Amid War in Ukraine, Russia’s Lavrov Goes on Diplomatic Offensive
In search of partners to ease its international isolation, Russia has shifted its focus to Africa and Asia.
As Russia’s unprovoked and illegal war against Ukraine enters its seventh month, the Russian government continues its diplomatic offensive to prevent more countries from joining international condemnation and sanctions for its military aggression. Between July and August, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov traveled to Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda, the Republic of Congo, Myanmar and Cambodia — the last as part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. This tour represented an evolving reorientation of Russian foreign policy from Europe to the Global South that has accelerated since Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
Lavrov’s Trip Underscores Russia’s Ongoing Threat
Russia’s foreign policy reorientation is building on old partners such as Egypt and Ethiopia and leveraging multilateral forums such as ASEAN, the Arab League, the African Union and the United Nations. From military cooperation to energy and trade in commodities, Lavrov’s foreign tours in Africa and Asia sought to demonstrate that Russia has partners — if not friends — in different parts of the world.
However, Lavrov’s trip did not prove that Russia has strong allies. Rather, his meetings with African and Asian officials underscored the ongoing threat that Russia’s war against Ukraine poses for the international system — emboldening brutal regimes and contributing to democratic backsliding. With the ramifications of the war in Ukraine rippling across the world, it is vital that the United States and its allies work with countries in the Global South to mitigate the war’s impact and counter Russia’s dangerous propaganda justifying its aggression.
Myanmar: Incentives to Cooperate
Lavrov’s visit to Myanmar in early August came less than one month after Myanmar coup-leader Min Aung Hlaing’s “private” trip to Russia and less than 10 days after the junta announced it had murdered four prominent pro-democracy figures.
The visit advanced Russian interests vis-à-vis South and Southeast Asia in three key ways. First, it signaled strong support for Myanmar’s coup regime ahead of the East Asia Summit and a series of key ASEAN meetings, disrupting efforts for a much stronger international response to the military’s ongoing atrocities and war crimes.
Second, the visit seemed to advance the growing Russian emphasis on the Indian Ocean region. The two sides made progress toward energy and economic cooperation, particularly regarding increased oil exports, financial integration and — most controversially — furthering a joint agreement on nuclear energy cooperation that was signed in July. Sharing a status as international pariahs, Russia and the Myanmar junta will likely find growing incentives to cooperate, particularly in the energy sector, and could assist one another in circumventing Western sanctions.
Third, Lavrov’s visit furthered the Russia-China strategic relationship by helping to relieve pressure on China following Beijing’s series of aggressive and provocative steps in support of the junta.
While Russia’s capacity to provide the junta with weapons remains questionable given its ongoing occupation of Ukraine, Lavrov’s visit did indicate renewed Russian political support for the junta’s State Administrative Council. Lavrov pledged Russian backing for the junta’s plans to bring an end to the political crisis, which involve orchestrating fraudulent elections and passing leadership over to the military’s proxy party in 2023. Coupled with China’s recent moves to pressure the countries in the Mekong region to grant greater legitimacy to the junta and ignore its war crimes, this sent a strong signal to ASEAN states ahead of the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and the East Asia Summit that China and Russia intended to neutralize any efforts to punish the junta for its crimes.
While some analysts argued that China found these moves by Russia alarming, Chinese businesses have actually leveraged Russia’s recent signals to deepen economic cooperation and build higher levels of Chinese government support for their own cross-border investments.
Earlier this week, the Chinese Embassy in Yangon participated in the establishment of the Myanmar Yunnan Chamber of Commerce — which marked the fourth chamber of commerce created by Chinese companies in Myanmar since the coup. Chinese analysts have also made arguments similar to Russia’s regarding support for the junta. Far from a successful “hedging” strategy, the involvement of Russia, India and ASEAN states in protecting, legitimizing and stabilizing the junta reinforce rather than threaten the Chinese position.
Meanwhile, the junta and its proxy political parties have been quick to play both the Ukraine and Taiwan cards, supporting Russia and China on those fronts. Moscow and Beijing have responded favorably, generating concern among Myanmar’s opposition actors that the junta’s appeals to Beijing on the Taiwan issue in particular may lead Beijing to deepen its interference in Myanmar’s domestic politics in favor of the junta.
Egypt: An Arduous Balancing Act
The Egypt-Russian relationship is considered of strategic importance to both sides. Historically, Egypt had excellent relations with the Soviet Union. However, when President Sadat expelled Soviet military advisers from Egypt in 1972, the relationship suffered a major setback — at the time, this was deemed “probably the most severe defeat the Soviet Union has suffered” in the region.
More recently, relations between Egypt and Russia have faced significant challenges. In 2015, Moscow suspended direct flights to Egypt after a terrorist attack brought down a Russian commercial airliner, which dramatically reduced the number of Russian tourists visiting Egypt.
Flights were only restored in 2021 and — before the Russian invasion of Ukraine — 30 percent of tourists visiting Egypt came from either Russia or Ukraine. Egypt was also disappointed that it did not receive the support it expected from Russia when Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam was discussed in the U.N. Security Council in 2021.
Nevertheless, Egypt-Russian ties have advanced on several strategic projects. Egypt is the largest wheat importer in the world, and imports around 70 percent of its wheat from Russia. In June 2022, Egypt permitted Russia to start the long-delayed construction of the $28.75 billion El-Dabaa nuclear power plant. And an over $7 billion agreement from 2019 to establish a Russian Industrial Zone in the Suez Canal area is delayed, but not cancelled, as a result of the war on Ukraine and Western sanctions.
Furthermore, Egypt purchased 26 Su-35 fighter jets from Russia. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the issue with his Egyptian counterpart in 2021, and Blinken’s predecessor had threatened Cairo with economic sanctions regarding the deal. Egypt insists on completing this military deal — especially since the United States has refused to sell F-35 fighter jets to Egypt and refused to equip previously bought F-16 fighters with any viable weapons, making them “effectively useless.”
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Egypt is struggling to strike a balance between its reliance on Western allies and critical interests with Russia. Egypt joined other countries in condemning the Russian invasion at the U.N., but subsequently abstained from voting on a resolution to remove Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council and did not explicitly support sanctions against Russia.
The longer the war drags on, the more Egypt and many other countries in Africa and the Middle East will feel pressure to choose a side, especially amid Russia’s push to ease its diplomatic isolation.
This past July — about one week after President Biden’s meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi — Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov started his Africa trip in Cairo. There, Lavrov met President El-Sisi, the foreign minister, as well as the Arab League secretary-general, and Lavrov’s address to Arab League members generated criticism from several western countries.
During Lavrov’s visit, President El-Sisi reiterated Cairo’s strong ties with Moscow but made clear he desired a resolution to the war in Ukraine, as energy prices and global food security stemming from the war have harmed Egypt. Lavrov responded by bringing up Western sanctions and calling on the West to "refrain from its actions in the face of the food crisis." He also blamed Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for declaring that "there will be no negotiations until Ukraine defeats Russia on the battlefield.''
As expected, Lavrov received a friendly reception in Egypt, which was important for Russia in setting the stage for his African trip. Although several countries in the West feel that Egypt has been more accommodating to Russia than they would have liked, they still understand Egypt’s dilemma and interests with both Russia and Ukraine. Egypt, on its part, continued to try to balance its position by stressing the need for a peaceful resolution, with this balance being strained every single day the war is prolonged.
Ethiopia: An Essential Ally for Russia
The strategic location of Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa, which has suffered numerous protracted conflicts throughout history, makes the East African country an essential ally for nations like Russia. Ethiopia has used this position to navigate global power competition and maintains an excellent relationship with China, the United States and Russia.
The Soviet Union (and now Russia) and Ethiopia have longstanding diplomatic relations dating back to 1943 and have enjoyed "cordial military relations" since the 1970s, when the USSR supported Ethiopia's Derg regime — a military junta that seized power in 1974.
There are no signs that friendship will wane anytime soon. With Russia facing sanctions and criticism from the West for invading Ukraine, Russia is in dire need of building new relationships and solidifying existing ones in Africa.
During Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov's recent Africa tour, he visited Ethiopia and met President Sahle-Work Zewde and other officials, and had a phone conversation with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to deliver “a personal message from President Putin."
The meetings themselves focused on, among other things, the growing relations between their countries and the need to strengthen them even further. They agreed to enhance their economic, humanitarian, defense, trade, science and technology relationships — with Lavrov highlighting the importance of honoring “Africa's solution to Africa's problem.”
Lavrov reiterated Russian support for Ethiopia’s efforts to address the conflict in the Tigray region, promising to respect Ethiopia's territorial integrity and not interfere in its internal affairs. In turn, Prime Minister Abiy welcomed Russia's support in containing the Tigray region's insurgency, especially after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other Western officials have accused Ethiopian forces of ethnic cleansing.
During the trip, Lavrov also met with the permanent representatives of the African Union member states and the diplomatic corps in Addis Ababa. In an address to the body, he listed Russia’s reasons for invading Ukraine and concluded his statements by saying Russia is open to negotiations with the West based on equality and without preconditions.
Uganda: Avoiding Ukraine to Bolster Ties
Uganda first established ties with Russia in 1962, followed by a trade agreement in 1964. Both countries have maintained good relationships ever since, but Lavrov’s trip marks the highest-level Russian visit to Uganda since the two formalized diplomatic ties.
During a joint press conference, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni declared his country refused to "fight other people's enemies," in reference to Russia’s war in Ukraine. But when asked about calls from the West to shun all relations with Russia, Museveni retorted, "How can we be against somebody who has never harmed us?" and referenced the historical strength of their collaboration — claiming Russia has supported Uganda and the anti-colonial movement on the continent. Uganda was one of the several African countries that abstained during a U.N. vote to condemn the Russian attack on Ukraine.
In Lavrov’s statement regarding the visit, officials from the two countries expressed satisfaction with their strong trade relations, deepening parliamentary and interparty ties, and expanding cooperation in the education and health care spheres. The sides agreed to accelerate business partnerships and execute joint initiatives, especially around oil refining, agricultural production and infrastructural developments.
Furthermore, President Museveni referenced Russia’s role in bolstering Uganda's economy, specifically in refining the country's rich natural resources, and announced the discovery of 31 million tons of gold ore, which could allow for the extraction of up to 320,000 tons of pure gold.
Republic of Congo: Russia Tries to Drive a Wedge with the West
Since the Soviet era, the Republic of Congo and Russia have enjoyed excellent relations. Both countries established diplomatic ties in 1960. And in 2019, Putin welcomed Congo's President Denis Sassou-Nguesso in Moscow and underscored the growing and friendly relations between both countries, especially around trade and oil production. With rising insecurity in the Central Africa subregion, President Sassou -Nguesso has not hesitated to request Russian security assistance.
In July this year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov paid his first-ever visit to the Republic of Congo and met with President Sassou-Nguessou. During the visit, Lavrov made sure to remind President Sassou-Nguessou about the colonization of Africa for Western benefit — a narrative Russia has often employed to drive a wedge with the West and build ties with African countries, promising bilateral relations based on trust, equality and respect for Africa's territorial integrity