Why Kyiv Needs an Africa Strategy

Work to do: Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. Image: Mfa.gov.ua / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

Ukraine is understandably focused on maintaining Western support, but it needs a narrative that appeals to others – those who can otherwise easily dismiss the conflict as a ‘Western war’. While it has a pretty compelling pitch, so far Kyiv has not managed to cut through at the political level in Africa, writes Greg Mills, who has just returned from his sixth visit to Ukraine of 2022 – this time accompanying the Archbishop of Cape Town, His Grace Thabo Makgoba.

Despite its isolation elsewhere, Russia has maintained a level of global diplomatic support in the developing world, including in Africa – historically the largest regional beneficiary of Western aid.

Indeed, Kyiv acknowledges that it has fallen behind Russia in winning diplomatic support for its cause in Africa. This much can be clear in the limited support of African countries for Ukraine in various UN General Assembly votes since 24 February 2022.

In the first, on 2 March 2022 – on a resolution condemning the Russian aggression – 28 African states voted in favour, one (Eritrea) voted against, 17 abstained, and eight were not in the room. While a majority of African states voted for the resolution, the number who sat on the fence or avoided the vote was substantial.

The result of the second resolution on 24 March – on the humanitarian consequences of the war – was much the same, with 26 voting with Ukraine, one (again, Eritrea) against, and 20 abstaining. Six states were not in the room.

This changed slightly with the resolution on 7 April to suspend Russia’s membership rights in the Human Rights Council, with the results 10 for, nine against (Algeria, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Congo, Ethiopia, Gabon, Mali, Zimbabwe and again, Eritrea), 24 abstainers and 11 stay-awayers.

The fourth resolution, supporting the territorial integrity of Ukraine, saw 29 voting in favour, zero against, 19 abstaining and five staying away – presumably because Africans are equally concerned about the violation of their territorial space, even though they are paradoxically less willing to condemn those that undermine international law in this regard.

Finally, the latest resolution – that of 14 November on Russian reparations for Ukraine –produced results of 16 for, five against (the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Mali, Zimbabwe and again, demonstrating its unwavering commitment, Eritrea), 27 abstentions, and five who were not in the room.

The trend would seem to be towards trying not to take sides, no matter the principles at stake. With a vote to establish a special UN war crimes tribunal on the cards, both sides will now be lobbying Africa hard. But Ukraine will have to work that little bit harder.

It is not that Africans lack sympathy for the plight of Ukrainians. A recent poll by the Brenthurst Foundation found that nearly 75% of South Africans believe Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to be ‘an act of aggression that must be condemned’, despite Pretoria’s fence-sitting on the war. More than 80% said South Africa should offer either military, diplomatic or moral support if a sovereign democratic country is invaded by its neighbour.

‘Why then’, asks Oleksandr Merezhko, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Ukrainian Parliament, ‘does South Africa support a process of colonial subjugation?’ After all, ‘The world’, he says, ‘is now divided between those who support democracy, and those that prefer authoritarianism’.

‘The winner of this war between autocracy and democracy’, observes Hryhoriy Nemyria, the deputy of the political party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, ‘will write the rules of the new world order’. On this reading, one would expect all countries that practice democracy and value open societies to come out against the invasion.

It is not hard to make the case that Russia’s actions threaten Africans as much as they are designed to erase the institutional and cultural fabric of Ukraine

To muddy the moral waters, what Russia and its supporters have done is to cast the invasion as a political power play between it and the West, rather than one between an authoritarian coloniser and a sovereign democracy. This has given elites the fig leaf they need to sit on the fence or quietly support Russia for a range of historical and clientelist reasons.

This narrative ought to be challenged. It is not hard to make the case that Russia’s actions threaten Africans as much as they are designed to erase the institutional and cultural fabric of Ukraine.

As Vitali Klitschko, the former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion and now Mayor of Kyiv, put it: ‘We are not just defending rights in Ukraine. We are defending values, freedoms, democracy and human rights everywhere’. Or as Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba asked of African fence-sitters in a zoom call in November with African journalists, ‘What are you trying to be neutral about – neutral about the right of one country to attack another country; neutral about the mass destruction of cities; neutral about the deaths of civilians and atrocities committed?’

Authoritarianism is not just about violence per se, however, or even whether votes count – and are counted – in domestic elections. It is about a system and the purpose of government, where elites profit disproportionately and have little to no accountability or chance of being evicted via the polls. It is, moreover, a system that encourages violence.

It is little wonder, then, that the interests of Africans – according to polling across Africa – align with democracy and openness rather than the brand of elite-centred governance promoted by Vladimir Putin. More than two-thirds of Africans regularly surveyed by Afrobarometer prefer democracy to other forms of government.

The problem in Ukraine’s relations with Africa is partly historical, in that Russia has inherited the goodwill generated by the Soviet Union’s support for Africa’s liberation movements, despite Ukraine being a disproportionately large contributor to those struggles. It is also because of African antipathy towards the West, partly as a result of colonial history, and in some cases linked to the non-aligned status of certain African countries. Some, including South Africa, have ideological aspirations that more closely align with Russia – think of the BRICS grouping – than the West, despite (and perhaps because of) the reality of Pretoria’s current trade and investment partners. In the case of South Africa, there is also the stench of Russian funding for the ruling party, the African National Congress, and rumours of weapons transactions with Moscow, fuelled by mysterious Russian shipping calls and an unwillingness to fully disclose the nature of arms deals in parliamentary inquiries.

All of this is symptomatic of Ukraine’s failure to challenge the Russian narrative and develop a plan to bring Africa on board.

This speaks to its focus and resources, but also to its diplomacy. Ukraine has just ten diplomatic missions in Africa, compared to Russia’s 46. This is perhaps to be expected of a country which is 3.5 times smaller in population terms than Russia, and 10 times smaller in overall economic terms.

This helps to explain why, when President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the African Union in June, just four heads of state out of the 55 invited turned up. The rest sent representatives. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made an in-person tour of Africa the following month, receiving a warm welcome from the Egyptian, Congolese, Ugandan and Ethiopian heads of state.

This is partly down to Ukrainian neglect. Zelenskyy has met only one African leader (the president of tiny Guinea-Bissau) in person and spoken to six on calls since the Russian invasion in February. Zelenskyy maintains a comparatively constant stream of Western engagements, with every European leader seemingly looking for a photo op with the Time Person of the Year, the Churchill of the moment.

It is also partly down to substance. Much of Kyiv’s time and energy in its African outreach has been spent recently on trying to gather moral support to condemn Russia, while Moscow has a more direct approach to Africa through military assistance programmes – notably through the Wagner group – as well as buying up surplus ex-Soviet military hardware for its own use, including ammunition.

If authoritarianism is to triumph in Ukraine, its passage will surely be easier in Africa. That is something for African electorates to consider if they expect others to take notice of their own plight

Kyiv’s lack of success may additionally relate to its inevitably hyper-transactional relationship with other regions, where Africa does not enjoy the same leverage. Kyiv is understandably focused on surviving the war and does not seem to have much of an international plan beyond closer European integration – one that it is unlikely to entice greater African backing, despite the widespread fear across Africa of Russian power.

Is there a prospect, as some posit, for Kyiv to turn this around?

Kuleba said that Ukraine’s victory should teach those who are considering a similar path to that pursued by Moscow to not ‘even dare to invade … even think about it; look what happened to Russia after it tried. This is a very pragmatic, realpolitik consideration’. For that to have meaning, however, Ukraine first has to win this struggle, a victory which is in the interests of African democrats.

With 54 UN General Assembly votes, Africa is a rich diplomatic ground for both Russia and Ukraine – one where the Ukrainians can fairly easily build pathways. For this, they need a convincing narrative, and to engage with Africans. To do so, Kyiv will need to change its message and its game, and go beyond current plays on access to commodities via the ‘Grain from Ukraine’ initiative.

To make this attractive, and to entice Africans to its cause, Kyiv will have to drop the victim card that serves it well in the West.

Rather, its narrative will need to extend to what victory will mean in terms of reform and African opportunities.

It could instead focus on what is at stake if Africans ignore these responsibilities, and the choices they have to make. The substance is already there. As Kuleba points out dramatically, ‘There are moments in history [when you can’t] be friends with good and evil simultaneously’.

To make this connection, Kyiv’s message should link the past with the future.

The Cold War was immensely bad for African governance, as countries’ worth was measured not by how they governed their own people, but how supportive they were to the major powers. If authoritarianism is to triumph in Ukraine, its passage will surely be easier in Africa. That is something for African electorates to consider if they expect others to take notice of their own plight.

This is precisely where Ukraine could aim its African diplomatic pitch.

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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Dr Greg Mills

Senior Associate Fellow and Advisory Board Member

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