrupt and very autocratic. When the people clearly wanted to move towards democracy, he decided – pretty well on his own – he would not sign an association agreement with the European Union and would instead sign an agreement to form closer economic ties with the Russian Federation.
The response to that back in late 2014 was a student protest. The government at the time under Yanukovych sent out a special police force, which brutally beat the students. I have heard stories of iron bars being used in place of their normal batons. Somebody said to me in Ukraine: there’s one thing you don’t do; you don’t touch our children. Many people said this to me in the two years I was there. Within days, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of major cities, Kyiv in particular, which was the heart of the revolution. That revolution lasted for over 100 days. In the end, Yanukovych tried bringing in what I believe were Russian special forces, snipers who took up positions on the high rooftops and buildings around the square and they murdered … they shot with sniper rifles over a hundred [protesters]. There is a very moving wall commemorating them just below Maidan Square in Kyiv to this day with every single person named and what they did, what age they were and so forth. That popular revolution effectively brought down the Yanukovych regime. He fled to Russia, where he still lives in exile. The Ukrainians put a democratic government in its place.
On the Russian media painting a false narrative of the Ukraine invasion
I had a long conversation on Saturday night with one of my closest friends in Ukraine, who is a very senior diplomat. He was saying this is not just Putin; this is a large part of the Russian people. And, in fact, he sent me a statistic this morning that 69% of the Russian people support the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But it is important to remember, just as Russia has a massive lying machine as part of its propaganda, it also has an iron grip on communication with its own people.
There was a big piece of research when I was in Ukraine – carried out in partnership by the Estonians and the Ukrainians – that looked at how the West was depicted in Russian media. Apart from being fed a constant diet of false narratives and lies about how corrupt the West was, one of the things that came out of this was how the West was a threat to Russia, how the West was decadent and everything bad. Apart from being fed that constant diet of lies, it is estimated 95% of the Russian people get no news from outside the Russian Federation. And in Russia, the media is controlled almost absolutely, not by the state, effectively by one man, because that is the absolute total control that Putin has.
That was then. We have now seen even more draconian laws. In the last few days, the last liberal radio station in Russia closed down. A new law was rammed through the Duma only last Friday, where anybody who contradicts the state narrative faces up to 15 years in prison. They are not being told Russia has invaded Ukraine; instead, they are told it’s a special military operation. The word invasion is not allowed to be used. They are being told if they get any pictures of bombed schools and buildings – by the way, as of this morning, the Russians have bombed 215 schools in Ukraine, plus hospitals and other buildings – they are told the Ukrainians are doing this themselves. They are told Ukraine needs to be denazified. Obviously, with the history of the Soviet Union, the term Nazi is particularly toxic.
On what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine
There are lots of stories of prisoners of war being taken, whole units sometimes surrendering; completely demoralised, badly led, badly fed, looting supermarkets because their supply lines and their logistics are breaking down. They are young kids basically saying they thought they were on a training exercise and the Ukrainians are being very smart. From everything I can tell and from the fact that I lived among them for two years and worked at the heart of their government, yes, there’s a fog of war. If they say 11,000, it might be only 9,000 or it might be 14,000 but these are their best estimates. We are also hearing stories of prisoners of war who are young conscripts and have no stomach for the war. They are badly led. They haven’t been told what they’re really doing. They are being given phones by their captors and ringing their mothers. There are just too many stories coming through for it not to be true of how some of these kids just did not know where they were going. They don’t have the stomach for the fight.
On South Africa’s position in the Russo-Ukrainian war
I believe in the existence of absolute evil in our world. And there have been deeds of absolute evil carried out in countries across the world, including South Africa. But in terms of an absolute war between good and evil, we have not seen anything like what is happening in Ukraine today since 1939 to 1945. That was something different about Nazism when six million Jews were exterminated and everything else that regime did. This is the first time since then we have seen something as diabolical contained within one man. This is pure, pure evil. So, South Africa can either sit on the fence or be on the right side of history. There is no grey area. I would appeal to the good people of South Africa having gone through the huge trauma your country went through with apartheid, in particular, there is no sitting on the fence… Sit on the fence, or be on the right side of history.
- Making sense of the Russia/Ukraine mayhem for South Africans
- Conflicting snapshots of Ukraine and Zimbabwe – Cathy Buckle
- A frontline missive from sudden refugee Ronnie Apteker: “Slava Ukraini” (Glory to Ukraine)