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War-torn Ukraine experiences surprisingly ‘low return’ on its African investment

War-torn Ukraine experiences surprisingly ‘low return’ on its African investment
A farmer watches as a combined harvester pours grain on to a truck in a field near Kyiv, Ukraine on 4 August 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE/ Sergey Dolzhenko)

Despite heightened African engagement, the country has little to show.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was being rather undemocratic — by his admission — then he told visiting African journalists last month that the returns on Ukraine’s investment in better relations with Africa had been low.

Kyiv has increased its diplomatic engagement with Africa over the past year. Kuleba highlighted his visits to 12 African countries in the past 12 months, and Ukraine is opening nine more embassies, adding to the existing 11 in Africa. 

Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told the journalists this expansion would cost Ukraine UAH1 billion, roughly $26-million. This comes at a time when the country is desperate for more weapons to try to repel the Russian invaders, and to repair or replace the estimated $411-billion of infrastructure that Russia has destroyed. 

That’s just the damage in the 50% of its territory that Ukraine has recaptured from Russia since the war began. He said Ukraine expected the figure to at least double when it regains control over the approximately 20% of its overall territory that Russian forces still occupy in the east and southeast.

For Ukraine, this is always a matter of when and not if. Though the country’s counter-offensive has been going grindingly slow over the past year, and Russia is counter-advancing — though equally slowly — on some other fronts.

Food donations to African nations

Yet amid this fierce and bloody battle for freedom and independence, and ultimately for sheer survival, Ukraine had managed to donate 170,000 tonnes of free food to Africa under its Grain from Ukraine aid programme, Shmyhal said.

And every sheaf of that grain has had to be fought for too. Russia blockaded Ukraine’s Black Sea ports when it invaded Ukraine in February 2022. In July 2022 the United Nations (UN) and Turkey negotiated the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI), through which Russia agreed to lift its blockade selectively to allow only food to be shipped out.

In July this year Russia pulled out of the deal. When seven African leaders visited Ukraine and Russia to meet Presidents Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin separately in July this year, restoring the BSGI was one of their main demands. They said the cut in supply of Ukrainian and Russian grain because of the war had spiked food prices and caused food insecurity. 

Putin refused. But Ukraine has managed to continue shipping out grain by keeping the Russian navy and air force at bay with anti-ship and anti-aircraft weapons provided by the West and following more strategic sea lanes. These transport the grain cargo ships through the waters of North Atlantic Treaty Organization members Bulgaria and Romania.

So it’s been a heroic effort to get that grain out to Africa and elsewhere. It hasn’t been an entirely altruistic endeavour. Zelensky told the African journalists that Ukraine  earned desperately needed foreign currency to finance its war effort. But he said Ukraine wanted to show the world that it remained a guarantor of global food security. 

That was rather poignant. Confronted with the genuine threat of annihilation as a free and independent state — which only managed to stop Russia’s advance in the northern suburbs of Kyiv last year — Ukraine wants to be indispensable.

The notable number of African countries that abstained from the 2022 UN General Assembly vote condemning Russia’s aggression was surprising. Seventeen of them abstained, while Eritrea voted against the resolution. It was the highest proportion of any region refraining from blaming Russia.

African nations that abstained — particularly South Africa — claimed it was a vote for non-alignment and reluctance to intervene in a distant conflict. Probably, it had more to do with anti-Western sentiment in parts of the continent. Regardless, for the beleaguered Ukrainians, it felt like abandonment in their greatest hour of need, an act of bad Samaritanism. 

Kuleba said the return on Ukraine’s African investment had been low because of a lack of return visits to Kyiv by his peers. Also, he made clear that Ukraine had to battle for every African vote in the UN as grimly as it fought to recover every acre of its territory. He lamented that when Ukraine persuaded an African nation to support it in a particular resolution, it couldn’t count on that country to vote the same way the next time. 

Ironically, though, Ukraine itself abstained on the 27 October UN General Assembly resolution demanding a ceasefire and humanitarian truce in the fighting in Gaza. Zelensky told the African journalists this was because Ukraine’s amendment, which called for a reference to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in the resolution, was rejected.

Ukraine decided to show that it would not “only seek fairness and justice in one war and no such justice and fairness in another”.

Maybe that was a tactical victory for Ukraine, but it was indeed a strategic mistake, undercutting its criticism of those who abandoned it on the Ukraine resolutions. It also put Kuleba in the ironic — and surely rather uncomfortable — position of being in the abstainers’ dock with his South African counterpart Naledi Pandor at a joint press conference in Pretoria. 

The point remains that African states should surely be able to at least vote to condemn Russia’s violation of the UN Charter in its invasion of Ukraine, even if that does nothing else to help Ukraine maintain its freedom and independence.

Pandor and her government are fond of saying being non-aligned doesn’t mean South Africa is neutral — that is, it isn’t indifferent to the suffering of Ukrainians. 

But from the perspective of an embattled Kyiv, that distinction is purely semantic. DM

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

First published by ISS Today.

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