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The Russia-Ukraine War: Perspectives from the Global South

Frustration, shock, disbelief, disappointment...all are apt descriptions of the general reaction of Western media and think tanks to the Global South's general failure to "toe the line" of the Western response to Russian military action in Ukraine. As such, we've seen several analyses and reports addressing topics like: why Sub-Saharan African countries voted the way they did on the UNGA resolution condemning Russian aggression, or why Latin American countries have refused to sanction Russia. The economic, geopolitical, ideological, and historic factors motivating the reactions of Latin American and African governments to the Russia-Ukraine War are dizzyingly complex and far beyond the scope of this blog post. In this post, however, we will focus on Africa and attempt to highlight some select, interesting aspects that may provide springboards for deeper understanding for those observing or operating in the region.

The Bear and the Rising Lion: Russia and Africa's Past

Serious Russian interest and involvement in the African continent can be traced back to at least the 1950s during the Cold War era. Spurred by the Bandung Conference, the Non-Aligned Movement gained significant traction in Cold War-era Africa. Throughout the 60's and 70's every African country became a member (except South Africa, which joined in 1994) of this movement of countries seeking (at least on paper) to espouse anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist principles while remaining neutral in the conflict between the US and USSR. In the 1960s Khrushchev declared the Soviet intent to intervene in anticolonial struggles worldwide:

The Soviet State and its Government welcomed and welcomes the struggle of the colonial peoples for independence and is doing all it can to give them moral and material assistance in their just fight.

The USSR, at different times and in different countries, provided support to regimes and/or nationalist/liberation movements across Africa. Typically, support came in military form via weapons, equipment, and training. In Mozambique, for instance, the Russian-made Kalashnikov became a symbol of resistance to colonialism, so much so that the rifle features in the country's flag. Russian military support was coupled with other "soft power" initiatives like Patrice Lumumba University where students from across the Global South were educated and, of course, espionage activities in Africa to counter western powers.

Russia and Africa's Present

A power vacuum created by relative US absence in recent years coupled with colonial legacy; proximity to Europe; abundant natural resources; weak governments; a fragile civil society; 54 votes at the UNGA; and, potential access to chokepoints on strategic waterways has made Africa an attractive theatre for advancement of Moscow's interests in recent years.

Russia's current strategy in Africa appears to exhibit several points of continuity with Soviet strategy, albeit with different ideological context. Key points of engagement in recent years include, arms sales, mercenary services, and security cooperation; these are arguably the primary means of Russian engagement with Africa today though there are some economic aspects that may become increasingly important for both sides as the conflict with Ukraine continues. Naturally, mercenary interventions and security cooperation agreements can tend to be non-transparent by design. But there are enough open source reports that we can at least highlight a few key areas.

  • Arms sales: According to a 2019 study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia accounted for 49% of the overall arms market in Africa. Key customers for Russian arms include: Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Sudan, Senegal, and Zambia.

  • Wagner Group interventions: Interventions by the Wagner Group, a Russian private military contractor with reported ties to Putin and Russian intelligence, have been reported in, Libya, Sudan, the CAR, Mali, Burkina Fasso, Madagascar, and Mozambique.

  • Security cooperation: Russia has drastically expanded security cooperation agreements on the African continent in recent years. A reportedly key aspect of these agreements involves Russia seeking to secure port and base access in Somaliland, Eritrea, Sudan, and Libya.

Crucially, the above key mechanisms of Russia's engagement with Africa are often deployed in countries with embattled leaders facing security or stability challenges (especially where Wagner are concerned). From Moscow's perspective, a key motivator can also be geographic strategic value and/or significant mineral or hydrocarbon assets. Whether gas and mineral deposits in Mozambique; diamond and gold mines in the CAR; uranium, diamonds, and gold in Mali; or maritime chokepoints (Suez, eastern Mediterranean, Bab-el-Mandeb), it's clear Moscow has something to gain in projecting power and engaging in this fashion within Africa. A map of select key engagements helps clarify the geographic strategic value and the spread of Russian activity in Africa.

In terms of trade with Africa, Russia leverage parastatals Rosneft and Lukoil for mineral, diamond, and oil contracts. It is not uncommon for Russia to leverage the above-mentioned arms deals in "arms-for-resources" agreements. Again, these agreements are typically shrouded in secrecy. In terms of more "conventional" economic engagements, African countries import cereals (mainly wheat) from Russia as well as mineral fuels (coal, oil products, and gas). In fact, more than half of the wheat supplies from Russia are absorbed by Africa's most populous countries: Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, Tanzania, Algeria, Kenya, and South Africa. Several African countries depend on Russia for fertilizers and wheat; a quarter of African countries depend on Russia and Ukraine for 1/3 of their wheat consumption.

Africa's Reaction to the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

This brings us to the question of Africa's perceived neutrality in the present conflict. While we cannot outline every potential motivator for this tendency to neutrality, we can certainly highlight what may be some key ones:

  1. The conflict in Ukraine as Cold War Redux: There are undoubtedly areas of Africa where erstwhile Soviet support for liberation and anticolonial movements has shaped historical context and influenced current perceptions of the current Russia-Ukraine conflict. Arguably, from the perspective of at least some African nations, the present conflict bears more similarity to the Cold War proxy conflicts between the US and USSR. Given the historical strength of the Non-Aligned Movement on the African continent, it's reasonable to assume at least some historical tendency toward inert neutrality where the conflict in Ukraine is perceived as US versus Russia issue.

  2. Following China's Lead: Sino-African relations are a topic for another blog post and, indeed have been the subject of some fascinating literature. Suffice to say that China has a much more significant economic and political influence in Africa than does Russia. In some ways, the history of Sino-African relations mirrors that of Russo-African relations. That is, there was an ideologically motivated phase (1950-1960s) and, in later decades, (roughly since the 1990s) significant economic activity predicated on China exporting its "economic miracle" and offering an alternative to traditional western hegemony. China offered credit to African countries free of the "structural adjustment" strings of Western powers (albeit with other strings attached) along with infrastructure projects. The Chinese sphere of influence in Africa has continued expanding even into the present. As such, China's stance on the conflict will necessarily influence that of its African partners.

  3. Economic Necessity: Many African economies have been battered by COVID. The reluctance to imperil trade links when one's country has a dependence on Russian wheat, fertilizers, or fuels is understandable. It's worth pointing out this is one area where the conflict in Ukraine may actually drive Russia and Africa closer together:

    1. Spiraling or unstable wheat prices (and unstable supply chains) would naturally encourage African countries to maintain rather than sever trade links that help them obtain those badly-needed commodities. Russia, for its part, will also need to keep every export market it can in the face of international sanctions.

    2. Political instability and unrest driven by economic instability (inflation and supply chain issues) may simultaneously result in: (1.) more populist governments coming to power in Africa and, (2.) more demand for Russian mercenary services, arms, and security agreements.

    3. In the face of sanctions, Russia will continue to see a need to project power; curtail or frustrate Western influence; and gain access to resources (such as minerals) on the African continent. It's likely not a coincidence that minerals like gold, diamonds, precious gems, etc. are a very useful vehicle for money laundering, sanctions evasion, or simply moving illicit funds across borders.

  4. The apathetic or hypocritical West: Some commentators have pointed to a growing sense in some African countries that traditional western allies are apathetic or hypocritical with respect to the interests of the continent. Whether in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, economic instability, African refugees, security issues in Africa, or other topics, there is an arguably growing perception in Africa (and indeed the Global South) that western countries, especially the US, are wholly self-interested, hegemonic, arrogant, and all-to-ready to sell their allies out when they are no longer useful. Exploring the foundations of this perception is beyond the scope of this post, but this sometimes visceral attitude can certainly be a motivator for Africa's reaction to the conflict.

It remains to be seen whether, as some have argued, African nations will "pay the price" for their perceived neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. In fact, it's possible some of the economic and global trade consequences of the conflict itself will solidify Russo-African ties in some cases. Nevertheless, what remains true is that, absent an understanding of the historical context of Russo-African relations and their contemporary evolution/state, we cannot truly attempt to understand the potential motivators for African neutrality even in the face of western pressure.

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