The war on Ukraine, partnerships, non-alignment and international law
Together with Foreign Minister Pandor, I co-chaired the 15th EU-South Africa Ministerial Political Dialogue, joined by my fellow EU Commissioners McGuiness, Kyriakides and Urpilainen. Our discussions covered a wide range of issues, from political and security cooperation, to trade and economic relations, the energy transition and the fight against climate change, plus health and vaccine production and education. This wide agenda is a good indication of the depth of our strategic partnership established 16 years ago.
In addition to South Africa, I also visited Botswana. This landlocked country in Southern Africa with some 2.5 million inhabitants is a like-minded partner of the EU. In my meeting with Foreign Minister Kwape, we discussed how to deepen our bilateral ties, and to contribute jointly to tackle regional crises in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eswatini, Lesotho or Zimbabwe. We focused in particular on the continuous terrorist threat in Cabo Delgado and I commended Botswana’s contribution of 350 troops in the Southern African Development Community mission in Mozambique (SAMIM).
We also discussed multilateral issues with both partners and above all Russia's war against Ukraine. And here, there are significant differences between Botswana and South Africa. While Botswana voted in favor of the UN resolutions in March and in October condemning the Russian aggression and the illegal annexation of Ukrainian territories and while Botswana has engaged with Russia asking to end this invasion, South Africa abstained in both cases.
The multilateral system is under attack
As I expressed in my joint press conference with Foreign Minister Pandor, we are facing today a high degree of global instability. A combination of challenges of the past and new ones create tensions that affect all of us. We agreed that to face these threats, we have to work more together to defend and reinvigorate the multilateral system.
I recalled that what Russia calls a “special military operation” is nothing less than a full-scale invasion of a sovereign country. Russia is killing Ukrainian civilians, destroying civilian homes, hospitals and power plants. Facts are facts: what is happening in Ukraine is a blatant violation of the UN Charter and the international rules-based order.
Despite its proclaimed non-aligned position, South Africa has publicly appeared to be rather accommodating of Russia´s positions when Russian Minister Lavrov visited the country a few days ago. During the visit, Foreign Minister Pandor said that it would be “simplistic and infantile” to demand Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine and in response, Lavrov pointed out how much Russia “appreciates the independent, well-balanced and considerate approach by South Africa.”
Lavrov repeated well-known Russian lies, namely that the war supposedly is a defence against a “Russophobic and fascist Ukraine, supported by the West” and that it would serve “to save civilians and to stop direct threats to Russia’s securities at its borders”. To this cynical caricature, he added the false claim that Europe and its partners are pushing for a military solution to the war, preventing diplomatic efforts.
We ask nobody to choose sides
I recalled a few fundamental points in this regard to my South African counterparts. To start, the easiest way to end this war and the suffering it causes is for Putin to pull out Russia’s troops and to stop his attack against Ukraine. This is a simple key point that we will continue to insist on. It is neither simplistic, nor infantile.
Europeans will always remain open to anyone who is serious about seeking a negotiated solution. Unfortunately, however, the reality on the ground is one of persistent Russian escalation accompanied by war crimes. Moreover, everyone who has tried to negotiate with Putin has come back empty handed.
Secondly, Russia’s blatant disregard of international law and principles of sovereignty is as much a threat for Europe as it is for Africa and others. It is happening on European soil, but it affects the whole world. The resulting energy and food crises are also felt around the globe, affecting millions of people.
Thirdly, I stressed that we of course fully respect South Africa’s traditional non-alignment stance in foreign policy. In the current circumstances, however, a neutral stance regarding the ongoing war against Ukraine is equivalent to legitimising an unprovoked aggression against a sovereign state. The European Union does not ask South Africa or any of our partners to simply choose sides between Russia and the West and we understand that South Africa has historical reasons to be reluctant to criticize Russia. In this context, conducting naval military drills with Russia and China on the anniversary of Russia’s Ukraine invasion is a matter of serious concern to say the least.
What we are asking South Africa and all countries is to stand on the side of the principles and values of the UN charter and international law. Nothing more but also nothing less. The EU regards South Africa as an important partner to uphold and reinvigorate a rules-based international order. That is the reason why I expressed the hope that South Africa will act accordingly and use its good relations with Russia and the role it plays in BRICS, to convince Russia to stop this senseless war. Being strategic partners, the only one on the African continent, has to mean something.
Russian influence on the continent
Lavrov’s visit in South Africa is part of a wider effort of Russia to counter its international isolation and extend its influence in Africa. The continent is at the heart of a battle of narratives concerning the invasion of Ukraine. Russia is waging massive information manipulation campaigns as to the causes and consequences of their invasion and we see worrying developments in several countries around the Russian mercenary group Wagner: this group has become in many cases the praetorian guard of military dictatorships.
For the EU, it will be a central task during coming weeks to combat more actively Russian information manipulation on the African continent and to explain our partners and their publics why we need to work together against destabilizing Russian efforts in the region and around the globe.
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