Ukraine takes on Russia in the battle for hearts and minds in Africa

Natalia Antelava

 

Ukraine’s top diplomat is a busy man, but Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has found a whole ten days for his first tour of the African continent. On Monday, in the Senegalese capital Dakar, Kuleba told reporters that “boats full of seeds” would be making their way to the continent from Ukraine. 

Over 12% of Africa’s wheat is imported from Ukraine. Africa imports about 45% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, and the Russians have blamed Western sanctions for rising prices and a broken supply chain. Now, Kuleba said, it was time to bring “the Ukrainian truth” to Africa, which, perhaps nostalgic for Soviet friendship, has a soft spot for Russia that belies trade numbers that pale into insignificance beside those from Europe, China and the United States.  

This is the first African tour in the history of Ukrainian diplomacy and it is part of a much larger “roadmap” that Volodymyr Zelensky has asked his Foreign Ministry to chart in order to win over African leaders, after many of them either sided with the Kremlin in the United Nations following the February 2022 invasion or stayed neutral. (There were exceptions, of course. This memorable speech by Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, for instance.)

Another element of the Ukrainian roadmap, according to Ukrainian government websites, is a “large scale Ukraine-Africa conference” that Kyiv is preparing. Food security, trade relations and technology products are among Ukraine’s offerings to the continent. 

Russia is offering much the same. Kuleba’s tour comes shortly after his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov returned from Africa. Russia too is organizing a massive Africa-Russia summit, to be held in Saint Petersburg in 2023, and in July, Lavrov penned a long op-ed (link in Russian) which was carried by major papers in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Congo, Uganda and Egypt. 

In the upbeat letter, Lavrov praised the continent’s “balanced” position on the war in Ukraine, talked about Russia being the guarantor of global food security and reminded audiences that Russia was the only global power fighting for a “truly multipolar” world, free of America’s colonial hegemony.

“I want to emphasize: our country doesn’t force anything upon anyone, we don’t teach others how to live. We have a huge respect for the sovereignty of African countries, for their right to choose their own development path,” Lavrov wrote.

One would think that Russia’s invasion of a sovereign Ukraine would be enough to deprive Lavrov’s words of any legitimacy. Especially since very few of Russia’s many promises of investments in and trade with Africa have actually materialized. 

And yet, South Africans observing sham referendums in occupied Ukraine and Russian flags fluttering in the streets of Ouagadougou and Bamako are among the many signs that in parts of Africa, the Russian narrative is working. The reasons are emotional rather than economic: in Burkina-Faso, in Mali, in Niger and the Central African Republic, people welcome the Russian tricolor simply because it is not the French one.

Both Kyiv and Moscow know Africa could become a lifeline for an otherwise isolated Putin.  But for Ukraine to win the hearts and minds of the African continent, Kyiv will need to convince Africans that Russia is as colonial today as the West once was.

IN OTHER NEWS

Kyiv’s remarkable battlefield successes are dominating the headlines of Western news outlets. But news from elsewhere makes any predictions of Putin’s imminent downfall look premature. Here’s why:

  • The oil cartel OPEC+ has delivered a humiliating rebuff to Washington’s plan to squeeze Russia’s energy revenues. Meeting in Vienna for its first in-person consultations in more than two years, the oil cartel essentially sided with the Kremlin. The group, led by Saudi Arabia, agreed to deep oil production cuts, thus raising the price of oil, upsetting the Biden administration and essentially giving Putin more money to invest in his war with Ukraine.
  • The latest World Bank report shows that early estimates of the effect of sanctions on Russia were misleading and that the impact has been a lot less severe than predicted. Ukraine’s economy in the meantime is expected to shrink by 35%, compared to the 4.5% that the World Bank is now predicting for Russia. Here’s the full report, and a useful summary from Reuters. 

Remember the August car bomb attack in Moscow that killed Darya Dugina, daughter of Russian Neo-Nazi ideologue Alexander Dugin? At the time, the Kremlin blamed Ukrainians for the assassination, which Kyiv denied. Now, all of a sudden, unnamed U.S. intelligence sources have told the New York Times that Kyiv did have a role in the killing. The report has few details, but many are asking why these claims are emerging now and whether it is a U.S. warning to Kyiv. Could it be a sign of incipient tension in the U.S.-Ukraine relationship? This is one to watch. 

Elon Musk gave the Russian state propaganda machine a helping hand with his now notorious “peace plan” for Ukraine. It sent Twitter into a frenzy with thousands of Ukraine supporters trolling Musk and suggesting that he stick to manufacturing cars. But Musk’s geopolitical debut clearly impressed Russian politicians. From Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov and former President Dmitry Medvedev to local parliamentarians, Russian politicians big and small have all praised Musk’s “analysis.” As have the presenters of all state propaganda channels. One politician in annexed Crimea even invited Musk to visit the peninsula “to show the whole world that this is native Russian land.” 

Another bit of propaganda fodder for Russia came from Burkina Faso. Russian flags flew high in the streets of the capital Ouagadougou, after a second coup this year. The outgoing interim president, Colonel Damiba, has been replaced by the interim president Ibrahim Traore. The celebrating crowds pledged their allegiance to Moscow because as in other parts of the Sahel region, Russian assistance, often in the form of Wagner Group mercenaries, is being invited in order to defeat Islamist militants. You might remember that last week we reported on a large South African delegation that monitored Russia’s recent “referendums” in occupied Ukraine and described the support Russia enjoys in South Africa. We’ve also reported at length about Russia’s influence in Mali, with the military-appointed prime minister praising Russia at the UN’s general assembly session in New York when even India, China and Russia’s traditional allies in Central Asia tried to distance themselves from Putin. The Kremlin’s hold on parts of Africa is strong.  But Ukraine is trying to counter it. Keep reading.

WHAT WE’RE READING

 I have two amazing pieces of journalism to recommend to you this week. 

  • This deeply thought provoking, poignant piece by Peter Pomeranzev about how the war in Ukraine has been, among other things, about cellars — both physical and mental. 
  • And Yaroslav Trofimov’s jaw dropping reporting, from freshly liberated Lyman, for the Wall Street Journal. He and photographer Manu Brabo were the first to get there.  

Disinfo Matters looks beyond fake news to examine how the manipulation of narratives and rewriting of history is reshaping our world.