The declaration of a peacekeeping mission by the Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 22, to honour the agreement between his country and the secessionist regions in Eastern Ukraine – Donetsk and Luhansk, confirmed the earlier intelligence reports from the United States (US) and its Western Allies to the UN Security Council (UNSC) about a premeditated invasion, after weeks of observing increased mobilisation of Russian troops along Ukrainian borders. While Russia and China hitherto discarded the warning as Microphone/Megaphone Diplomacy, the world has witnessed yet another attack on claims to sovereignty and territorial integrity. The context has remained layered with narratives and counter-narratives on the nature of the government in Kyiv from both sides of the conflict. Mr Putin’s claim of the historical origins of Russia from Eastern Ukraine via the ‘Kievan Rus’ Federation reflected views of a primordial affinity of the two countries as constituting one and the same people. This appears to reinforce the demand from Kremlin that the incumbent government in Kyiv jettison its ambition to join NATO, from which Russia had also demanded a security guarantee. Some Ukrainian analysts have rejected the notion that Russia was serving as a mediator in the conflict between separatists and nationalists in Eastern Ukraine, and reemphasized its status as an aggressor on the quest of fulfilling its ambition of territorial annexation in Eastern Europe. The events of the past two weeks have indeed shown Russia’s presence in Ukraine as beyond a peacekeeping quest, with recorded attacks on several Ukrainian cities including Mariupol, Kherson, Sumy and Kharkiv; even as its troops progresses towards the capital Kyiv, which has also witnessed some shelling and strikes. While there have been massive condemnation of the act of aggression by Russia against Ukraine, there has also been a global admiration and support for the resilience of Ukrainians in the past two weeks to mitigate the advance of Russians trrops. Amidst these developments, the Africanist Scholars’ Forum, during the first convening for the year on March 3, 2022, explored the various narratives making the rounds regarding the Russia-Ukraine crisis, its rationale, key stakeholders, as well as the advocacy for dialogue to bring an end to the Russian aggression.
The Forum observed that Ukraine’s chequered history of oscillation between the East and West within global political alliances also reflects the ethnic polarities of pro- and anti-Russian sentiments in the country. As it were, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, after about 97% of voters reportedly supported the quest for secession, is instructive of the challenges of managing external alongside a disgruntled minority population. On the one hand, the Western alliance has led to some reservations from Kremlin around threats to Russia’s national security, with allegations that Ukraine’s incumbent government is serving the interests of Paris, Berlin and Washington, with Mr Putin describing the government as NATO/Nazi collaborators. However, the global world order has maintained the rights of sovereign states to political independence in determining the destinies of nations. The violation of the territorial integrity of a nation by stronger neighbours is thus a recipe for chaos, as there are more peaceful alternatives for negotiating disputed histories and boundaries. The historical attacks on the Ukrainian language, culture and literary tradition by pro-Russian purists is an act of structural violence with dire consequences for the continued existence of the Ukrainian people, and thus not negligible.
While the bravery of Ukrainians, especially that of civilians who joined in protecting the territorial integrity of their nation must be commended, the violation of the requisite civilian protection in war contexts through shelling and strikes on civilian targets remains worrisome. There have been reported attacks on children’s hospital, residential buildings, grocery stores and shopping malls with a number of unarmed casualties. Though Russia maintains that its troops have been equipped with precision-guided ammunition and there were bound to be collateral damages in war situations, reports from Ukraine have maintained that Russia carried out deliberate imprecise attacks. What is more, the relief that attended the announcement of a ceasefire after 10 days of intense fighting to enable safe passage within humanitarian corridors for fleeing civilians evaporated with news of disruption of activities in the Mariupol Corridor. While some civilians have taken refuge in bomb shelters and underground metro stations, the lack of access to medication for critical health conditions, food and other essentials for living is plunging the country into a large-scale humanitarian disaster. Already, the attacks on energy infrastructure have led to fetching wood to cook, while others rely on melting snow for drinking water. It has reportedly been more difficult for elderly people and nursing mothers to cope with the challenges. Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant was also attacked and seized on March 3 by the Russian forces, while Elon Musk had to deploy satellite terminals to Ukraine to help citizens reconnect to the internet after the service was disrupted in some areas.
The Forum noted the response of the international community as mainly twofold in its support to Ukraine – militarily and in humanitarian aid. These have been complemented with the imposition of sanctions on Russia and backchannel diplomacy for a return to the negotiating table. For instance, the US approved additional $200m aid to augment its $450m donation in 2021 for the support of Ukraine’s military activities. It also bolstered NATO Troops with additional 3,000 soldiers at the beginning of February, and released $54m for humanitarian assistance along with experts to bolster international humanitarian responses in Ukraine. The U.S. has also planned support to countries bordering Ukraine and Russia, including Latvia, Poland, Moldova, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia for defence and hosting of refugees fleeing Ukraine. In the past two weeks, over 2 million people are reported to have fled Ukraine with Poland alone hosting about 1.2 million people and over 200,000 residing in Hungary. The European Union (EU) has thus adopted the proposal on Cohesion’s Action for Refugees in Europe (CARE) to provide emergency support for refugees including temporary accommodation, food, water and medicare; either directly or indirectly through its Member States. The EU also announced dedicating about €90m for this purpose, and an additional €500m Euros to manage humanitarian challenges. There is also an offer of a 3-year asylum to Ukrainian refugees to enable socioeconomic integration in EU host countries.
Sanctions have also been deployed to isolate Russia from operations within the global economic framework, partly to mobilize internal support from Russia against the invasion. The EU as well as countries like the US, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Australia, Italy, Switzerland have sanctioned Russian oligarchs, airlines, shipping, technology, banking, energy, and media sectors. China, which seems to be consistent in its commitment to neutrality, has also refused to sell spare parts to Russian Airlines, in an attempt not to reinforce the war. In spite of these sanctions, there have been more scrutiny on the energy sector where Russia is a major player, with many analysts wondering how effective the reduction of oil imports would be on an economy that is still largely responsible for the supply of crude oil and gas in Europe. However, the reduction of imports from Russia has affected the global oil pricing with prices rising to about $130/barrel, and a projection of a further rise to about $300/barrel if the US places a ban on the import of Russian oil and natural gas. Germany, though, has halted the Nord Stream 2 Project that was meant to double the flow of Russian gas into the country. In response, Russia has considered the sanctions as acts of war and is threatening to stop Europe’s gas supply. Already, the sanctions, among other things, have led to the depreciation of the Rouble by 40%, even as the Russian stock market has been closed due to lack of access to its foreign reserve. The Kremlin has promised to provide economic buffers for citizens, having tilted towards financial autarky post-2014 sanctions, through the help of its allies. In all, the interconnectedness of interests within the global markets implies that sanctions have to be measured and calculated to avoid major disruptions, with a lot of countries still recovering from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The EU refrained from declaring a no flight zone against Russia to avoid open confrontation with Russia during enforcement as efforts to deescalate the crisis continues.
The treatment of migrants, especially students of African and Asian descent, at the Ukrainian border is a major cause for concern. The discrimination taking place at the Ukrainian side of the border, reflected in their being delayed and/or prevented from crossing by Ukrainian soldiers in favour of citizens, highlighted the challenge of racism even in war situations. There have been reports of physical assaults to prevent Africans from accessing buses and trains plying the border routes, and some were forced to trek for long hours in very traumatic experiences. This violates the UN Convention that guarantees the right of safe passage for all who flee from conflict irrespective of affiliations. The discrimination was prevalent at the Polish border where many were delayed for hours on the queue without food, water and shelter. As a result of this, many Africans had to return to Ukraine to reroute their escape into Hungary and Romania, while hotel accommodation were reserved for only Ukrainians. In spite of this ill-treatments at the borders, a lot of people have been receptive towards Africans by accommodating them in their homes and helping them settle into their new realities while planning for next steps. Some African governments have also ensured the evacuation of their citizens out of Ukraine back to their homelands.
The leadership of Ukraine and Russia should embrace dialogue with realistic conditions as no war could be ended with the show of force and intimidation. While sanctions are proven effective deterrent measures, they are insufficient in tackling root causes of conflicts and wars. The international community should thus keep facilitating avenues for negotiating peace.
With the backchannel shuttle diplomacy of several mediating countries yet to yield the desired results, it is important that the legitimate concerns of both warring parties are taken into consideration; especially with regards to the location for negotiation meetings, reasonable conditions for ceasefire and the path to transitioning from the destruction perpetrated in Ukraine. A sustainable solution will be creating a balance between the right to self-determination of Ukrainians and the legitimate security concerns of Russians.
It is also important that the International Criminal Court follows up its investigation into alleged war crimes to a logical end and bring perpetrators to justice. This would include investigating allegations of attack against unarmed persons along safe corridors and civilian territories, ill-treatment of war prisoners, as well as racism against Africans at the borders. Alterity should guard the indiscriminate delivery of humanitarian aid with the interests of affected persons superimposed on political gains.