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Ukrainian ambassador speaks out

. . . says Lesotho and other African countries have “moral duty” to support Ukraine against Russian neo-colonialism

TODAY marks exactly 105 days since the 24 February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. At the time, the Russian government said it had moved in to stop the “Nazification” of its neighbour. It said the invasion was a pre-emptive measure against the Ukrainian government which was allegedly threatening the security and territorial integrity of Russia.

However, Ukraine and western countries have dismissed Russia’s claims. They have instead accused Russia of aggression against Ukraine. The war has had devastating impacts for Lesotho and the rest of the world through high food and fuel prices.

Russia has been on a massive diplomatic campaign to win the support of African countries with whom it and Ukraine shared strong ties during Africa’s fight against colonialism from the 1960s through to the 1990s. The two warring countries were among 15 states that formed the Russian-dominated Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) which lasted from 30 December 1922 to 26 December 1991.

This week, the Lesotho Times (LT) Editor, Herbert Moyo and Deputy Editor Silence Charumbira engaged Liubov Abravitova, the Ukrainian ambassador to South Africa, Lesotho and other SADC countries.  In the wide-ranging interview below, Ms Abravitova explains why Lesotho, Africa and the rest of the world have a “moral obligation” to support Ukraine against Russia.    

LT: Please kindly provide an overview of the current situation in Ukraine 

Abravitova: Thank you very much for inviting me to this interview. It is very important for me to talk to the media of Lesotho. I am glad we are talking now.

It’s already over 100 days since the Russian invasion of Ukraine started. But when you really think about it, the war didn’t start this year. As you may be aware, Russia had already annexed Crimea and occupied the vast area since 2014. Since then Russia has already killed thousands of Ukrainians. And this is something that we were trying to bring to the attention of the world on different platforms of international organisations.

We were therefore not surprised by the Russian invasion on 24 February 2022. Russia’s invasion plan was to seize the Kyiv with the simple aim to change power in Ukraine. But this plan has failed. As you see today, there is more than 100 days of Ukrainian resistance of the Russia’s invasion.

The further we move with our resistance, the goals and plans of Russia are changing. When Russia started the invasion, they didn’t anticipate the unity that the Ukrainians are displaying; they didn’t anticipate that Europe would be that united in its resistance, they didn’t anticipate that the world would be that united against the invasion.

As you saw during voting in the United Nations, 141 countries condemned Russian aggression and said Russia must remove its troops from the sovereign territory of Ukraine.

So, basically what we are witnessing today is the neo-colonial war of Russia against the world. It is important for all countries to speak out and unite against this neo-colonialism. We are already seeing the repercussions or consequences of the invasion even here in the southern African region. When a bigger country is allowed to invade a smaller country and to violate the sovereign territorial integrity of another country, this will cause many chaotic wars and conflicts in the world.

The Russian aggression is not only an economic crime but it has also caused a humanitarian crisis. Already, 300 000 Ukrainians have been displaced. We have more than 400 health care facilities and more than 350 kindergartens facilities destroyed by Russian missile attacks. More than 8000 kilometres of roads and more than 300 bridges have been damaged by Russian troops. A lot of educational institutions were entirely destroyed while others were damaged. Russia is also deliberately destroying the agricultural facilities of Ukraine.

LT: Tell us about Ukraine’s relationship with Africa as a whole and specifically its relationship with Southern Africa. Some may say that Ukraine is far away in Europe and what happens there is not necessarily of concern to them as Africans. 

Abravitova: That is a very important question and a very difficult one too because Africa is very big. Depending on the African country and the region, there can be different dynamics of cooperation and ties with Ukraine. But perhaps your readers may be aware that Ukraine was part of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) along with Russia and 14 other Soviet republics.

That made a strong connection between our country and sub-Saharan Africa. As part of the USSR, Ukraine was a big part of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and other anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles of African countries.

The USSR collapsed in 1991 and the member states became independent countries. What happened after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 is that Russia appropriated for itself the legacy of what we were doing for the African continent. They made it appear like all this had been done by Russia alone.

They stole the diplomatic presence of former USSR members on the African continent. Russia took over all the diplomatic facilities throughout the African continent. Ukraine, along with other 13 countries, had to start all over again re-establishing bilateral relations with African countries.

We established diplomatic relations with Lesotho in 2000 and we have continued establishing relations with more African countries.

But the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 didn’t help us because Ukraine was very much destabilised by this war and concentrated on solving those issues with Russia. The Covid-19 pandemic also came and it didn’t help our quest to establish the trade and economic relations with other countries.

When one looks at our trade turnover with some African countries, they may not see any huge figures. But the true picture is not always visible to many because the interconnectedness of the world today means that the produce of Ukraine may not directly reach African countries but be taken there via other countries.

This war is now showing how important Ukraine is for the southern Africa region.

LT: Can you break it down for the ordinary person. Can African countries afford to be neutral in this conflict? What does this invasion really mean for African countries? Why should Africa care about the events in Ukraine? 

Abravitova: Due to its history of having to deal with colonialism, the African continent has a moral and historical obligation to condemn any type of neo-colonialism whether it’s happening in Asia, in Latin America or in Europe. If African countries are to adopt a neutral stance or remain silent during this (Russian) invasion, then they will not have any justification to complain when it happens to them because they would have allowed one country (Russia) to violate the territorial integrity of another (Ukraine).

Neo-colonialism is not only when a country invades another and takes its territory, it is also grabbing the goods and resources of another country. Today, 20 percent of Ukrainian territory is occupied by Russia. And everything on the occupied territory is being taken out to Russia, starting with our industrial facilities to our agricultural produce such as our grain.

The Ukrainian economy has lost over 50 percent of its ability. So, today we are very much dependant on foreign financial flows. Our agricultural sector was unable to plant 80 percent of its usual capacity during this season and remember the summer season has just started in Ukraine.

The vast area in which the main fighting is happening is actually the industrial hub of Ukraine. It is not surprising that Russia is concentrating all its efforts there because it wants to paralyse the Ukrainian economy.

So, this is why African countries like Lesotho cannot abstain from voting against Russia at the UN. The invasion is Russia’s war against the rest of the civilised and democratic world. It is not about Ukraine. It’s about an autocracy fighting democracy. This is why there is now food insecurity in the world. The food crisis is deliberately being established. And Russia clearly understands that the first continent to be affected by food insecurity is Africa.

To give a context, about 60 percent of the world’s sunflower oil or cooking oil comes from Ukraine. Fourteen percent of the world’s wheat comes from Ukraine. The invasion is therefore of significance to Africa and the rest of the world because the whole supply chain of different commodities was interrupted.

We may not have been directly exporting our grain and other produce to Lesotho but through Europe, you (Lesotho) were receiving a lot of agricultural commodities that were originally from Ukraine. This is how the global market works. In the Horn of Africa, the direct dependence on Ukrainian agricultural commodities sometimes reaches 90 percent.

The Middle East was very much dependent on Ukrainian poultry and different types of meat but everything has stopped since the invasion. It is very important for Basotho and others to understand that Russia is destroying our reserves of agricultural commodities. Just this morning (Tuesday), they destroyed the second largest reservoir for wheat.

They are also blocking our seaports in the Black Sea where today 200 million tonnes of grain are stuck and we cannot deliver them to those countries that are in need. It is not only a tactical blockade but they also planting mines in the Black Sea. This means that it will take a lot of time to demine the sea and to organise the channels for our ships to go out of the port.

So, in a nutshell, the African countries are directly affected by the invasion of Ukraine.

LT: Russian has also been sending out a message that the reason for food shortages and price hikes is because of sanctions against it. What is your response to that? 

Abravitova: This type of narrative or propaganda was very predictable. But the fact of the matter is the sanctions are necessary to stop Russia from destroying another country.

Russia spends US$900 million per day to fund this war. Just imagine how many projects in African countries they could support using this money.

LT: Russia has been accused of stealing grain from Ukraine and exporting it as own. According to some international publications, the theft reminds Ukrainians of the 1932/33 famine when Ukrainian peasants had their grain expropriated by the then USSR government led by Joseph Stalin. It is said that four million people died in that famine known as the Holodomor. What is your take on these claims? 

Abravitova: I am glad that you have read about the Holodomor in Ukraine. But the 4 million figure of deaths are probably lower. We estimate that correct figure is 8 million Ukrainian deaths in that famine. The Holodomor happened mainly in the Donbas region. Historically, Donbas was the Russian speaking part of Ukraine and in order to eradicate Ukrainian identity and language and culture at that time, the autocrats decided to punish Ukraine.

Since then, several generations of Ukrainians have been remembering the stories of their mothers and grandmothers who suffered because of famine which ironically occurred in one of the most fertile regions of the world. We have rich black soils. That famine-inducing theft is one of the saddest parts of our history. This is something that Russia is repeating today in the 21st century. But if at that time, Russian could hide the evidence of its actions, it cannot do that today because its actions are having serious implications on world security.

This is a genocide. It shows that Russia’s goal is to completely eliminate Ukraine. They are even shelling and launching missile attacks on our cultural heritage sites. Many world heritage sites in Ukraine have been destroyed by the Russians.

LT: If the Russian invasion ended today, how long would it take to rebuild Ukraine? 

Abravitova: No one can tell for now because many places have been destroyed.  For example, one of our cities, Mariupol, hasn’t had water and electricity for the past three months. We have a looming catastrophic sanitary situation because garbage is not being collected. More destruction is still to come. We have seen complete destruction of cities around Kyiv. After the liberation, we will have to rebuild them from scratch.

There is also the psychological damage to survivors, especially our women, our children. It will not be easy to rebuild everything. There has been a lot of propaganda coming from Russia. They are inventing these stories one after another and we don’t even have to make any effort against their propaganda because in two or three weeks, it is all proven to be false. As part of their propaganda, they portrayed their invasion as the de-Nazification of Ukraine. But they are the ones who came to Ukraine as neo-Nazis and the war they are fighting is showing the world who the real Nazis are.

You must remember that Ukraine had the third largest arsenal of nuclear weapons after the collapse of the USSR. But we peacefully abandoned our arsenal and Russia was one of the guarantors of our territorial integrity together with the United States and Great Britain. So, they demilitarised us by giving us assurances of our peace and security but now Russia is attacking us and threatening the world with nuclear weapons.

LT: Let us zero in on Lesotho. You mentioned that relations were established in 2000. Are there any plans to set up an embassy in Lesotho? What are the trade relations like between the two countries and what areas of cooperation are happening between Ukraine and Lesotho? 

Abravitova: When Ukraine regained its independence in 1992, Lesotho recognised our independence. Diplomatic relations were established on 1 June 2000. Unfortunately, we don’t have a separate embassy there, but the embassy in South Africa is responsible for Lesotho and another eight countries in the region including Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Mauritius, Madagascar and eSwatini.

The trade is low but it exists. We have seen the movement of some commodities between the two countries since 2000 including electrical machinery and clothes.

In 2021, we had five students from Lesotho studying in Ukraine. This is still a sizeable number given that South Africa had 30 students.

LT: Do you have any plans for you to visit Lesotho anytime soon? 

Abravitova: Yes, I am planning to visit Lesotho next month to discuss further cooperation.