On March 2, 2022, just days after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, members of the United Nations voted to adopt United Nations General Assembly Resolution ES-11/1, which condemned the invasion and, among other things, called for a full withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine. 141 countries voted in favor of the resolution, with 5 voting against, 35 abstaining, and 12 voting absent. Almost all of the countries that did not vote in favor were from the so-called Global South.
The reasons those countries gave for their votes are many and varied, but the overarching one is that they were unwilling to take sides in what they consider to be a rivalry between major powers. As the war has dragged on over the past year, this attitude has only hardened, according to a recent Washington Post article. The fact that the invasion is a blatant attempt at territorial conquest, precisely what the United Nations was established to prevent in the aftermath of World War II, seems to matter little to these countries. After all, they say, America and its allies are equally guilty because they have carried out their own invasions in places like Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan. Context is also unimportant to these countries; they do not differentiate between invasion and humanitarian intervention; and there is no consideration for whether an intervention was U.N.-authorized or not.
South Africa and numerous other countries in Africa seem to sympathize with Russia in its war of aggression against Ukraine because, in their eyes, Russia supported their struggles against apartheid and the quest for independence from colonial powers like Britain and France. There are two problems with this viewpoint. First, these countries fail to recognize that that support came from the Soviet Union, not Russia. Ukraine was a crucially important member of the Soviet Union. Many of the Soviet Union’s heavy industries were located in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, where I lived for a period during my college days in the Soviet Union. Ukraine therefore contributed much more to Africa during that period than South Africans and others on the continent realize.
Second, the fact that Russia didn’t colonize anyone in Africa doesn’t mean it had no imperialistic ambitions of its own. To find out what Russia really is, one only needs to ask the Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians. They were all forcibly conquered and absorbed into the Soviet Union for decades, until they were able to break free following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.
For some of us who grew up in post-colonial Africa, the staunch support manifesting in the Global South for Russia in its unprovoked attack on Ukraine has come as a huge surprise. For years, we have heard over and over again from our compatriots about how colonialism did irreparable damage to the continent. Every single problem on the continent today, be it economic or social, is blamed on colonialism. Even when just a cursory observation would reveal that some current ailments in Africa are rather the products of gross mismanagement by today’s elite on the continent, the mess is still blamed on colonialism. It makes little sense therefore to have many of the same people who make this argument turning around today to legitimize an attempt by Russia to colonize another sovereign country.
Inexplicably, there actually are some geopolitical experts in the West who blame Ukraine for precipitating the war through its efforts to join NATO and the European Union. In the view of these experts, a major power like Russia is entitled to a sphere of influence, and hence Putin is justified in his insistence that Ukraine should stay out of NATO. The concepts of sovereignty and territorial integrity don’t seem to mean much to them. Military might is all that counts.
There were indeed times in the past when this was the case. But isn’t today’s civilized world supposed to have learned not to repeat these ugly episodes in history? Should historical occurrences be deemed permanent realities? Slavery was prevalent globally in a previous era, but thankfully, it has been abolished in most places. Since the natural human impulse to dominate others is ever-present, should the mighty still be allowed to enslave people in weaker nations today then?
This notion that might makes right must be strongly rejected by all who cherish human dignity. Nations, however small or poor they may be, must have the right of self-determination.
Countries of the Global South and their geopolitical expert friends like to point out the hypocrisy of America and its allies in their conduct of foreign policy. There is some truth to that. But just because America does some things wrong overseas doesn’t mean Russia or China should have tickets to do their own wrongs. Two wrongs certainly don’t make a right. And the fact of the matter is that American and other Western leaders have domestic restraints on them in their engagements overseas. There is little in terms of such checks on someone like Putin. He deems himself omnipotent and omniscient, and his default reaction is to kill or jail any of his citizens who dare to question anything he does or says. Therefore, legitimizing his egregious actions, in the ways that some of these geopolitical experts do, actually puts millions of lives at risk both inside Russia and around the globe.
Australia, Japan, and South Korea lie on the other side of the world where China is located. But those three democracies have freely chosen to align themselves with America and its Western allies. Ukraine should have that same freedom to choose its friends. Putin should not be allowed to dictate to the 44 million Ukrainians whom they should associate with.