Valeria, a software engineer from Donetsk, asks of the countries that support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “What stops them from being next?” The mayor of Lviv, Andriy Sadovy, has a message for Africa. He says: “You can make a choice: Money or freedom. My proposal, and my choice, is for freedom. If you choose money, you lose freedom.” His Kyiv counterpart, Vitali Klitschko, a former world heavyweight boxing champion, says: “You can’t be half-pregnant. Right now the war is black and white. Are you for peace and support Ukraine or do you support the aggressors, Russia?”
The leaders of the 40 countries that voted to abstain or were against the two UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion are on the wrong side of history. This is not solely because they have failed to condemn a violent transgression of international law or that the Russians have perpetrated acts of violence against civilians on a scale that may qualify as a war crime. The Ukrainians are, after all, not bombing and shelling themselves. The atrocities committed in Bucha did not happen by themselves. They are the consequence of a Russian leadership that has misread Ukrainian and Western will and is now seeking to win the war by terrorizing civilians as the Nazis did 80 years ago.
Ukraine’s struggle is Africa’s struggle, for several reasons. The first of these is about rights and responsibilities. This war represents a struggle between two different value systems and the choices they offer. Nowhere is this more starkly illustrated than by the transformation undergone by Central and Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War, a war that itself maintained a division between free and unfree political and economic systems. The ultimate symbol of this was the erection of the Berlin Wall between East and West Berlin, to keep people from leaving the Eastern Bloc. Despite the challenges, these reforms have been replicated throughout former Eastern Bloc countries in their transition from Soviet rule to today’s modern economies.
While capitalism may be imperfect, it is, to paraphrase Churchill, the least imperfect economic system that there is. It is notable that the 140 countries that voted with Ukraine in the UN represent more than 71% of global economic wealth; those that abstained, 23%; and the five that voted against, just 2%. Yet the 140 countries comprise just 40% of the world’s population, showing, if nothing else, that whatever the setbacks that liberal democracy has to continuously contend with, economic choices matter. It is this system that Ukrainians — and many Russians — crave and that President Vladimir Putin’s Russia fears. It is the system that strongmen everywhere dread since it challenges rule by elites and oligarchies.
The second, related reason is that Africans recognize the power of closer regional political and economic integration. Ukraine’s per capita income is, at $3,500 per annum, 10 times less than that of the average of the European Union’s member states. Poland next door reminds us of the benefits of such integration, with its average individual income growing tenfold over the past 30 years. Most Ukrainians want to enjoy the freedoms and income of their Western European neighbors. It was a combination of the choice of European integration over Putinism and a large dose of Ukrainian patriotism that gave rise to the Euromaidan protests of 2014. These set Ukraine on a collision course with Russia as it struggled to shake off Russian interference and clientelism, foreign factors with which African states are all too familiar. Ukraine wants closer ties, for good reason, with the West, the entity that Putin characterizes as an “empire of lies”.
The third reason for African states to support Ukraine is that it is in their economic interest to do so, both in the short and longer term. The net effect of strangling Ukraine’s exports of corn, wheat and sunflower, in which it is one of the world’s top five exporters, will have dramatic and costly implications for African food security, especially on countries in North Africa, including Egypt, Ethiopia and Tunisia, that are dependent on these sources of supply. Russia and Ukraine account for about 30% of global wheat and barley exports. Ukraine also supplies 15% of the world’s corn exports. Any price rises, which usually go hand-in-glove with fuel cost increases, could have dramatic social and political implications in poorer markets, where food insecurity is a risk.
The fourth reason is down to the generational change represented by the dynamic leadership of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in contrast to that of Putin. Russia is changing from the inside out. Its demographics mean that by 2030, Russia’s current population of 143 million people is expected to fall by nearly 10%. This will have an impact on Russia’s political and social landscape. Today, more than 20% of the Russian population were born after 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union. By 2032 that population will be nearly half of all Russians. This generation is unlikely to remain supportive of nostalgic glories, especially if the Russian economy declines as the noose of sanctions tightens.
Africa should not ignore this crisis, realpolitik or not. For the two thirds of Africans who support democracy over other versions of government, Ukraine’s survival as an independent and democratic nation is in their interests. For those Africans interested in sovereign stability, standing up for Ukraine’s right to exist is in their interests. In supporting human rights, and international law, Africans should recognize that Ukrainians have been wronged and need international support, and that Russia deserves criticism. To remain silent on this is to condone might over what is fundamentally right, a criticism often leveled at the West.
A vote for Ukraine is a vote against strongmen, and a vote for those interested in reform, for checks and balances on political authority and for those who seek economic openness as a conduit for trade and wealth. This conflict is, in essence, the outcome of a process of state and imagination capture by the Leningrad branch of the KGB in controlling key political and other aspects of life in Russia as much as it was based on an absolutely flawed understanding of contemporary Ukraine. There is no contradiction in criticizing Russia, supporting sanctions and assisting Ukrainian victims while still encouraging a peaceful resolution to the conflict. On the contrary, it is the right thing to do.
Just 250km from the Polish-Ukrainian border in the city of Krakow is the site of the former DEF, or Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik — German Enamelware Factory. During World War 2, its proprietor, Oskar Schindler, managed to save the lives of 1,200 Jewish workers. His journey was a personal metamorphosis from a rationally business and profiteering approach in a position of privilege to an ethical one. Outside the walls of the museum today on the site is a plaque with the words: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire”. It is an expression of the practice more than the rhetorical universality of human rights, of which African leaders should take heed in their actions on Ukraine.
‘Why Ukraine’s Struggle is Africa’s Struggle’ — Article by Greg Mills — The Brenthurst Foundation.