Russian charm offensive in Africa

Manal Lotfy , Tuesday 26 Jul 2022

Russia is strengthening its relations with the African countries as Europe comes under pressure owing to the economic effects of the Ukraine war.

Russian charm offensive in Africa
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (L) walks with Lavrov at the State House in Entebbe, Uganda (photo: AFP)


Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s tour of Africa this week, which included Egypt, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Ethiopia, was designed to show that Russia is not isolated on the international stage and that its narrative about the roots of the Russia-Ukraine war has support in the non-Western world.

It aimed to show that Moscow is succeeding in boosting its relationships with other nations and is able to strike important security and economic deals.

The reception that Lavrov received in Africa was not a surprise, however, since African leaders are adjusting to a multipolar world in which the West is only one of the powers that they need to deal with alongside China, Russia, and India.

Moscow has historically had strong relationships in Africa that were established throughout the Soviet era and during the Cold War when it was viewed as being more sympathetic than many Western capitals to the liberation struggles on the continent.

In recent years, it has built up thriving arms and security businesses in several African countries and sent mercenaries to the Sahel and mining groups to Sudan and the Central African Republic.

In addition to strengthening economic and security relations, Lavrov’s tour was intended to allay the fears of some African countries that Moscow is deliberately blocking Ukrainian ports to prevent exports and using grain as a weapon to pressure the West through supply shortages and soaring prices.

“Western and Ukrainian propaganda that Russia allegedly ‘exports hunger’ is completely unfounded,” Lavrov wrote in an article published in several African newspapers on 22 July. Russia “has not stained itself with the bloody crimes of colonialism,” he added.

He emphasised the former Soviet Union’s support for decolonisation during the Cold War and Moscow’s work to restore links in Africa after the Soviet Union collapsed. A second Russia-Africa Summit meeting was planned for next year, he said.

“We have never schooled them [the African states]. We have always helped them to solve problems that allow them to live in their country the way they want,” Lavrov said, adding that this was in contrast with what he portrayed as US efforts to steer countries in the region away from Russia and China.

Russia has restored its influence in Africa by offering security assistance with fewer conditions than the West. In addition to the strong historical relations between Cairo and Moscow, Russia has also strengthened its relations with several other countries among them Ethiopia.

Relations with the West soured in Ethiopia after conflict broke out in the northern region of Tigray in 2020, causing the EU to suspend budget support and the US to suspend a trade deal giving Ethiopia preferential market access.

Relations between oil-rich Uganda and the West have also frayed over alleged human-rights abuses, electoral violence, and corruption.

Senegalese President Macky Sall, chair of the African Union (AU), went to Russia to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin last month. “President Putin expressed to us his readiness to facilitate Ukrainian wheat exports,” Sall wrote on Twitter after the meeting.

Since the outbreak of the war last February, Ukraine’s efforts to export millions of tons of grain and food oil have faltered due to the blockade of its ports and the displacement of millions of Ukrainians, many of them working in the agricultural sector.

Russian exports of grain have also been hit since the war began, primarily for logistical reasons, with Moscow blaming the effects of Western sanctions against it.

Ukraine and Russia are the largest exporters of wheat, barley, and food oil to the African countries, and one of Lavrov’s priorities during his visit was to refute the Western narrative that Moscow is responsible for global shortages in international markets and unprecedentedly high prices.

The African countries are some of the most dependent in the world on imports of cereals from Ukraine and Russia, which together produce about a quarter of the world’s wheat and barley and half of its sunflower oil, according to figures compiled by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

Twenty-five African countries import more than a third of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia, while Benin and Somalia get almost all their supply from the two countries. The figure for Egypt is about 80 per cent.

Even countries that do not import much from Russia and Ukraine have been exposed to increased competition and higher prices, already rising before the war began.

Lavrov’s visit came a few days after Ukraine and Russia agreed to a landmark deal on 22 July mediated by Turkey and the UN and intended to unblock exports of around 20 million tons of grain from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.

Kyiv expects its grain production to fall by about 40 per cent this year. If Ukraine is not able to export the grain sitting in its silos, its farmers will have nowhere to store much of this year’s harvest. Some grain can be shipped by road and rail, but this cannot make up for the lost capacity at sea. This will translate into mounting problems in the months ahead, with potentially catastrophic consequences around the world.

As Moscow strengthens its African alliances, the EU appears to be struggling to maintain its unity in the face of the Russian war in Ukraine.

The Italian government collapsed last week after the resignation of prime minister Mario Draghi following sharp divisions in the ruling coalition due to the Russian-Ukrainian war. The ruling coalition in Germany is also suffering from deep differences over the best way to deal with the crisis, with Russia significantly reducing its exports of natural gas to Berlin.

The deepening crisis has prompted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to state that the EU sanctions on Russia have failed, and he has called on Russia and the US to negotiate to bring an end to the war.

“Only Russian-US talks can put an end to the conflict because Russia wants security guarantees” that only Washington can give, Orban said, also criticising Western leaders for ignoring Russia’s security concerns before the invasion.

“With US president Donald Trump and German chancellor Angela Merkel, this war would never have happened,” he said. “The EU needs a new strategy on the war in Ukraine as punitive sanctions against Moscow have not worked,” he added.

“A new strategy is needed which should focus on peace talks and drafting a good peace proposal… instead of winning the war,” Orban said.

Many European governments are suffering from mounting pressures due to inflation and a cost-of-living crisis caused by the war. French President Emmanuel Macron has lost his parliamentary majority, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was forced to resign, partly owing to the economic repercussions of the war.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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