By Pierre Fabricius*
Longtime Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted his African safari this week was a routine visit. Western leaders and commentators believe it was a charm offensive to win support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Lavrov told state broadcaster RT before his departure that Russia enjoys good political and economic relations with the four countries on his route – Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Republic of Congo. He noted that Egypt was Russia’s “number one partner in Africa”, that the two countries did $5 billion in annual trade and that Russia was building a nuclear power plant there and setting up industrial zones.
Clearly, his trip was also intended to sell Russia’s narrative that its war in Ukraine was aimed at countering Western global hegemony. And that sanctions against Russia – rather than Russia’s blockade of grain exports from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports – were at the root of the global food crisis felt most acutely in Africa.
Indeed, Lavrov quickly engaged in a virtual propaganda war with French President Emmanuel Macron, who was also on an African safari – perhaps not by chance – visiting Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau. Macron called Russia “one of the last imperial colonial powers”.
The rival visits were further proof that Russia’s war on Ukraine was regressive – driving the world back to Cold War postures and risking turning Africa into a proxy battleground again. US President Joe Biden will hold his long-awaited African leaders’ summit in December, and Lavrov announced in Cairo this week that the second Russia-Africa summit would be held next year.
Lavrov’s trip aimed to sell Russia’s narrative that war in Ukraine thwarts Western global hegemony
Jakkie Cilliers, head of African future and innovation at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), said it is no coincidence that Lavrov is going to Africa shortly after Russia agreed to lift its blockade on Odessa and other Ukrainian Black Sea ports. The deal, brokered by United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres and Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdoğan, would export more than 20 million tonnes of embargoed Ukrainian grain to world markets.
The embargo and resulting grain shortage contributed to a doubling of grain prices and aggravated food insecurity, particularly in Africa. In June, the African Union (AU) quickly dispatched its Chairman Macky Sall and AU Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat to Sochi to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and ask for help.
“I think the whole deal on opening up Odessa was a very strategic move by Russia,” Cilliers says. “Ukraine is smartly managing the global discourse; they determined the narrative of the Russian invasion.
Putin tried to blame Ukraine for the grain blockade because it mined its ports (in effect, to protect them from Russian invasion). But this Russian story did not sell well. “Putin feels they are losing the propaganda struggle.” And so lifting the grain embargo was a deliberate move to show Russia was responsive to African appeals “and to roll Russia back from a global narrative that has really cornered Russia.”
Steven Gruzd, head of the Russia-Africa project at the South African Institute of International Affairs, agrees that Putin sent Lavrov to Africa partly for propaganda. But also “to counter the very effective public relations that the president [Volodymyr] Zelensky had on social media. Gruzd also believes the visit is a “deliberate ploy by Russia to show that it is not isolated and can still garner support on the international stage”.
Lavrov chose undemocratic African interlocutors and perhaps at odds with the West
Africa, in this sense, was a good fit for Russia. The continent has been less critical of Russia than other regions, with 25 of 54 states either abstaining or not voting to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine in a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly on March 2. This was a significantly higher average than in other regions. South Africa and many others among those 25 say they will remain “non-aligned” – echoing the official stance developing countries took during the Cold War.
It makes sense that African states should not become entangled in a war in distant Europe. Yet the “unaligned” position implies that the war is an ethically equivalent conflict between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Russia, rather than an unprovoked aggression by Moscow against a democratic neighbor.
Thus, visiting Africa helps Lavrov emphasize the Cold War-like narrative, as observed by Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington. In fact, “Russia is also vying to normalize an international order where might is good,” he writes. “And democracy and respect for human rights are optional.”
Siegle and others have noted that Lavrov chose interlocutors who were not very democratic and who may have fallen out with the West for this reason. This would be consistent with the increased activities in the Central African Republic, Mali and Libya of the private military company Wagner, which supports warlords and putschists. Wagner is widely seen as Putin’s proxy force to counter Western influence.
Siegle suggests that Russia has much more to gain from better relations with Africa than African states. Russia is already the continent’s largest arms supplier and can hope to increase it. Apart from weapons, Russia is a small investor and trader compared to the West and China.
Egypt, in particular, is strategically too important to the West for Lavrov’s visit to sour relations
However, ISS researcher Priyal Singh notes that improving relations with Russia is not inherently bad for Africa, as some states benefit “tremendously” from having various international partners. This argument is also often made for Africa to strengthen its ties with China.
It seems that Lavrov did well in Africa – not only with the leadership of the four carefully chosen destination countries, but also in Addis Ababa where he met the ambassadors of several other countries.
Siegle warns that African countries that move closer to Russia risk losing the trust of Western governments and investors who demand environments where the rule of law prevails. But this observation invokes one of the great imponderables of Africa’s international relations.
Egypt, in particular, is strategically too important to the West for Lavrov’s visit to really deteriorate relations. Arguably, the West could become more friendly with all these African countries to prevent them from drifting further into Moscow’s embrace. This is an argument you hear from some Western diplomats in Pretoria about South Africa’s “non-aligned” stance, which has visibly annoyed some of their colleagues.
These dynamics and dilemmas echo those of the “first” Cold War – although whether the world of 2022 is analogous to that of around 1972 is a larger question.
*About the Author: Peter FabriciusConsultant, ISS Pretoria
Source: This article was published by ISS Today