In the days before Russia’s bombing escalation in Ukraine in early October, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was visiting Africa in a bid to garner support and counter Moscow’s propaganda about the war. While much of the Western world has rallied around Ukraine, African states have largely avoided taking sides. For its part, Russia has been on a diplomatic offensive in much of the Global South, lobbying African, Asian, Latin American, and Middle Eastern countries to not join international sanctions and condemnation against Moscow. Indeed, Ukraine’s fight against Russia is not only taking place on the battlefield, but also through ambitious and needed international diplomacy efforts that extend from Europe to the Global South.

Farming machinery in the Mykolaiv region, Ukraine, June 30, 2022. As Ukraine looks to build partnerships in Africa, its top diplomat has emphasized that Kyiv is prepared to help the continent address food insecurity. (Laetitia Vancon/The New York Times)
Farming machinery in the Mykolaiv region, Ukraine, June 30, 2022. As Ukraine looks to build partnerships in Africa, its top diplomat has emphasized that Kyiv is prepared to help the continent address food insecurity. (Laetitia Vancon/The New York Times)

Kuleba’s early October trip to Kenya, Senegal, Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire was the Ukrainian government’s first diplomatic tour of Africa in decades according to the foreign minister. The Ukrainian government selected these countries because of their strategic importance on the African continent, their votes in the U.N. General Assembly condemning Russia’s invasion, and, particularly in the case of Kenya, the strong and public critique of Russia’s actions within the context of European imperialism. In the case of Senegal, President Macky Sall is chairperson of the important multilateral organization, the African Union.

The trip was cut short by Russian missile strikes on civilian targets in Kyiv and other parts of Ukraine. But Kuleba laid the groundwork for future efforts to counter Russian propaganda and positive to neutral perceptions of Russia across the African continent, build greater international support for Ukraine’s fight against Russian aggression, and advance partnerships with African governments focused on areas of mutual interests.

An aspect of Kuleba’s tour that makes Ukraine’s potential partnerships with African countries so important is to increase international pressure on Russia to maintain the export of Ukrainian grain to stave off food shortages in countries where it is most needed. The grain deal brokered by the U.N. and Turkey has faced recent challenges with Russia suspending its participation last week only to reverse course a few days later on November 2 after international pressure. 

Challenging Russian Propaganda

As it has through much of the world, Russia has sought to advance its interests in Africa for years through concerted disinformation and election interference campaigns. From front organizations intervening in elections to growing Russian-state funded media engagement in French to target many African countries, Russia’s activities on the continent extend beyond arms sales and military cooperation.

A goal of Kuleba’s trip was tackling and confronting Russian disinformation in Africa. Part of Russia’s multi-layered disinformation campaign about its war against Ukraine focuses on blaming NATO and the West for the conflict, suggesting that Moscow is confronting a threat to its security, not engaged in a war of aggression. In his meeting with Senegalese Foreign Minister Aissata Tall Sall, Kuleba did not hesitate to confront Russia’s false justifications for the war. “The Senegalese may be surprised if they listen to Russian propaganda,” Kuleba said. “Russia wanted to make believe that [the war is because] Ukraine wants to be a member of NATO. Finland wants to be a member. And yet Russia did not attack it.”

Russian propaganda has also tried to erase the distinction between Ukraine and Russia as independent countries with their own histories, culture and language. Kuleba challenged this narrative, asserting that “Russia also believes that we are one people. This is not true … The language we speak is not the same. We have a different culture and a different people.” If Ukraine hopes to dent the effectiveness of Russian propaganda across Africa, it must continue this messaging campaign.

Building Partnerships

Kuleba’s visit has potential to help the Ukrainian government chart a strategic path for developing relationships with African countries. However, “Ukraine has never been a player in Africa … [it] does face a steep uphill climb to garner support for a war so removed from African realities or African geopolitical interests,” said Kamissa Camara, a Sahel expert at USIP and former Malian foreign minister. “While Africans are being urged to take sides in the Ukraine-Russia war, protracted wars on the African continent — such as the war in Tigray or the war in Eastern Congo — continue to make victims by the million,” she added.

As the votes in the United Nations General Assembly on Russia’s war against Ukraine have demonstrated, it is important to mobilize international support beyond the West for the Ukrainian government’s fight. Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24, there has been a series of votes in the U.N. focused on condemning Russian aggression and acknowledging the illegality of its war. Despite 140 nations voting to condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine, over 20 African countries abstained or did not vote during the emergency session of the U.N. General Assembly at the end of March. Similarly, many African countries did not vote, abstained from voting, or voted against suspending Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council.

While the votes were largely symbolic, they still carried weight for understanding how countries in the Global South view Russia’s war against Ukraine.

“While most African states are opposed to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, they have been very reluctant to openly condemn Russia for its aggression or to take sides in a conflict that puts them in the middle of a new Cold War between the United States, its Western allies and Russia,” noted Ambassador Johnnie Carson, a senior advisor at USIP who also served as the top U.S. envoy to Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Kuleba’s Africa trip was necessary to begin a more sustained effort by the Ukrainian government to engage with Global South countries, particularly those in Africa.

Next Steps for Ukraine and African Countries

Along with attempting to strengthen bilateral relationships, the Ukrainian government should work to engage African countries through relevant multilateral forums such as the African Union. That will help to maximize Ukrainian engagement with Africa and further demonstrate its long-term commitment to building relationships.

“No one or two African countries, or collection of African countries have enough influence to pressure or persuade Russian to stop its aggression in Ukraine, but African countries can play a bigger role by joining the international consensus in openly and officially condemning Russia's actions and in supporting U.N. and Western sanctions against Moscow's behavior,” noted Carson, who also served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for the bureau of African affairs.

Ukrainian engagement with African countries can help to push Russia to maintain its involvement in the grain deal that is so critical for many Global South countries. Many African and Middle Eastern countries rely heavily on Ukrainian grain imports. So, it was important for Kuleba to emphasize and reiterate Ukraine’s efforts to address the food insecurity many countries are experiencing because of Russia’s attack on Ukraine — and that Ukraine understands what Africans are going through. “Each Russian rocket is not only hitting Ukrainians, it also harms the quality of life for Africans,” he said.

Ukraine is planning an ambitious agenda for its potential partnerships with African countries. During Kuleba’s tour, he discussed organizing a Ukraine-Africa summit to deepen relations. Already there is no shortage of topics for such a gathering which could touch on food security, trade, and building a more inclusive international system that protects smaller countries from acts of aggression and reinforces protection of territorial integrity.

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