OPINION

Russia vs Ukraine: It’s not morally complicated

William Saunderson-Meyer |

11 March 2022

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on Putin’s aggression, Western fecklessness, and SA’s craven response

JAUNDICED EYE

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has generated a lot of what-aboutism and don’t-forgetitis on the part of President Vladimir Putin’s defenders worldwide.

They have tried to downplay the horror of the past few weeks by drawing dubious parallels with instances of Western perfidy, of which there are admittedly many. And they’ve tried to justify the invasion — or “special military operation” as Putin prefers to call it — by finding precedents for interference in the intricately interwoven history of the two countries.

Of course, that is not to deny that Russia’s has legitimate grievances and fears. Nor to claim that Ukraine is blameless and has not also goaded the Russian bear, with the West recklessly egging it on.

But one does not have to be a professional ethicist to discern basic right from wrong here. Neither the fog of war nor the smog of propaganda should obscure what is a legally and morally simple matter. Russia’s invasion was contrary to international law and is being executed with disregard to the Geneva Conventions that protect civilians during conflict. The invasion is illegal and inhumane.

To deny this is to condone a world order where the powerful nations play ceaselessly and unrestrainedly upon the weaker. It’s a world where Taiwan and all of eastern Europe would be eyed as the next delectable low-calorie morsel.

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That the invasion is a reprehensible and illegal act doesn’t mean, however, that it was a foolish one in political terms. The invasion hasn’t been the military pushover that Putin expected, and it is still too early to know what effect international sanctions and exclusion will force upon the Russians. But whatever the strategic withdrawals and compromises that now occur, some of Ukraine will likely remain in Russian hands, giving Putin a distinct edge in future confrontations of this nature.

In the meanwhile, for Putin, a despot always searching to burnish his macho credentials, there are immediate benefits. It has allowed him to cast himself as a latter-day Ivan the Terrible — as the warrior-leader who will restore not only imperial Russia’s lost glory but that of the Soviet Union before it imploded under the weight of its own ideological absurdities.

At a stroke, Putin the Awful has boosted his standing with much of the Russian population, erased decades of humiliation in international forums, and forced the world’s leaders to treat Russia with caution, if not yet respect. Perhaps most importantly for future shifts in the balance of power towards the emerging Sino-Russian axis, the invasion throws into focus how enfeebled the Western democracies have become.

It has highlighted the responsible divisions caused by Britain’s departure from the European Union, as well as the uncertain nature of the EU’s response to external threats. It’s also raised question over the deterrence quotient of North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces.