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Ukraine’s diplomatic forays unlikely to blunt Africa’s pro-Russia sentiment

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Egypt’s Prime Minister Mustafa Madbuly, Senegal’s former President Macky Sall, President of the Union of Comoros Azali Assoumani, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Zambia’s President Hakainde Hichilema, during the African leaders’ peace mission to Ukraine in June 2023. However, Zelenskyy is now seeking to create a more amicable and constructive relationship with Africa, as part of its strategy to ‘to free Africa from Russia’s grip’, the writer says. Picture: Valentyn Ogirenko / REUTERS / June 16, 2023

By Kim Heller

Amidst the calamitous battle with Russia and capriciousness of global geopolitics, Ukraine is venturing into Africa. In November 2023, Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke of his intention to build friendly strategic relations with African nations, based on mutual respect for territorial sovereignty.

Increased visits to the Continent and engagements with the African Union by top government leaders over the past two years signals Ukraine’s new approach to Africa. During his visits to Africa in 2023, the country’s foreign affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba spoke of a Ukrainian-African renaissance, based on “a new quality of bilateral relations”.

Donations of grain, the deployment of special forces to Sudan, and a deeper, broader diplomatic presence, are Ukraine’s opening gambit as it ventures into the Continent.

Ukraine’s escapade occurs at a time when its arch-rival, Russia, is making significant strides on the Continent, on the groundswell of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial sentiments particularly in the Sahel and West Africa region.

With leaders in the Sahel and West Africa championing decolonisation and self-sufficiency, there has been a hurried exit of US and French bodies, envoys, and armed forces and a welcoming of long-standing ally, Russia.

Africa’s congenial relations with Russia is based on decades long support from Russia for the Continent’s liberatory battles waged and won against colonial conquest. In July 2023, Moscow Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, addressed the Russia-Africa Economic Summit, held in Moscow.

Kirill spoke of the “old and friendly relations” between his country and the African Continent. He spoke of how Russia has never viewed the African continent as a space to exploit or colonise, as many other European countries including France, Italy, and the United Kingdom had done.

He spoke of Russia’s respect for the people of Africa and how Russia “does not engage with the people of Africa in a condescending manner or through a language of superiority or force”.

For Ukraine there is no real history of solidarity. There is no shared ideological perspective although Ukraine has gone to pains to present itself as a victim of colonialism. There is no real track record of military ties, apart from with Mozambique in the 1970s.

Prospects for meaningful economic co-operation, which would principally pivot on agriculture, have yet to be fully explored. This opportunity may be somewhat constricted given the collapse of the grain export industry.

Ukraine is currently expanding its embassies across Africa. In 2023, Ukraine had just ten embassies in Africa, compared to Russia’s forty-three. Last year, the country’s ambassador to South Africa, Liubov Abravitora, confirmed that Ukraine was planning to open ten new embassies across Africa, at a cost of $25 million.

This year, Ukrainian has set up embassies in Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, and Botswana. Next on the list is Ghana and Rwanda.

This upscaling of diplomatic presence is part of a broader strategy to counter Russia’s footprint and economic influence in Africa. It is also an ambitious attempt to win over African nation support for its war effort, both within the influential ambit of the United Nations and ahead of the high-level Peace Summit in Geneva.

The 2022 UN General Assembly vote condemning Russia’s aggression saw seventeen African nations abstaining, while Eritrea voted against the resolution. Only twenty eight of the 54 African countries represented in the UN voted in favour of the resolution – this was just 51 percent compared to 81 percent of non-African countries.

Not the outcome Ukraine would have wanted. With over a quarter of UN members being African states, the Continent has strong presence, and holds considerable power.

The South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) argues that Ukraine’s prospects for diplomatic inroads in Africa look bleak, and that its enemy (Russia) has “a major diplomatic head start”.

On the whole, African leaders and citizens are well disposed to Russia, especially those in West Africa. A 2022 Gallup poll conducted across 23 African countries found that that approval of Russia’s leadership “has remained consistently higher than the global average”. The poll found that since 2022, Russia’s image in Africa has improved. Median approval of Russia stands at 42 percent, up from 34 percent in the previous year.

While Russia is well perceived and well received in Africa, Ukraine is trying to position itself as having the moral high ground. Speaking of the recent donation of 170,000 tonnes of food to Africa, Special Representative of Ukraine for the Middle East and Africa, Maksym Subkh, said that Ukraine will send grain to the needy in Africa regardless of politics and that they would “never use grain as a weapon” as Russia does.

The first ever visit to Africa by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is currently being mapped out. South Africa will be hosting Zelenskyy. As Ukraine puts considerable effort and investment into wooing Africa, the Russian-Ukraine war shows little sign of resolution after three years.

For a country at war and consistently putting out its own begging bowl, one has to wonder who is funding Ukraine’s new African project. Couched as a Ukraine African renaissance it could well be little more than a clandestine attempt by the US and Western powers to use Ukraine as a front to diminish the rising influence of Russia on the continent.

Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dmytro Kuleba has said, “Our strategy is not to replace Russia but to free Africa from Russia’s grip.”

Ukraine’s entry into the Continent is unlikely to muddy Russia’s welcome mat in many African countries. It is doubtful that the courting of Africa by Ukraine will be an easy or immediate affair.

It will take a longer and sustainable liaison, based on strong tangible benefits and deliverables, to build any meaningful, deep and lasting ties. For now, the attention and attractiveness of Russia is charming the Continent.

Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa’.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.