Main Image Credit Worth a try: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomes South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to Kyiv on 16 June 2023 to discuss African peace proposals. Image: Associated Press / Alamy
A pan-African ‘peace delegation’ visited Ukraine and Russia last week. Mired in controversy, what prospects does the initiative have?
In March 2022, shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 28 out of 54 African states voted to condemn Russia’s action at the UN General Assembly. Many others abstained, and a few like Eritrea sided with Russia. Fifteen months later, the political landscape looks different. As the war has gone on, most African countries have incurred economic strains they could do without. A few countries that export oil and gas may have benefitted, but most have suffered badly from rising commodity prices. Fuel and food oils, gas, wheat and fertiliser have become unaffordable for many.
The grain deal reached in July 2022 offered partial respite, allowing Ukraine to export by sea to traditional markets – the Middle East and Africa are highly dependent on a combination of Russian and Ukrainian grain. The agreement expires soon, however, focusing African leaders’ minds. Extending the agreement or finding alternative solutions to Africa’s import needs will be one of the agenda items in any talks. But the larger aims are political.
On 16 June, a delegation of seven presidents, prime ministers and high representatives landed in Kyiv. According to some reports, they were greeted by Russian missile strikes, notwithstanding the fact that their next scheduled stop was Moscow. As a collective, the leaders from Egypt, Uganda, Zambian, Senegal, Comoros, South Africa and Congo-Brazzaville can claim to represent Africa’s sub-regions and a span of political perspectives.
Of the seven countries, Zambia and Comoros are broadly Western-leaning. Senegal, Uganda, Congo-Brazzaville, Egypt and Senegal sit somewhere in the middle. South Africa is trickier to read. Although it has strong commercial ties with the West and is formally non-aligned, the country is now seen as leaning towards Russia. It conducted joint naval drills with Russia and China in February. Key political and military figures were trained by the Soviets and retain connections, and the Chief of the South African Army visited Moscow only this month. As recently as May, the US claimed it had intelligence of a Russian ship docked in a South African port loading weapons bound for Ukraine.
The offer of peacemaking beyond Africa’s borders in a conflict of profound geopolitical importance is novel and bold. Whether or not it succeeds, the offer, together with the arrival of a high-level continental delegation in Kyiv, underscores growing confidence on the continent. Key states and leaders across Africa are no longer asking for but demanding a greater voice and representation in global affairs, from the G7 to the UN Security Council.
Whether or not it succeeds, the offer of peacemaking by African states, together with the arrival of a high-level delegation in Kyiv, underscores growing confidence on the continent
There are also domestic political concerns. It was South Africa’s embattled President Cyril Ramaphosa who first floated the initiative. His offer roughly coincided with the US arms shipment allegations. With dire economic circumstances at home, corruption allegations, rolling power cuts, a fractious party to manage and now a cholera outbreak, Ramaphosa badly needs a boost. His every move is scrutinised at home and abroad as frustration with his leadership and the ruling African National Congress grows. Logistical hiccups with the peace mission’s advance party earlier in the week meant that Ramaphosa had to proceed from Warsaw to Kyiv by train. South African Twitter was derisive.
But Ramaphosa’s looming challenge is a stand-off over the March 2023 International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin. As a signatory state, South Africa would come under serious pressure at home and abroad to arrest him should he arrive in South Africa as expected in August for the BRICS summit.
While the South African president is in Kyiv, Ukraine’s foreign ministry might try to persuade him not to host the summit – or if it goes ahead, to arrest Putin. Ramaphosa would never concede to the latter, but other options are being explored. Overtures are being made to China, a non-signatory of the ICC, to host instead. The other alternative would be for Putin to send a representative – a minor diplomatic defeat. The different options could all cause South Africa some diplomatic or economic pain. The US accusation of an arms shipment to Russia, for example, spooked investors and contributed to the rand’s depreciation. Although unsuccessful, some in the US Senate sought to remove South Africa’s preferential trade access under the African Growth and Opportunity Act.
Little is known of the African peace proposals. In a recent interview, the Ukrainian foreign minister stated that he had not seen anything of substance, and that while the African delegation would be welcome, no territorial concessions or freeze to the conflict would be acceptable. More recently, Reuters reported having seen a document referencing a series of ‘confidence-building measures’ during initial efforts at mediation, including a possible Russian pullback, removal of tactical nuclear weapons from Belarus and suspension of the implementation of the ICC arrest warrant against Putin.
Far-sighted Western leaders must know that cooperation is building among non-Western states, including towards what may emerge as an anti-Western BRICS+ alliance
Ramaphosa’s peace initiative, then, might help him reset a tricky diplomatic table. The initiative might yield little in the short term, but could allow the above concerns to be discussed and help to build some momentum towards talks.
Outside of Western circles, it appears the mood is changing. China, Brazil and now Indonesia have also made peace proposals. The Chinese position paper called for a ceasefire and talks, and reiterated several long-standing positions, including an end to US sanctions. Although substantive, it baked in certain advantages for China and was quickly talked down by Washington. Brazilian President Lula’s overtures came to nought when he was snubbed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the G7. (Zelensky’s earlier 10-point peace formula would ‘punish Russia for the crime of aggression’ and restore 2021 borders.)
Indonesia’s peace plan, announced at the Shangri-La Dialogue summit in June, called for a referendum on disputed areas, a demilitarised zone, peacekeepers and a ‘no blame’ approach. The proposal was quickly condemned by Ukraine and by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, but it received positive coverage across Asia. The proposals could be a sign of things to come. As the non-Western world grows weary of the war and its cost, the mood is shifting towards achieving a compromise.
As Zelensky himself once noted, all wars end with agreements. But early reports suggest lukewarm responses from both Kyiv and Moscow to the African proposals. The prospects of Ukraine, its Western backers or Russia re-entering negotiations in the near future look slim. The parameters for any future talks will be established militarily in Ukraine during the summer of 2023, but political and economic factors are also in play. Far-sighted Western leaders must know that cooperation is building among non-Western states, including towards what may emerge as an anti-Western BRICS+ alliance. French President Emmanuel Macron recently surprised everyone by requesting to attend the upcoming BRICS summit. With a decisive summer of offensives and counteroffensives ahead, the military picture will change quickly in Ukraine. But with elections due in the US and the UK in 2024, and incremental moves towards negotiations, the politics is also shifting.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Senior Research Fellow, African Security