Most South African pundits find the Russian-Ukrainian war very simple and easy to explain in moral terms, but I do not, because I favour Classical Liberalism over loyalty to “the West”. Here are three questions that might make you see why.

Question 1: Why is it so hard to talk about compromise?

On March 3 in a Randburg Church the Democratic Alliance (DA) and Ukrainian Embassy joined a debate titled, “Why South Africa Needs to be Involved Against Russia”. 

The DA’s shadow minister of the Department of International Relations & Cooperation (Dirco), Darren Bergman MP, and Ukrainian Ambassador Liubov Abravitova, as well as journalist J Brooks Spector made the case for the Republic of South Africa to abandon its call for mediation and to demand instead, without qualification, the withdrawal of all Russian troops from Ukraine.

In a way the most telling comments came from the audience. One person offered a teary apology on behalf of all South Africans for our government’s “insensitivity”, adding that the mediation call shows “there is no cure for stupidity”. Ukraine’s ambassador responded, “I will not just say thank you, I will say that we feel your support”.

Another audience member shouted out that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “a madman”, “totally unhinged”. Another said that she had been “unfortunate enough” to have had “the displeasure” of visiting Russia personally where she saw fellow South African delegates from the ANC pay homage to people they had known at graveyards. One of the DA hosts said the Russian embassy had accused him of “Russophobia”, a label he “wears as a badge of honour”.

In this room of proud Russophobia I asked Ambassador Abravitova: “How should people who want peace and who want Russia’s troops to withdraw think about compromise?”

For context it is worth noting the DA-Ukraine event was held on Thursday, just after the second round of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in Belarus, which failed to produce a ceasefire.

My question of compromise was “specifically looking at Crimea. If someone says [Ukrainian President] Zelenskyy should compromise and concede that Crimea is not part of Ukraine, it is part of Russia, that would be a good precondition for peace – Russian troops withdraw, Ukrainians give up Crimea – would that be an anti-Ukrainian, Russian Imperialist thing to say? Or is there room for third parties, maybe even SA’s Dirco, to say something like that in support of peace?”

Ambassador Abravitova said such compromise was “not an option for Ukrainian people today”, explicitly reiterating the point of no “territorial compromises”. Abravitova was loyally and accurately representing her government’s long-standing position, no compromise on Crimea.

As a South African I submit that achievable routes to peace have an “unmentionable” status for third parties because they undermine the new morale of “the West”. “The West” (whatever it means, it excludes the world’s largest democracy) has been rallied to support Ukraine in a way that makes compromise seem like weakness or selling out. Insofar as that is true “the West” is part of the problem.

We South Africans should balk at the prospect of giving unqualified support to one side of any conflict even if that side occupies the moral high ground. Tempting as it is we should know better because of our history.

No South African, certainly no South African yoked with the Progressive Federal Party’s legacy, should need reminding that the ANC had the moral high ground in the struggle against the Nats and deserved much of the international support it got. Precisely for that reason it was all too easy for bloviators to give the ANC a morally blank check, which too many did, with dire consequences.

By analogy, no one who supports Ukraine should do so without qualification.

Moreover, even if one thought it was somehow incorrect for Crimea to join Russia in 2014, the thought that Ukrainian civilians should die in the hundreds, while soldiers die in the thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, rather than respect the wishes of 80% of Crimeans to be in Russia rather than Europe’s poorest and most corrupt country strikes me as uncompromising in the most morally compromised kind of way.

I could add an argument about why Crimea’s secession is legitimate. I would begin by noting that while the international law on secession is vague (and often makes an unacceptable racial double-standard) there have been some clear agreements that when a coup d’état occurs external force can be legitimately applied. The US has forcefully intervened in at least three countries that had coups since 1989. Russia’s intervention in Crimea was less bloody than all those occasions and had greater democratic assent from the directly affected individuals. On the basis of international law on coups I believe Crimea’s referendum is legitimate.

At the moment the DA’s position is to support Zelenskyy even if he is willing to build a mountain to his own glory out of every Ukrainian citizen rather than give up Crimea. That strikes me as indecent.

South Africa would be smart to stay away from “the West” insofar as “the West” means no compromise on Crimea.

Question 2: Why is it so hard to talk about Crimea’s water supply?

South Africans should know better than to ignore Zelenksyy’s attempt to deprive Crimea of water after Cape Town nearly ran out of water. In South Africa’s case there were muted allegations that the national government allowed the water crisis to emerge, but with widespread incompetence at national level and some overlap in duties between national and provincial government the allegation was never that President Ramaphosa and his fellow cadres literally turned off the tap on more than a million people out of spite.

In Crimea that is exactly the allegation levelled at a group of politicians, Ukraine’s leaders, that are currently beyond reproach among champions of “the West”. It is an allegation, as far as I can tell, that is not seriously disputed but instead gets ignored at events such as the DA-Ukraine gathering. 

“The West” should be rejected in South Africa insofar as it means water is a legitimate weapon.

Question 3: Why is it so hard to talk about Russia’s official opposition?

When I lived in the US the funny thing about some “experts” was that they could not name Helen Zille or Terror Lekota or Hermann Mashaba or Pieter-Dirk Uys or our national soccer team or the editor of a single newspaper. Without knowing any of that they would still confidently tell people what the President thought (Zuma was about the only name they knew), and lots of people would go “wow”. 

The sad thing about that kind of analysis is that it always concluded that South Africa’s democracy was a sham and that real reform would only come through some kind of revolution. This creates a terrible question: are you willing to risk the chaos of revolution to get rid of the ANC? Ex-President Thabo Mbeki has recently come out as saying that if the ANC does not hold onto power South Africa will collapse into chaos, picking up right where my America senior-year roommates left off on “analysis”.

The good news for South Africa is that by 2024 we might have a better option in government. The truly depressing thing about Russia is that if Putin is outvoted in 2024 things will likely be worse. If you disagree, what is the name of the leader of the opposition?

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) is the official opposition, led by a former hardliner called Gennady Zyuganov. Zyuganov nearly came to rule Russia in the chaotic 1990s on an “anti-West” Soviet irredentist ticket, but while he could make the run-off with a third of the vote he couldn’t climb higher than that. His backwards stance became embarrassingly old hat in Russia’s rapacious late-nineties and by the 2000 presidential election the CPRF was almost a non-entity.

In early 2001 Zyuganov accused Putin of betraying Russian interests by siding with the West to little effect. But then came the US invasion of Iraq to destroy “WMD”, a turning point in Pax-Americana whence Putin and the Russian public railed against US hegemony and openly advocated for the return of Russian great-power status to balance forces against Washington’s caprice. With the wind in his sails, by 2010 Zyuganov was calling for re-Stalinization.

In the 2021 parliamentary elections the CPRF climbed from 13.3% to 18.9%, just short of where the DA is. Meanwhile “United Russia”, Putin’s party, dropped below 50%, much like the ANC. Much like the ANC, United Russia is half as popular as its leader. With over 10 million votes the CPRF got four times more votes than the DA in 2021. It is a real party and I cannot think of anyone in “the West” who denies it; instead, they ignore it.

The CPRF is important to this war. It tabled a motion in mid-January effectively guaranteeing an invasion of Ukraine’s eastern flank, which was passed on February 15. 351 MPs were in favour of recognising the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk, 16 were opposed, and there was one abstention.

I do not know of any “Western” leader who would or could veto such a parliamentary majority. Once it was achieved the smart move for Putin would have been to try diplomatic options until next winter. But if those had failed he would have had to invade Ukraine’s eastern flank nevertheless, if he could have survived CPRF admonitions until then. (I believe he could have done so.)

With this in mind I posed the following to MP Bergman: “You belong to the official opposition of South Africa. What do you make of the official opposition in Russia, specifically of its leader, of the role that they’ve played in this war, and if things go badly for Putin, as seems likely, how will they go for the official opposition?”

The rambling answer given by the man who would like to run South Africa’s foreign affairs is quoted here at length:

“I think for opposition at this stage to speak out against Putin – first of all they have been very brave as it is to be in opposition in Russia at this stage and as you can see its cost him nearly his life on a few occasions. You know the poison in Russia, as Deputy President David Mabuzo would have you believe, you have to go to Russia to get recovery, and you have to go there quite often to have full recovery from it. But the truth is I’m not sure that if you watch the TikTok videos of how his own counsel cannot get to his ear, I’m not sure the official opposition or any opposition have his ear either.

“So quite frankly can anyone stop Putin in Russia? And I think the short [answer] is no. He’s heavily protected. He goes everywhere by helicopter. It’s just not gonna happen. You can see in all the images the table that he sits at you don’t get close, you can’t shake his hand, they’re very sensitive to poisoning, so any security video you’ll see there’s no sipping of tea before someone else has checked the tea. Everything is to ensure that Putin is not taken out…”

It goes on like this.

The DA Shadow Minister of Dirco does not seem to have a professional grasp of the situation. For example, he seems to think that the leader of “the official opposition” is Alexei Navalny. It is not clear that he knows who Zyuganov is, or knows that Communists are the official opposition in Russia. Bergman’s musings about the assassination of the democratically elected president of a nuclear power is alarming.

“The West” should be rejected insofar as supporting it means coddling this kind of behaviour for the sake of protecting “our” image. “The West” should be rejected insofar as supporting it means that a party like the DA should ignore or pretend that a party like the CPRF does not exist rather than confront the practical limitations that its existence imposes on all classically liberal ambitions for Russia.

Classical Liberalism vs “The West”

I do not know what “the West” always means. Sometimes it means white. Sometimes it means NATO. When people say they love “Western Values” I think they usually mean Classical Liberalism, meaning individual liberty, limited government, reason responsive administration, the Rule of Law, and non-racialism. Those are values I share and promote, but not under the “Western” label and I encourage you to drop the label too.

At the most superficial level it seems foolhardy to name one’s values after a compass point, a dead giveaway that “values” are not at the heart of “the West”. More than that it is genuinely dangerous to support “the West” when it means little more than cheering hypocrisy while standing on the shoulders of moral giants that furthered the values of Classical Liberalism in the name of everything other than a point on a compass.

Classical Liberals should condemn Ukraine’s insurrection-cum-coup d’état of 2014, recognise Crimea (partly on the basis of the international law on coups), condemn Ukraine’s water war including under Zelenskyy, condemn Ukraine’s incorporation of neo-Nazis into its army, condemn Zelenskyy’s “no compromise” attitude to peace talks, and condemn Russia’s war on Ukraine. “The West” only wants to do the last.

Should Classical Liberals condemn “the West”? I think not. “The West” is too much of a catch-all to deserve a simple moral response. But that’s me, the guy who thinks that “it’s complicated” is sometimes the right answer, and sometimes not. 

Gabriel Crouse is a writer and analyst at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). His journalism is based on fieldwork and quantitative analysis, with a focus on land reform. Gabriel holds a degree in Philosophy from Princeton University.