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Ramaphosa 'unhappy' over SA's Russia invasion flip-flop

Times Live logo Times Live 2022/02/27 AMANDA KHOZA AND KGOTHATSO MADISA
© Provided by Sunday Times

A storm is brewing after the department of international relations & cooperation (Dirco) this week called for Russia to withdraw its armed forces from Ukraine.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is said to be “unhappy” at the strongly worded statement, with sources close to him saying it “contradicts” SA’s position on the Ukraine issue.  

A highly placed insider in the Union Buildings, who asked not to be named, told the Sunday Times: “The president did not see the statement before it was issued and he does not agree with it. There are people within Dirco with an agenda that we must be enemies with Russia.”

SA's initial statement called for mediation and dialogue to resolve the crisis. But on Thursday, amid a public uproar over SA's "soft" stance, a second stronger statement called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw his forces from Ukraine. 

The Sunday Times understands from sources in the presidency that the statement was personally drafted by international relations minister Naledi Pandor.

Her spokesperson, Lunga Ngqengelele, said he wasn’t aware of the president being unhappy with the statement. “The withdrawal [of troops] is so that it gives a chance for negotiations to take place because that’s what we are about,” he said.

Another source in the presidency confirmed that Ramaphosa wasn’t consulted about the statement and was unhappy with its tone, which gave the impression that SA and Russia were at loggerheads. 

“It’s very true, the president was not consulted, and it’s not the approach we wanted to take on this matter because we understand the history of it,” said presidency insider. 

“We are managing it with our Russian friends from all fronts. Fortunately we have a good relationship with Russia so when we explained to them what had transpired, they understood.”

The insider said they have “given assurance” to Moscow that the second statement “doesn't reflect our position”.

ANC international relations head Lindiwe Zulu is said to be drafting the party’s own response, which is expected to contradict Dirco’s stance.

She said: “As an organisation we can take time to deliberate on the matter and do our own analysis and checks and balances. On the other hand the government has to do what it needs to do because it has to react [in a timely manner].

“We always want to resolve our issues peacefully and we believe that international organisations must rise to the occasion and not take sides and rather try to engage fairly and honestly in conflicts when they are brewing.”

Zulu said under normal circumstances this matter should have been resolved by the Russians and the Ukranians “without this noise”.

In the Dirco statement Pandor said: “SA calls on Russia to immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine in line with the UN Charter, which enjoins all member states to settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered.” 

A source in the Union Buildings said Russia was unhappy at this tone coming from SA.

“There are people within Dirco who don’t like the relationship between the president and Putin. SA values its relationship with Russia. We feel that the statement was malicious.”

The presidency insider added that the Ramaphosa and Putin speak often — but the two have yet to discuss the war with Ukraine.

“There is a big possibility of Ramaphosa being brought in by Putin to be part of the intervention.”

On Friday Ramaphosa broke his silence on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, saying he believed “mediation, negotiation and engagement” would ease the tension between the two countries.

He called on the UN Security Council to broker peace, saying: “Right now the parties need to get together so that we stop this conflict that is turning out to be a violent conflict immediately.”

As the war escalated yesterday, there were increasing concerns over the wellbeing of South African students in Ukraine.

On Friday Vutlhari Mtonga, a 26-year-old medical student from Tzaneen, spoke to the Sunday Times from an underground train station in Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine, where she was sheltering with seven other students and hundreds of frightened locals.

“Right now I literally have the clothes on my back and a bag with food that we can eat. We are literally low on food.  My friends were fighting over a piece of chocolate and everyone is trying to preserve the little food we have,” she said.

The students are stuck in Ukraine’s second-largest city with no way out. They had been told by the South African embassy to get themselves to the Polish border more than 1,100km away, but with no public transport to undertake the long, perilous journey they are helpless.

Mtonga said by the time they rushed to the shops to stock up on supplies they were already closed. “The shops that were open were not taking our cards. We had to go from ATM to ATM until we could find one that worked so that we could pay for food.”

A tearful Mtonga said the situation was becoming unbearable.

“All of my friends are starting to reach boiling point. It’s just a rollercoaster of emotions and very stressful right now.”

Fierce fighting has engulfed the city ever since Russian troops poured across the border just 45km from the city, a key military target and the city closest to the Russian border. 

After finally boarding a train on Saturday afternoon Mtonga was despondent when it was stopped and turned back.

“This is not fair. There is screaming outside and soldiers are trying to empty the train,” she told the Sunday Times, battling to communicate through poor signal and loud noise.

Stranded on the train, she was unable to communicate further. “The network is very unstable now,” she wrote in a WhatsApp text. 

In the city of Dnipro on the Dnieper River in central Ukraine three South African medical students hunkered down in a small apartment in the city. 

Their voices were loud and the mood was tense as they debated the merits of staying safe and warm in the flat, or trying to leave before a military attack on the city.

Final-year student Ansuria Moodley, originally from Pietermaritzburg, opened her home to three other students from SA and one from India when the invasion began. 

“We are desperate to just stay sane in a situation where you don’t know what is going on or what is the right thing to do.”

SA's ambassador to Ukraine, André Groenewald, was woken up to cries for help when Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday. He heard faint sounds which eventually grew louder.

“Me, my wife and three kids immediately moved into the basement and started praying,” he said.

Groenewald said he was in contact with South Africans daily.

“Every morning the first thing that I do is to call everybody. It’s scary but we are safe for now.”

He said it was not clear what will happen once Russia takes over the capital city.

“What we know is that we respond to the alarms by going down to the basement and make sure that we are safe all the time.”

The fog of war clouded military operations in Ukraine yesterday with conflicting claims by both Russia and Ukraine, although it is clear that Russian forces are just outside the capital Kyiv, and small units of Russian special forces are involved in street-fighting within the city.

As artillery and cruise missiles continued to pound Kyiv for the third day, sending Kyiv residents seeking shelter underground, Russia's defence ministry said Russian troops had so far hit hundreds of military infrastructure targets and destroyed several aircraft and dozens of tanks and armoured and artillery vehicles.

Western intelligence sources say Russian forces have encountered far stronger Ukrainian resistance than expected. 

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, speaking in a video message from outside his Kyiv office, was defiant: “We will not put down weapons, we will defend our state. Our weapon is our truth, and our truth is that it’s our land, our country, our children. And we will defend all of that.”

Zelenskiy said in a second video on social media that Moscow’s plan to quickly seize the capital and install a puppet government had been unsuccessful.

In an emotional speech, he accused the Russian forces of hitting civilian areas and infrastructure.

“The fighting goes on,” he said.

The US government urged Zelenskiy early Saturday to evacuate Kyiv but he turned down the offer, according to a senior US intelligence official with direct knowledge of the conversation. The official quoted the president as saying that “the fight is here” and that he needed anti-tank ammunition but “not a ride”.

Casualty figures supplied by Ukraine's health ministry on Saturday gave 198 people, including three children, killed and 1,115 wounded since the Russian offensive started.

Kyiv's mayor Vitali Klitschko said 35 people, including two children, were wounded during overnight fighting. The metro system is working only as a shelter for city residents, he said.

Ukraine has claimed more than 1,000 Russian soldiers killed. Russia has not released casualty figures.

More than 120,000 Ukrainians have left for Poland, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania although men of fighting age have been ordered to remain. 

As thousands of refugees tried to flee, Ukrainian guards fired warning shots to prevent a stampede onto evacuation trains to Lviv at Kyiv's central railway station. The guards fired several shots with blanks to disperse the crowd after screams broke out.

When Ukrainian soldiers marched through the station, people clapped their hands and shouted the military greeting: “Glory to Ukraine!” and “Glory to heroes!”

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