Aerial bombs have been dropped on Mariupol, Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24 [Evgeniy Maloletka/AP]
No plan survives contact with the enemy is wisdom attributed to Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke (1800-1891), considered the most brilliant military mind since Napoleon. If Russia’s President Vladimir Putin ever sipped this wisdom, it has since vanished from his memory chips.
Plans were to annihilate Ukraine in four days. The days turned into a week have borne a twin plus change. Desperation is creeping in, and, sadly, civilians are bearing the brunt of Putin’s unrealistic planning and many other miscalculations.
This invasion has divided opinion. Some are for Ukraine’s sovereignty, while others think it’s “their” war and none of our business because of not understanding its implications on small countries with no discernible military prowess, like ours.
First, let me debunk the misconception that this is none of our concern. As I will explain later, what is happening in Ukraine should be our concern.
Coming to the second, i.e., the implications of this war, at risk of oversimplifying, I can explain as follows.
Like Bob Marley said, every man has got a right to decide his own destiny. Extrapolating this notion at the international level, every nation has a right to decide its own destiny and which regional or multilateral bodies it wants to belong to.
This is enshrined in the principle of sovereignty. In short, a state can generally control all activities within the territory over which it has sovereignty. Outside of its domain, a state is generally restricted to controlling activities of its citizens and vessels or planes registered in its territory. Full stop. Malawi can’t tell Zambia what to do, which bodies to join or not join, or vice versa.
Different countries have historically acquired territorial sovereignty and delineated their land and maritime boundaries in various ways, some generally accepted and others contested.
~ Effective occupation of terra nullius (i.e., uninhabited land belonging to no one);
~ Prescription (i.e., a doubtful title is legitimized by long-continued, uninterrupted, and peaceful possession where another state has neglected to assert its rights or has been unable to do so);
~ Cession or voluntary transfer by treaty (e.g., the USA’s purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867);
~ Accretion, where a gradual deposit of soil changes the contours of the land; and
~ Arbitral award by bodies such as the International Court of Justice regarding boundary disputes
are examples of how nations acquire sovereign land.
Not recognized as lawful means of acquiring territory since the Charter of the United Nations entered into force in 1945 is conquest, i.e., where territory is annexed by the threat or use of armed force as Russia did in Georgia and Crimea.
Back to our subject matter, Russia, under a guise of a “special military operation,” has invaded Ukraine, like it did with Georgia in 2008 with no serious consequences from the West.
Before 18 March 2014, boundaries between Russia and Ukraine were clear. However, on that day, Russia formally and unilaterally incorporated Crimea as two Russian federal subjects: The Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol via military power and nuclear threats.
Fast forward to 12 July 2021, President Putin authored an article titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” It is still on the Kremlin’s website.
Forget about the reasons being peddled now as justification for the invasion of Ukraine; it is that article that lays bare President Putin’s sentimental nostalgia for the defunct and never-to-return Soviet empire.
Therein, he laments that the differences between Russia and Ukraine are, “first and foremost, the consequences of our own mistakes made at different periods” and “divide and rule,” presumably by Western powers.
He digs back as far as the 9th Century, where he says Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, was part of Ancient Russia. Then nostalgically, he gives a century by century account of Russia until November 1917 when the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR) was created as part of Russia.
In conclusion, without conducting a referendum in Ukraine, he declares that “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia” because Russia and Ukraine’s kinship “has been transmitted from generation to generation… For we are one people.”
What Ukrainians want or say doesn’t matter in Putin’s mind. According to him, Ukraine is part of Russia, and his mission is to reign in errant Ukraine back at gun point and through an indiscriminate bombing campaign spiced with a specter of a nuclear attack.
The question is: why has Putin done this now?
Some observers attribute this to favourable oil prices that have enabled OPEC members, Russia included, to accumulate billions of dollars to finance the war.
Others attribute this to Putin’s phobia for having neighbouring countries that have fully embraced democracy, a prerequisite for admission into the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Whatever the case, astute observers agree that Putin’s real beef is with the collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union, a collapse he once described as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
This “catastrophe” left Russia surrounded by independent countries, each charting its own future. Now, while Russia:
- remains the most potent post-Soviet state,
- has a seat on the UN Security Council, and
- is the strongest military and has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal;
former Soviet republics that have embraced democracy still give Putin nightmares. By the way, not because they pose a military threat to Russia, no. They threaten his rule and the continued existence of Russia in its current system of governance in case Russians begin comparing and contrasting their life against their neighbours, whose standard of life keeps transforming under democracy.
You now ask: why should the invasion concern us?
We should not live in fear as a small country because our neighbour has a big bomb or army. All countries, big or small, should abide by international law. Hence, no country – the US or Russia or whichever country – should have a right to invade another.
Therefore, it should concern us whenever this happens because precedents are dangerous.
This explains why I, who often criticizes President Lazarus Chakwera’s government on many policy directions, felt very proud as a Malawian on 2 March 2022 to hear that Malawi had joined 140 other member states to overwhelmingly vote for a resolution:
- a) condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and
- b) calling for the immediate withdrawal of its forces.
That said, I see many fellow Africans missing the point on three dimensions.
Number one is that condemning Russia for raping Ukraine’s sovereignty does not mean supporting the US (or the West), which has committed its own shares of deplorable activities. A wrong cannot be justified by another wrong.
Secondly, just because Russia missed out on the table for the Scramble for Africa, it does not mean Russia did not have imperial ambitions like the western powers that sliced up Africa. Russia had “colonies” of its own which were just as unhappy as we were under colonial rule.
Furthermore, Putin’s essay cited above proves that, if anything, he is busy fiddling with the reverse gear when everyone is accelerating forward.
Thirdly, to paraphrase the top Kenyan diplomat to the UN, rather than dangerously obsessing with nostalgia over lost colonial or imperial glory – real or imagined, we must ALL look forward in our collective search for the betterment of all people, anywhere, because we all share this one world.
These three things said I would be remiss if I did not touch on the racism suffered by Africans and other non-Europeans in the ensuing humanitarian crisis, a crisis 100% made by Putin’s obsession with the rewind button.
Our dear friends in the northern hemisphere should learn that crises and disasters are times of coming together (time for Umunthu) regardless of differences in our African culture.
We have a good reason for this.
It is only by looking beyond colour, tribe, stature, creed, gender, or whatever that more people join hands to divide whatever the burden is, and by thus dividing, the load becomes more manageable. Therefore, racism must have no place in love, peace, or war.
We pray for Ukraine.