Cold War divisions and Soviet Union nostalgia may be clouding African nations’ attitudes to war in Ukraine

Cold War divisions and Soviet Union nostalgia may be clouding African nations’ attitudes to war in Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) speaks to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit at the Sirius Park of Science and Art in Sochi, Russia, 24 October 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Sergei Chirikov / Pool)

Russia’s invasion of its West-leaning neighbour revives USSR-inspired fault lines and shows its influence across the continent. 

Ukraine has withdrawn an important contingent of peacekeepers from the United Nations (UN) Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Monusco) to defend their homeland. The move symbolises wider concerns that Europe may retreat from Africa as it confronts a growing threat from Russia that so blatantly manifested itself on 24 February. 

Like climate change, Africa may have done very little — or indeed nothing — to cause the war in Ukraine, but is nonetheless feeling the impact. Fuel, cooking oil and wheat prices have risen rapidly, the latter particularly affecting dry North African countries like Egypt that depend heavily on imports. And rising global inflation has consequences for Africa like everyone else.

Amid the general economic gloom, there could be some glimmers of opportunity, as Jakkie Cilliers, Head of International Futures and Innovation at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria, notes. South Africa, for example, is a net exporter of maize and some of the same minerals — like platinum — that are being hit by Western sanctions against Russia. It may be able to take advantage and fill some of the vacua.

And he observes that Africa more broadly could and should try to fill the gap in oil and gas supplies to Europe that will open up as it reduces its vast dependence on Russian energy. Cilliers says this creates an opportunity to exploit and export the Sahara’s huge solar energy potential to Europe.

He told ISS Today that Africa’s many gas producers should also be gearing up to replace Russian gas supplies. Of course, both would be long-term projects, considering that Europe aims to stop buying Russian gas in around 2030.

What does the Ukraine war mean for Africa politically? As ISS Senior Researcher Priyal Singh points out, the war has been sharply divisive in Africa. That was demonstrated in statistical terms by the UN General Assembly vote on 2 March to condemn Russia for its ‘aggression’ and demand a withdrawal from Ukraine, respecting its territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Twenty-seven African states voted for the resolution, just one — Eritrea — voted against, while 17 abstained and the rest were absent. Globally, the resolution was overwhelmingly supported, with 141 votes in favour, five against and 35 abstentions. So the proportion of African countries not supporting the decision was disproportionately high.

Part of the reason, Cilliers points out, was the nostalgia that South Africa and several other Southern African states still feel for the Soviet Union’s support of their liberation struggles. Part was probably also African states’ reluctance to be drawn into an apparent resurrection of the Cold War in which many African countries were mere proxies.

And a new element was also Russia’s recent growing influence in Africa. The country has consciously attempted to make up for the lost intervening years by reviving the old Soviet-era relations with the continent. This was formalised in the first Russia-Africa summit in 2019 in Sochi. Russia has also been expanding its military footprint, largely through proxy, supposedly private, military companies like Wagner, in countries like the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali and perhaps beyond.

As Cilliers notes, Russia is essentially playing the spoiler here, seemingly motivated by a desire to frustrate Western powers such as France. And it’s offering little more than succour to putschists and other authoritarians and no sustainable model for Africa to follow. 

South Africa no doubt spoke for many of the abstainers when it emphasised the need for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) to take greater account of Russia’s security interests — and even blamed it for the war — while also demanding Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine.

This contrasted with the speech that Kenya’s ambassador to the UN, Martin Kimani, gave to the Security Council on 22 February in which he gave Putin a pertinent history lesson. Addressing Putin’s nostalgia for that greater Russia that disappeared in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union — and which the invasion of Ukraine seemed designed to resurrect — Kimani said most African states had been created by imperial powers, paying no heed to ethnic affiliations. 

But if African states had chosen at independence to try to reunite their ethnic, racial or religious groupings, “we would still be waging bloody wars these many decades later.” Instead, Kimani advised Putin, “We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.” 

Singh laments that Africa couldn’t adopt a united position on the Ukraine war. African Union Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat and current African Union chair Senegal’s President Macky Sall outlined a possible common stance in their joint statement on 24 February. 

They called on “the Russian Federation and any other regional or international actor to imperatively respect international law, the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of Ukraine.” They urged negotiations “to preserve the world from planetary conflict” — an evident reference to the concern that the war could go nuclear. 

Yet even Sall couldn’t align Senegal behind a vote for the General Assembly resolution, preferring to abstain. Sall might have been trying to remain neutral to help mediate the conflict, as suggested by his call to Putin last week. 

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa also talked to Putin — perhaps in part not to be upstaged by Sall — and tweeted that he had been approached by an unnamed third party to mediate. But there was no credible evidence of a serious mediation effort as the Ukrainians said they hadn’t been contacted. So this looked more like an effort to justify South Africa sitting on the fence for other reasons, including its BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) economic allegiance.

These sharply varied responses show that the Ukraine war is resurrecting some Cold War divisions between African states and within them. But more concerning than Africa’s lack of unity was that only 27 of its states stood up to condemn a major nuclear power for invading its much smaller neighbour on implausible grounds such as ‘denazification’. DM

Peter Fabricius, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Consultant.

First published by ISS Today.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Andrew Johnson says:

    Good comments. I find that this romantic allegiance to Russia, or the be correct the USSR, as being the saviour of Africa from WMC to be very prevalent amongst the young, especially those who weren’t around at the time.
    Let’s face it, In Angola they used the Cubans as a proxy to help the ANC and FAPLA to fight UNITA and the SADF. In Mozambique it was the East Germans. This emotional yearning is totally mis-placed.

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