Viewpoint: Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: What Does It Mean for Africa?
By Yusuf Bangura
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks a decisive end to the post-Cold War security regime that governed the strained but stable relations between the West and Russia and guaranteed the independence of East European countries and former Soviet republics in the last three decades. The invasion threatens the security of small nations and reinforces the illiberal turn in world politics by challenging the body of rights and democratic norms that gained ascendancy in the 1990s. African opinion and policy makers should understand what this portends for the continent.
Russia’s transition from communism to capitalism was messy — its economy contracted by about 40 per cent after a shock therapy of price liberalisation and privatisation; inflation skyrocketed, the ruble plummeted, and shortages of basic food items became the norm. While the employment data did not show any mass layoffs, about a quarter of the workforce was on unpaid or low-paid leave. A third of the population fell into poverty and the social protections developed in the Soviet era proved insufficient for maintaining basic wellbeing. Boris Yeltsin, the first post-communist president, sought and was granted membership of the IMF in 1992 and Russia obtained a series of loans with tough conditionalities that did not improve the country’s economy (Gould-Davies and Woods, 1999; Crotty, J. 2020). Indeed, former Russian foreign minister and prime minister, Yegeny Primakov, believes that Russia’s losses under the IMF were twice as large as those suffered during World War Two (Arkangelskaya and Shubin, 2013).
Many Russians saw the IMF loan agreements as an attack on Russia’s sovereignty (Gould-Davies and Woods, 1999) and an attempt to turn Russia into a vassal state of the West. Indeed, the loss of the Soviet republics, the deep economic recession and dependence on Western institutions for finance profoundly weakened Russia’s status as a global power and provoked a conservative and neo-nationalist turn in domestic politics. Russians yearned for a strong leader that would reverse the decline and restore the country’s position in the comity of nations.
After winning several fairly credible elections and stabilising the economy with the help of soaring oil and gas prices, Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB official, fit the bill of a new messiah. When Putin assumed power in 2000, Russia’s political system, though fragile, could still be described as an electoral democracy as relatively free and competitive elections were regularly held. However, within a few years of his rule, Putin reigned in independent political organisations, controlled national television stations and other media, weakened the power of the oligarchs that had been empowered by fire sales of state assets, and concentrated power in the presidency (McFaul, 2021). Supreme political authority provided the basis for challenging Western hegemony and reclaiming former Soviet lands.
Ever since he came to power in 2000, Putin has been obsessed with recreating the boundaries of the Soviet Union as Russian territory. In 2005, he told the world that the collapse of the Soviet Union “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” and a “genuine tragedy” for the Russian people as “tens of millions” of Russians found themselves outside of Russian territory (BBC, 2005). His strategic view of the world is a throwback to the Concert of Europe of the 19th century in which the great powers had vested interests and spheres of influence, intervened in the internal affairs of small states and acted collectively to maintain a balance of power or security in Europe. Such a system is antithetical to the current multilateral norms and arrangements that seek to curb unilateralist behaviour by states.
The refusal of the US and its Western allies to not only dismantle NATO but expand it to include former Soviet republics was a strategic blunder of enormous proportions, especially as Putin wanted Russia to join the alliance but was told he had to apply like any state seeking membership (Rankin, 2021). Hubris or triumphalism clouded Western strategic policy making. Many bought the dubious and self-serving idea of ‘the end of history’ — that markets and democracy will now determine how states are governed, and the U.S. will be the only superpower and will do as it pleases in policing the world. This posture fuelled Putin’s suspicion that the West still regarded Russia as an enemy and was not serious about world peace. In the logic of realpolitik and national security, the borders of states, especially those of great powers, should be free of antagonistic military forces. It is highly unlikely that Estonia and Latvia, which share a common border with Russia, would have been allowed to join NATO if Russia had regained its confidence and was governed by a resolute and calculating leader like Putin. Matters were not helped when NATO signalled that it would consider Ukraine’s membership of the alliance.
There are two key planks in Putin’s strategy to revive Russia’s power. The first is his challenge of liberal values and the rules-based multilateral system. It must be stressed that the attack on liberalism is not just a Russian problem. The US and its allies ignored UN rules and procedures in 2003 by invading Iraq under the false pretence of looking for weapons of mass destruction, and there have been countless other US interventions in foreign countries that clearly violated the rules-based international order, including the use of lethal drone strikes in Pakistan and Arab countries. In his United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State (2020), David Vine observes that the US “has been at war or has invaded other countries almost every year since its independence”.
Liberal values have also eroded in the US where there was an attempt in January 2021 to prevent a transfer of power to the winner of the presidential election; and laws are being passed in Republican-controlled state legislatures to limit black participation in the electoral process and overturn election results. Putin’s anti-liberalism is, however, visceral or an article of faith and serves as an instrument for resurrecting Russian power. In this regard, Russia has emerged as a leading actor in disinformation, cyberattacks, and tampering with the electoral processes of Western and other democracies. Russia’s hacking of Hilary Clinton’s and the Democratic National Committee’s emails and collusion with Wikileak to influence the 2018 elections is instructive. It is clear from Putin’s pronouncements that he is unhappy with the post-Cold war security arrangements and the global rules-based liberal order, which he believes, shackle his quest for global power.
The second plank of Putin’s strategy is to claw back lost territories along Russia’s border. The vehicle for realising this strategy is the 25 million ethnic Russians residing in the new ex-Soviet countries. The creation of the Soviet Union in 1917 was accompanied by Russification of non-Russian republics through a process that involved deportation of large numbers of disloyal individuals from indigenous populations and encouraging Russians to migrate and fill gaps in labour markets and public administrations. One of the most glaring examples of Russification was the displacement of the German population in Kaliningrad (which does not even share a border with Russia but is wedged between Lithuania, Poland and the Baltic Sea) and massive migration of Russians into the region after Germany’s defeat in the second world war. Joseph Stalin occupied, demanded and was given the right to annex Konigsberg (the previous name of Kaliningrad) by the Allied Powers as compensation for the mass suffering Russians incurred from Nazi Germany. Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, supported the expulsion (ethnic cleansing) of Germans from Konigsberg. In his words, “expulsion is the method which, in so far as we have been able to see, will be the most satisfactory and lasting. There will be no mixture of populations to cause endless trouble” (Sukhankin, 2018, p. 41). In 1945, there were only 5,000 Russians and more than 100,000 Germans in Konigsberg; by 1948 about 400,000 Soviets had moved into the region. There are now only 1,600 Germans or about 0.4 per cent of the population; Russians currently account for 87 per cent of the population (Wikipedia (a) ).
Photo Courtesy of Antonio Marín Segovia.
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