It was a peace mission that basically fell to pieces.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa tried to line up a number of African leaders to travel to Russia and Ukraine in an effort to persuade the two countries to stop fighting. He was joined on the trip by the leaders of Senegal, Comoros, and Zambia. Three other leaders pulled out, one because of COVID (Uganda), a second because of security concerns (Republic of Congo), and a third (Egypt) for no specific reason.
The timing was not great. Because it recently launched its much-anticipated counter-offensive, Kyiv was not in the mood for compromise. Nor has Russia been exactly diplomacy-positive either, not only refusing to give up the territory it illegally annexed but continuing to try to expand its holdings. The Kremlin has also been busy bombarding Ukrainian targets. Missile attacks on Kyiv continued even as the African delegation visited the capital city, forcing the members to take cover in a bomb shelter.
And then there’s the fiasco at the Warsaw airport.
A second airplane with Ramaphosa’s security team and a number of South African journalists never made it to Ukraine. Stuck at their transit stop in Poland, the airplane sat on the tarmac for hours and hours as the Polish authorities refused to allow the passengers to disembark. A journalist on the trip reported:
Aboard the stuffy SAA A340-300 plane conditions are starting to resemble a refugee camp. Passengers have not left the plane since around 23:00 on Wednesday, and although water and take away food were delivered, supplies have now been depleted. Unwashed security personnel, SAA staff and journalists have been forced to shape a grim existence on the plane, walking up and down the aisles and using different toilets for distraction.
The head of Ramaphosa’s security detail accused the Poles of “shocking and racist” conduct. Then came news of 12 rather large containers of weapons on board the airplane that did not have the proper permits. The weapons were reportedly for the use of the security detail. But according to “highly placed South African government insiders,” the boxes also contained “long-range sniper rifles and weapons normally used in serious conflict.”
Wait, what? A peace delegation bearing gifts of war?
Okay, it was a large security detail of 100 people, and maybe they thought they’d be plunged into the thick of war. Or perhaps the weapons were somehow connected to South African arms dealer Ivor Ichikowitz, who was instrumental in organizing the initiative. Although the South African government has been quite close with the Kremlin—ditto Ichikowitz—it claims that it has not supplied Russia with any arms after its invasion of Ukraine. But arms dealers can make as much from a negotiated peace—supplying both sides of the ceasefire line—as they can from a continued war. Maybe those boxes were simply a sneak peak.
After more than 24 hours on the tarmac, the plane eventually returned to South Africa, with those 12 crates of weapons. It’s a shame the journalists on board never had a chance to accompany the Ramaphosa contingent, particularly when it arrived in St. Petersburg for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In Russia, Ramaphosa was able to deliver his opening remarks. But before the other African leaders could speak, a clearly unhappy Putin interrupted to lecture the group with his usual talking points. Then the live feed cut off, and there are no independent accounts of what happened next.
There’s the fog of war. But there’s also the equally dense fog of diplomacy.
Meanwhile in Beijing
As the African delegation was wrapping up its meetings in Russia, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was conducting a series of sit-downs in China, including a 35-minute confab with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
On the face of it, the meeting was a success for both sides. China and the United States seemed to be putting behind them the incident that had recently divided them: the U.S. shooting down of a Chinese weather balloon that may or may not have surveilled some semi-secret sites. Xi Jinping provided assurances, once again, that China would not send military assistance to Russia. Blinken provided assurances, once again, that the United States doesn’t support an independent Taiwan.
Most important of all, the two sides are again talking. The rest of us look on like little kids who are terrified when their parents go mum and only glare at each other across the dinner table. Yeah, we know that these powerful figures have their disagreements. But we also know how destabilizing and unpredictable a marital dispute can be.
Of course, China and the United States aren’t married. Far from it. Blinken couldn’t even get Beijing to agree to more communication between the two militaries. The warships and airplanes of the respective superpowers continue to jostle one another in areas around China. There is considerable economic competition. With nationalism on the rise on both sides, there is no love between Washington and Beijing.
But there is something remarkable about how the two countries have managed, so far, not to allow the war in Ukraine to turn into a truly global conflict. That has entailed restraint on both sides.
But will it lead to either a just peace in Ukraine or a meaningful U.S.-China détente?
The African plan
In its initial discussions around talking points, the delegation from Africa considered various quid pro quos to offer Russia and Ukraine. According to Reuters, which viewed the document, it included “a number of measures that could be proposed by the African leaders as part of the first stage of their engagement with the warring parties. Those measures could include a Russian troop pull-back, removal of tactical nuclear weapons from Belarus, suspension of implementation of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant targeting Putin, and sanctions relief.”
When Ramaphosa presented the plan in Russia, it contained 10 rather anodyne points. On the most contentious question of a Russian pullback, the list fudged the issue by noting simply that “the sovereignty of states must be respected.” Neither side found this language useful. Zelensky insisted on the precondition of a withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine’s sovereign territory: not only the land seized in the 2022 invasion but also the Donbas and Crimea that were occupied in 2014. Putin found the plan so off-putting that he pulled the plug on the live feed of his meeting with the African delegation, but only after he presented his side of the story: that Ukraine and the West had started the war and the invasion was defensive in nature.
Ramaphosa was undeterred, declaring that “this initiative has been historic in that it is the first time African leaders have embarked on a peace mission beyond the shores of the continent.” After decades—centuries, really—of Europeans beginning and ending wars in Africa, it is indeed refreshing for Africans to weigh in on a European affair. But it’s a shame that this first peace mission was such an obvious failure.
For one thing, the trip was poorly planned, as the embarrassing standoff in Warsaw demonstrates. The Poles maintain that they held three consultative meetings with the South Africans where they explained exactly what paperwork was required. The crates of weapons were a surprise.
Second, South Africa is not exactly neutral. Ramaphosa’s party, the African National Congress (ANC), has long been aligned with Russia, a carryover from the days when the government in Moscow was at least putatively left-wing. South Africa has benefited from arms shipments, (modest) trade relations, and political support from Putin’s government. It enjoys a higher profile because of its membership, with Russia, in the BRICS formation (along with Brazil, India, and China). In February, South Africa joined Russia and China for naval exercises in the Indian Ocean, tellingly on the first anniversary of the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Ramaphosa boldly attempted to trade on his country’s ersatz neutrality to expand its global reputation and possibly, just possibly, secure concessions that could benefit the warring parties and, in the case of boosting food exports, African countries as well. But if anything, the trip undercut South Africa’s reputation—as well as Ramaphosa’s personal brand, which is already at a low ebb because of various scandals. The media commentary in South Africa has been biting, from virtually all sides. “Shambolic peace mission did us no favours,” reads the headline of a Business Live editorial. Or this headline from Mia Swart in The Daily Maverick: “ANC’s kamikaze Russian diplomacy puts SA on the road to economic and reputational ruin.”
What is oft said about “best-laid plans” applies even more forcefully to poorly-laid plans.
Detente along two axes?
China may not be supplying weapons to its erstwhile ally Russia, but it too is not neutral. It’s doing well by the war, boosting its trade with Russia and importing energy at a discount. China’s exports to Russia have risen by an astonishing 75 percent so far this year, compared to the same period last year. Xi Jinping’s well-calculated engagement is a big reason why the Russian economy has not gone completely down the toilet as a result of international sanctions.
Pundits and policymakers seem to agree: China should use its leverage to end the war. The United States is comfortable with China as mediator. So is the EU. Even Ukraine welcomes future Chinese initiatives.
Why would the Chinese have any more success than the Africans?
For one, China is waiting for the right moment. One scenario is that the Ukrainians kick Russian troops out of most of the occupied territory and then it’s China’s job to deliver the hard news to Putin: negotiate a face-saving deal or else. In a second scenario, the Ukrainians manage only to regain a small fraction of the occupied territory and then it’s China job to deliver the hard news to Zelensky: negotiate a deal that establishes some ambiguous sovereignty over the Donbas, the Crimean Peninsula, and the land between them.
Neither scenario, alas, would be particularly durable. Putin and the nationalist right that has embraced him will not easily give up on their dream of an expanding “Russian world.” And Ukraine will not settle for amputation, regardless of the words used to describe the unsavory operation.
What of east-west relations? China knows that Russia doesn’t really count for anything in geopolitics, aside from its brutal unpredictability. The Chinese have an alliance of convenience, and they’re not going to yoke themselves so closely to the Kremlin that they too fall off the mountain if and when the Russians lose their grip. The real question for China, as FPIF contributor Michael Klare has pointed out, is how it manages relations with both the United States and India, two frenemies of old.
Despite various left-wing (and far-right wing) conspiracy theories, the United States does not want a forever war that bleeds Russia dry. The war is a costly distraction from Washington’s twin concerns: the economy at home and China abroad. If China helps negotiate an end to the conflict, that would help reduce tensions with Washington and win points in India as well, where the war is even less popular.
Now that the door is open again to Beijing, perhaps the United States and China can do a better job of coordinating their approach to the war in Ukraine. Because their alliances are clear, these conversations must be discrete (and who knows, maybe Blinken already got the ball rolling on his recent trip to China).
After all, there is nothing like a noisy marital dispute next door to help quarrelsome parents bond over their relatively more constructive partnership. Cooperating quietly on finding a way to end the war in Ukraine—with a just conclusion that Ukrainians above all accept—could ultimately reestablish a better working relationship between Beijing and Washington. The world could use a little détente right around now.