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You can contort the argument any way you like, but South Africa has made a fundamental error in backing Russia on the global stage, one that is directly against our political and economic interests. It’s the equivalent of putting your money on a horse with a gammy leg whose owner insists it’s just a sprain it can run off to secure victory. If Russia ultimately withdraws, South Africa will have backed a loser. If Russia remains, SA will have backed a country ostracised by much of the international community. No upside, writes Jonathan Katzenellenbogen in the Daily Friend. Ah, but the ANC doesn’t abandon historically loyal comrades, supporters and allies! Well, in politics, yesterday’s ally is today’s frenemy … especially when it comes to self-interest. What price loyalty? That’s perhaps the real question, even if you believe the West has been prodding the Russian bear for ages. – Chris Bateman
Russian victory and oppression or a Russian defeat and a new era for democracy?
By Jonathan Katzenellenbogen*
There are basically two broad scenarios for what will happen in Ukraine and the long-term global impact of the Russian invasion. The first expects that it is just a matter of time before Ukraine falls to the Russians. And over the longer term, it sees an assertive Russian and Chinese sphere of influence emerging. The result is a deteriorating outlook for democracy across the world.
There is another scenario that predicts a stalemate or Russian defeat in Ukraine, an outcome that might bring about the fall of Russian President Vladimir Putin and ultimately result in democracy in Russia itself. The significance of what happens in Ukraine for the global strategic picture and the future of democracy cannot be overstated.
South Africa’s natural foreign policy inclination is to lean towards Russia and China to show thanks for struggle-era support and what the ANC sees as the fight against Western imperialism. Yet, we are still tightly bound to the Western economies. China is our largest trade partner, but our ties to Europe and the US are far deeper.
Whatever the outcome of this war, South Africa has bungled a key foreign policy decision by failing to take account of its fundamental political and economic interests. If Russia ultimately withdraws, South Africa will have backed a loser. And if Russia remains, it will have backed a country that has been ostracised by much of the international community.
American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, is a proponent of the optimistic scenario on the post-Ukraine invasion world. This scenario sees a resurgence in democracy. He expects to see a Russian defeat in Ukraine. There are signs of poor Russian planning, inadequate logistics with a stuck supply convoy, lack of co-ordination, low morale and vehicle breakdowns. Even if the Russians resort to extensive bombardment of cities, they will face a prolonged guerrilla war.
Having invested so fully in his Ukraine venture, Putin cannot survive unless his army emerges victorious. Negotiations that end in a Russian withdrawal will be seen as defeat by his critics and would severely weaken his position at home.
In this piece, Fukuyama argues that Russia is “heading for an outright defeat” in Ukraine. And he argues that a Russian defeat will make possible a “new birth of freedom,” and “get us out of our funk about the declining state of global democracy”.
“The spirit of 1989 will live on, thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians,” he writes, referring to the year of the fall the Berlin Wall. This would validate Fukuyama’s famous theory of the end of history, which envisions liberal democracy and free market capitalism becoming the dominant form of government across the planet.
Fukuyama believes a Russian defeat would also persuade China to abandon any ideas about invading Taiwan. Like Russia, China has invested heavily in military modernisation in recent years, but its army remains untested and inexperienced, Fukuyama writes. The pain inflicted on Russia by Western sanctions and a united West could also drive home lessons to China that it would not be a good idea to invade Taiwan.
The strongest argument against Fukuyama’s optimism revolves around whether the Russian generals can correct their initial errors in Ukraine and whether the emergence of a new and far closer relationship between China and Russia really helps Moscow’s position.
Recently Chinese President, Xi Jinping, and Putin signed a no limits partnership. According to the Financial Times, Xi has declared this as “stronger than an alliance”.
A few days ago, the Russians asked the Chinese for military supplies to support its Ukraine campaign. The US has warned Beijing not to bail out Russia, a signal that the West could squeeze China with sanctions if it did so. Still, Chinese support of various sorts will help Putin to evade the worst consequences of Western sanctions and to continue financing his war machine. In Russia’s present weakened economic position, China will be able to extract big concessions.
For the US and Europe, an immense amount is riding on their united response to the invasion. The West cannot appear to be weak and invite further Chinese or Russian adventurism. The really big fear in Washington must be that China will take advantage of the Ukraine crisis to attack Taiwan, a development that would force the US and its allies to possibly face war on two fronts.
This is the biggest wake-up call the West has had about dictatorships since World War II. Decades of engagement by the West with China and Russia have led to the adoption of types of market economies by both. But contrary to Fukuyama’s expectations, the result has not been greater liberalisation or international security.
Yet, NATO is hamstrung in its response as it does not want to take actions that might escalate the conflict into nuclear war. Hence, the US refusal to help Poland to transfer its Russian fighter aircraft to Ukraine and have them replaced with US F-16s. NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, has stated that Ukraine “is not our war”. The West has come to view Putin as an irrational actor who might precipitate a nuclear holocaust if he is not handled carefully.
And yet the West must show resolve. Its humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan was widely viewed as a sign of weakness, while domestic capitulation to the environmental and inclusion agenda is seen by Russia and China as a symptom of division and decline.
The forces of democracy face some stark choices in the months to come. Increased defence spending means taxes will have to rise at a time when Western consumers are already hurting. Germany has shown it is willing to take pain by cancelling the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Such steps are a good way for the West to demonstrate resolve, willingness to take pain, and its ability to outspend and outgun potential rivals.
It won’t be easy for anyone. Since the invasion, oil prices have risen by nearly 30% and wheat prices by almost 40%. We could be in for a repeat of the stagflation of the 1970s. And the West will have to help developing countries to cope with the resulting shocks if it hopes to build international political support.
What the crisis does show is that, at least in its present form, the United Nations and the UN Security Council are incapable of ending this sort of war. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia can veto any resolution calling for an end to the conflict. The UN General Assembly passed a resolution earlier this month condemning Russia and calling for the withdrawal of its forces. But General Assembly resolutions are entirely symbolic, and only Security Council decisions are enforceable under international law.
With the UN useless in this situation and NATO hamstrung by its fear of provoking a nuclear escalation, the Ukrainians will have to do a lot on their own. The international cause of democracy and freedom rests heavily on them winning. Let us hope Fukuyama is right in his prediction.
- Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a Johannesburg-based freelance financial journalist. His articles have appeared on DefenceWeb, Politicsweb, as well as in a number of overseas publications. Jonathan has also worked on Business Day and as a TV and radio reporter and newsreader.
- The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR. If you like what you have just read, support the Daily Friend.
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