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Yes, Russia is acting as a colonial power towards Ukraine

Kenya is right: Vladimir Putin is a colonialist with his eye on a new empire.

The United Nations Security Council isn’t generally the place to hear works of great oratory. Speeches delivered there are more likely to inspire a nap than global action. But on Monday night, Martin Kimani, Kenya’s ambassador to the U.N., gave a barnburner about Russian threats against Ukraine that has rightly gone viral.

Kimani called out Russia for acting toward Ukraine in a way that’s all too familiar for countries born out of colonialism.

At the last meeting held on Ukraine in late January, Kenya and the other African nations on the council were more muted about Russia’s role in the crisis than the U.S. and European members would have liked. But during the council's rare late-night emergency session Monday, Kimani was in no mood to downplay Russia’s aggression.

Kimani called out Russia for acting toward Ukraine in a way that’s all too familiar to countries born out of colonialism. Any security concerns in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk “cannot justify” Russia recognizing them as independent states, he said. He went on to compare the birth of his country to Ukraine’s founding and the “ending of empire” that their new nations represented.

Kimani’s sentiment was echoed by the ambassadors from Gabon and Ghana, the two other African countries currently serving on the Security Council. Given the usual comity between Moscow and the African Group at the U.N., this direct opposition from Kenya, Gabon and Ghana counts as a huge break against Russia.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union presented itself as a friend to anti-colonial movements across Africa. Moscow’s warm embrace of these former colonies represented the antithesis of the West and the capitalism it represented stripping the newly founded countries of their resources. Russian President Vladimir Putin has worked to build on that goodwill by offering monetary and military assistance to African nations with none of the human rights and anti-corruption conditions the United States and its allies demand.

Russia jockeying for influence in Africa clashes with Putin’s rhetoric regarding Ukraine.

But that jockeying for influence clashes with Putin’s rhetoric regarding Ukraine. He’s repeatedly called the dissolution of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical tragedy” of the 20th century. That belief has undergirded his treatment of his country’s neighbors throughout his two decades in power. His revised version of history deems the Ukrainian people and state as a mistake created out of whole cloth — a mistake he intends to correct.

Putin’s repeated justification is that he wants to the reunite the Russian-speaking people who live in Donetsk and Luhansk and protect them from a “genocide” by the Ukrainian government. Since 2014, the Russian armed forces have provided military support to the rebels in those regions, propping up the separatist governments and basically occupying the territory. His government has issued passports granting Russian citizenship to some of these Ukrainians, whom the Russian “peacekeepers” now being deployed will supposedly protect.

Kimani in his speech Monday night empathized with that position, before outright rejecting it as a good reason to start a war:

We believe that all states formed from empires that have collapsed or retreated have many peoples in them yearning for integration with peoples in neighboring states. This is normal and understandable. After all, who does not want to be joined to their brethren and to make common purpose with them?

However, Kenya rejects such a yearning from being pursued by force. We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression. We rejected irredentism and expansionism on any basis, including racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural factors. We reject it again today.

It can be all too easy at times to frame empire and colonialism as a uniquely Western pursuit. That mindset has driven a large swath of the opposition on the American left to Washington’s attempts to dissuade Russia from invading Ukraine. In truth, all five permanent members of the Security Council have subjugated others in pursuit of national glory and power. Kimani didn’t ignore that fact in his speech, calling out that “multilateralism lies on its deathbed,” having “been assaulted, as it has by other powerful states in the recent past.”

But Kimani didn’t use the West’s past imperialism as an excuse to condone violating Ukraine’s sovereignty. Instead, he was rightly willing to place the blame for any war in Ukraine squarely where it belongs, on Moscow’s neocolonialism and Putin’s need to go down in the history books as the man who tried restore Russia to its imperial greatness.