If the war between Russia and Ukraine were to escalate, where would South Africa stand?

You may have missed it in the last day or two , but the United States has confirmed that it’s considering sending deadly weapons to Ukraine, to help in its fight against Russia. Were this to happen, it would be a distinct change in policy. At present, Washington sends military aid to Kiev, but of a non-lethal nature: Humvee vehicles, body armour, small boats, radar systems and counter-mortar detection units. Various senior American officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice are now reported to be in favour of adding anti-tank, anti-air and anti-mortar systems to the list, under the heading ‘defensive lethal aid’.

It’s a racing certainty that Moscow wouldn’t see this new kit as ‘defensive’. The Kremlin would immediately ramp up the internal propaganda, saying, “Look, we told you so – this is all a dastardly American plot to isolate and topple Mother Russia!”

It’s one of the reasons that this type of weapon has not already been despatched to Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown no signs at all of wanting to back down and negotiate a settlement – not over the seizure of Crimea, nor over the assistance he’s giving Ukraine’s separatist rebels. If anything, Putin is becoming more confident – arrogant? – in his reaction to the West.

Anyone who has studied Russian history will tell you that this is entirely predictable.

From the behaviour of Tsar Alexander I against Napoleon in the early 1800s, to Stalin’s response to Hitler’s Germany in the 1940s, Russia never, ever gets pushed around. Hit as hard as you can and Russia simply absorbs the blows, bides its time, and hits back even harder.

If you disbelieve me, remember that while Britain, the United States and the Commonwealth lost around one million people fighting Hitler, Russia’s death toll was at least 20 million and, by some estimates, as high as 27 million. That’s a staggering number of war dead, but the Russians didn’t flinch, even when German tanks were on the outskirts of Moscow.

I make this point not in any way as an apologist for Vladimir Putin, whose actions are increasingly despotic – at least to Western eyes. Reports from Moscow say his popularity internally is at an all-time high, despite the effect of sanctions on the Russian economy.

So it really is not too fanciful to imagine a couple of very short steps to all-out war between Russia and Europe, with the latter firmly backed by the United States. Think about an increase in ‘defensive lethal aid’ by the Americans, a series of counter measures by the Kremlin, a decision to send NATO troops to the Baltic states, another incident like the shooting down of a civilian jetliner, and suddenly someone on one or other side launches a pre-emptive strike, possibly nuclear, or an invasion. Unthinkingly, unwittingly, the world lurches over the precipice.

That’s a state of affairs that would possibly South Africa a very attractive place to be: as far away from military action as possible. Or would it? Our current government has a very anti-Western streak, and, of course, we have an economic alliance to Russia through the BRICS. None of the major Western powers recognises us a BRICS member – in truth, our economy is simply too small – but the ANC government certainly sees us as a full member and, have no doubt, intends to keep it that way.

If it’s possible to imagine a northern hemisphere conflict, born in Ukraine, nurtured by carelessness and fuelled by old Cold War grievances, it’s just as possible to imagine South Africa sending troops north to assist an ally. We’ve done it before, of course, in two World Wars and it would certainly prove, once and for all, that we’re a worthy member of the BRICS Group.