How Africa’s post-colonial crises shed light on Russia’s claims on Ukraine

By Kang-Chun Cheng
Posted on Thursday, 3 March 2022 17:25, updated on Tuesday, 8 March 2022 15:37

Ukrainians living in South Africa protest against Russia invasion, in Cape Town
Members of Ukrainian Association of South Africa hold placards during a protest against the invasion by Russia in Ukraine, outside the Russian Consulate in Cape Town, South Africa, February 25, 2022. REUTERS/Shelley Christians

Russia’s encroachment and attack on Ukraine, in which over 160,000 Russian troops are reckoned to have entered the country by 1 March, began a year ago. That was when the build-up of Russian troops along the Ukraine border started. Moscow’s lack of respect for its post-Soviet borders jolts Africans when they think of the post-colonial order when their newly-independent governments, for the sake of peace, mostly chose to respect the frontiers imposed by European powers at the Congress of Berlin in 1884-1885.

President Vladimir Putin has justified the siege on Ukraine as a mission to protect his people and “strive for the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine”.

His language echoes that of the Soviet Union, when pro-Western Ukrainians were deemed ‘Banderites’ (pejoratively used to label followers of Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera) as a way to delegitimise Ukrainian nationalism by conflating it with Nazism.

This week, in a twist of history, a Russian missile landed on the holocaust memorial Babyn Yar in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, the site of one of the largest mass killings in the Second World War where Jewish people were lined up and shot.

African perception of Ukraine

Martin Kimani, Kenya’s permanent representative to the UN in New York, spoke at the Security Council explaining how Africans perceive Ukraine’s current situation, given their experience with land-grabbing, many of which are in living memory (Kenya gained independence in 1963).

“Kenya and almost every African country, was birthed by the ending of [an] empire,” he says. “Our borders were not of our own drawing. They were drawn in the distant colonial metropoles of London, Paris, and Lisbon with no regard for the ancient nations that they cleaved.”

According to him, the man-made borders had no regard for cultural, tribal, or linguistic bonds, but African nations chose to “settle for the borders that we inherited…​​rather than form nations that looked ever backwards into history with a dangerous nostalgia”.

Putin wants to guarantee that Ukraine won’t join NATO [the West’s North Atlantic Treaty Organisation]. Africa is not like that.

“We chose to follow the rules of the Organisation of African Unity and the United Nations Charter not because our borders satisfied us but because we wanted something greater forged in peace,” says Kimani.

“The Russian model stems from blocs, which date back hundreds of years,” says Stephen Smith, the head of SEPAR International. “Even though the USSR dissolved, Putin wants to guarantee that Ukraine won’t join NATO [the West’s North Atlantic Treaty Organisation]. Africa is not like that. There is no model where Kenya [and] Tanzania consider themselves as one.”

Ukraine has a winding history

After the Russian Revolutions of 1917, and the Czar’s empire broke up. Ukrainian nationalists and socialists established the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic, but it was taken over and restructured in 1922 as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, which was part of the Soviet Union after the Bolsheviks prevailed in the civil war across the old Russian empire.

When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, Ukraine became an independent state, alongside the neighbouring Russian Federation and 13 other post-Soviet states. In the 1990s, Ukraine fostered closer ties with Western Europe. This culminated in the Orange Revolution of 2004, which drove Moscow-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych from power after a rigged election.

However, in 2010, he returned to power as president. Three years later, protests broke out in Maidan Nezalezhnosti in the centre of Kyiv after Yanukovych started backing away from negotiations for Ukraine to join the European Union. He was ousted again in the following year, this time by a parliamentary vote.

If you look at how Putin is moving troops right now, it’s completely old-school, attritional.

In February 2014,  Russia’s President Vladimir Putin started preparing the annexation of Crimea. After Russian troops took over the territory, a referendum was held under disputed conditions: 97% of Crimea’s people wanted to join Russia.

In a separate development, groups of armed men started seizing state installations in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, both predominantly Russian speaking, in Eastern Ukraine.

Putin has rejected Ukraine’s independent history and identity, ignoring the fact that Ukrainians and Russians have lived in separate states longer than they have together. He has asserted the existence of a shared language and religion despite distinct differences (although the Russian Orthodox Church exists in Ukraine, Ukrainians have a separate Orthodox Church).

He argues for a ‘one-people’ historical narrative, cultivated from a ‘myth of common origin’ – that Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus. However, in a poll taken in July-August 2021, 70% of Ukrainians disagreed with Putin’s one-people theory.

Insatiable hunger to change borders

Putin’s hunger to redefine the breakaway regions – Donetsk and Luhansk – in Eastern Ukraine as ‘republics’ by favouring military force over diplomacy has killed the international norm of multilateralism, according to Kimani.

“We further strongly condemn the trend in the last few decades of powerful states, including members of this Security Council, breaching international law with little regard. […] Kenya rejects any sort of yearning fuelled by force, along with the subsequent domination and oppression,” Kimani said.

Those breaches of international law include the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the extension of NATO’s operations in Libya, after the UN Security Council had back a no-fly zone in 2011, which culminated in the ousting and killing of Colonel Muammar Gadaffi.

Elsewhere in Africa, unresolved disputes accentuated by colonialism have undermined economic and social development. For instance, the depredations against the Maasai – a Nilotic ethnic group inhabiting modern-day Northern, Central and Southern Kenya as well as Northern Tanzania – illustrates the chaos perpetuating in a post-colonial world.

Russia still views Ukraine as submissive.

At present, there are continuing strains on diplomatic relations between these neighbouring countries over cross-border cattle rustling conflicts. These incidents can be traced back to the lack of cultural concern and sensitivity for long-term peace and harmony when Portuguese, British, and other foreign rulers, chartered borders for their conquests.

Stephen Smith, the head of SEPAR International, says that although there are interesting parallels between Putin’s motives and those of former African colonisers in terms of control, Russia remains entrenched in a past-era imperialist model when it comes to nation building.

“At the end of World War II, we saw the last bastion of imperialism. Countries like the UK and France were brought into a transition. It was clear that human-intensive strategies to obtain an end goal couldn’t be tolerated anymore,” says Smith. “But Putin was indoctrinated through the KGB or Soviet Union model, as perpetuated by Stalin, that objectives are expected regardless of cost. If you look at how Putin is moving troops right now, it’s completely old-school, attritional.”

‘We as Africans better understand Ukraine’s situation’

Fatuma Ali, an associate professor of International Relations at the United States International University in Nairobi, says Kimani was trying to help Western countries understand what it’s like to be caught between metropoles reluctant to let go of historical relations.

Ali tells The Africa Report that Francophone West Africa’s relationship with France parallels the metropole-periphery relationship in Eastern Europe.

“Perhaps there is a bit of exaggeration due to the global Eurocentric view. If you don’t understand enough about Russia and Ukraine, you won’t understand the brother-sister dynamics where Russia still views Ukraine as submissive, and the similarities between those two cultures,” says Ali. “When conflicts happen in Africa, intertribal or otherwise, people will think, ‘that’s just how they are there.’ We as Africans better understand Ukraine’s situation, because of what has happened to us in terms of colonialism, war, and aggression.”

Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders will remain unchanged.

“If we [were to] return to pre-colonial borders, the world would be in chaos,” she says. “There are things you can’t go back to because of history and different sets of experiences.”

On 28 February, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zeleskyy countered Putin’s recognition of Eastern Ukraine’s breakaway regions as independent, affirming that “Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders will remain unchanged”.

That principle remains at the heart of the conflict.

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