The Ukrainian government has spotted an opportunity to strengthen its diplomatic ties in Africa as Russia tries to cling on to major allies there.
As the BRICS summit gets underway in Johannesburg this week, bringing together the main players of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa with dozens of other countries outside the ‘global West’, Russia and Ukraine are looking at the event as a way to cement international relationships as they compete for influence.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said recently that the country intends to ramp up its strategic outreach to African partners after decades of neglect.
“Many years have been lost,” he said, “but we are going to push ahead with a Ukrainian-African renaissance, revive these relations.”
Citing “coercion, corruption and fear” that Russia uses to wield power in numerous African countries, Kuleba insisted that “We don’t want to be another Russia. Our strategy is not to replace Russia, but to free Africa from Russia’s grip.”
Among the countries he named as places where Russian influence is “eroding” were Liberia, Kenya, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Mozambique, Rwanda and Equatorial Guinea.
However, Russia nonetheless has a formidable presence in various corners of the African continent. It has provided security support to several states, particularly in the form of the mercenary group Wagner, a critical player in chaotic Libya and the unstable Central African Republic.
However, Wagner’s intimate connections to the Kremlin have come under immense strain in recent months, with chief Yvgeny Prigozhin publicly excoriating the management of the Ukrainian invasion, then leading what briefly looked like an insurrection against Putin’s rule before agreeing to leave Russia for Belarus.
With the future of Wagner uncertain and the Russian military flailing in Ukraine, the Kremlin is ill-equipped to maintain the level of influence it has become used to.
The upshot of all this is that Russia’s ongoing African machinations will loom large over this year’s BRICS summit, which brings together the governments of Brazil, China, Russia, India and South Africa.
And while Vladimir Putin will not be appearing in person, only via vido link because of the risk he could face arrest on an International Criminal Court warrant, the other four governments will be under intense scrutiny for their often ambiguous attitudes to his regime – South Africa in particular.
The southern extreme
Ever since Russia launched it’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s relationship to the Kremlin has been harshly criticised by governments allied with Ukraine.
In May, the US ambassador to Pretoria claimed that South Africa, which has declared itself neutral in the war, had provided arms and ammunition to a Russian ship that docked in Cape Town last year en route home.
Soon afterward, Ramaphosa granted Putin immunity despite an international arrest warrant, meaning he would have been able to attend the BRICS summit in person without fear of being apprehended. (He declined nonetheless.)
From a Western perspective, it might seem odd for South Africa and other African countries to remain open to Russia despite its actions in Ukraine. But according to Professor Stephen Chan of the School of Oriental and African Studies, it should not surprise anyone that the ANC-led South African government is relatively amenable to Putin.
“There is a very long affiliation with Russia in many parts of Southern Africa, particularly in South Africa itself,” said Chan, who over several decades has advised numerous African and European governments.
“The West has a short memory, but while it supported the Apartheid governments, Russia gave support to the ANC in exile and went one further by sponsoring Cuban armed forces in Angola, who twice turned back the tide of South African military advance.”
As an example, he cited a turning point in the long war in Angola, where South Africa’s failure helped speed the end of Apartheid for good.
“At the 1988 Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Southern Angola, South African forces, hoping to establish a buffer state in the south, were forced to withdraw. The National Party in South Africa saw that force was no longer a viable instrument against change; there was a palace coup, the hawks fell and F.W. De Klerk, a dove, became president. In 1989 he held talks with Zambia’s president, Kenneth Kaunda, and in 1990 Mandela walked free.
“In South Africa, and in mineral- and oil-rich Angola, the Russians are given much credit for this chain of events to this day.”
Even so, Ramaphosa has faced serious domestic opposition to his stance on the war, not least because of how poorly he’s executed his efforts to thrust South Africa and Africa in general into the mix.
Outside looking in
With Russia’s obstruction of Ukrainian exports putting many African countries’ food supply in jeopardy, Ramaphosa’s government this summer tried to lead an African diplomatic entrée into the war. His stated aim was to broker a peace deal even as Ukraine’s Western allies supply Kyiv with ever more materiel and training.
However, the South African-led mission to Ukraine and Russia earlier this year saw no progress towards peace, even after the multinational African delegation met with leaders on both sides of the conflict.
There was also an embarrassing spectacle when one of the South African planes was detained on the runway at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport. According to Polish authorities, the delegation essentially failed to comply with the plans for the trip that the two countries had agreed beforehand.
“Dangerous goods were on board the plane, which South African representatives did not have permission to bring in. In addition, there were persons on board the aircraft of whose presence the Polish side had not been notified beforehand,” a government statement explained.
South Africa might be the host of the BRICS conference, but its efforts to wield influence in the Ukrainian war have so far generated more scorn and confusion than concrete results.
Meanwhile, the world is trying to understand exactly what role Russia is playing in the coup in Niger, where protesters have descended on the French embassy waving Russian flags.
There, the ECOWAS group of West African nations is mounting a major effort to push back against the coup. And among the countries involved are several listed by Ukraine’s Kuleba in his announcement of a “renaissance”.