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ISS TODAY OP-ED

Ukraine steps up urgent charm offensive in Africa despite ‘very low return on its investment’

Ukraine steps up urgent charm offensive in Africa despite ‘very low return on its investment’
During his visit to Ethiopia, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba (left) held meetings in Addis Ababa with the President of the African Union, the President of the Union of Comoros Azali Assoumani, and the Chairman of the African Union Commission Musa Faki Mahamat (right). (Photo: MFA of Ukraine/Facebook)

Ukraine has opened several new African embassies, still hoping for improved relations and support under the shadow of Russia. 

While struggling ever harder to prevent Russia from overrunning its territory, Ukraine is persisting with its charm offensive in Africa. In the grinding battle in the east of the country, Ukraine is steadily losing territory, each metre costing untold loss of blood.

Russia now occupies around 26% of Ukrainian territory. Its recent gains have largely been due to right-wing Republicans in the United States (US) House of Representatives blocking aid to Ukraine for the past six months.

In April, the Republicans finally relented, passing a $60-billion aid package. But it will take time for the weapons to filter through, and meanwhile, Russia has stepped up attacks on Ukraine’s frontline and is pounding its power infrastructure, trying to destroy the country’s morale.

Read more in Daily Maverick: War in Ukraine news hub

Amid these gloomy developments, Ukraine has continued strengthening relations with Africa. Last month, the country’s Special Envoy for the Middle East and Africa, Maksym Subkh, officially opened new embassies in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Rwanda, Botswana, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo during an African tour.

Ukraine already had embassies in Algeria, Angola, Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal and Tunisia. Subkh told ISS Today in Kyiv this week that Ukraine intended to open more soon in Sudan, Tanzania, Mauritania and Cameroon.

Subkh also pointed out that Ukraine was stepping up its food aid deliveries to Africa under its Grain from Ukraine charitable programme. He cited the delivery of nearly 250,000 tonnes of grain to Sudan, which is in dire straits after more than a year of brutal civil war. The World Food Programme says that nearly 18 million Sudanese face acute food insecurity.

To get the grain to Africa, Ukraine must defy Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Between mid-2022 and mid-2023, Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports was lifted under the Black Sea Grain Initiative supervised by the United Nations (UN). Nearly 33 million tonnes of grain and other food products were sent to over 40 countries, with 57% of grain exports going to developing countries.

Then Russia pulled out of the programme. But Zelensky vowed to continue the initiative unilaterally by driving the Russian navy back from Ukraine’s harbours, all the way to the east side of the Black Sea. Now Ukraine is exporting grain by using rivers and hugging the Romanian and Bulgarian coasts, where grain ships are being escorted by navy ships of the two countries — which are North Atlantic Treaty Organization members.

Few signs of support

Is this all worthwhile for Ukraine? Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba acknowledged to African journalists last November that Ukraine was getting “very low return on its investment” in Africa. By this he meant that African leaders had not reciprocated his visits to Africa — then 12 in a few months. Nor had they become reliable supporters of pro-Ukraine resolutions in the UN.

The only visits African leaders have paid to Ukraine were those by the seven-country African peace mission in June 2023. Although a worthwhile first step, the mission appears to have achieved little. One of the main points of the African peace plan was a demand for Russian President Vladimir Putin to restore the Black Sea Grain Initiative. But when he blamed the initiative’s collapse on Western sanctions, the African leaders backed off and haven’t said a word since.

The only concrete legacy of the peace mission seems to have been Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s invitation to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to join his Ukraine peace formula talks. That helped thaw relations with Pretoria, which had been strained by South Africa’s non-aligned position on the war.

What does Ukraine have to gain by befriending Africa? Subkh told ISS Today his country saw considerable economic potential on the continent. He said much of Kyiv’s motivation for opening new embassies was to have diplomats on the ground to counter Russian anti-Ukrainian propaganda, which has been strong. It is also about countering Russia’s growing physical influence in Africa. In the Sahel in particular, Russia is steadily displacing France, the US and other Western powers in countries that experienced military coups.

The notorious private military/mercenary company Wagner still has a strong military presence in those countries, even under a different guise and direct control of Moscow. Subkh said Ukraine had considerable experience in combatting Wagner in Ukraine — where the outfit first emerged in 2014 — which it could share with African countries to curb Russia’s influence.

Has Subkh seen a greater return on the investment in Africa? Not really, he concedes, but he remains optimistic that even greater effort from Ukraine will yield better results.

He also says Ukraine hopes African leaders will support Ukraine’s peace formula at Zelensky’s upcoming summit in Geneva. South Africa has been participating in the preparatory meetings of national security advisers, and Subkh hopes that Ramaphosa will use his influence to get African leaders there. But that would require African leaders to back the central tenet of the peace formula — that Russia must withdraw from all Ukrainian territory. That would be tricky.

Institute for Security Studies Researcher Denys Reva suggests that perhaps too much is being asked of Africa. “The idea that African countries will pick a side in what is seen as a European war, and burn bridges with the other side, should be put to rest. The best strategy for Ukraine is to focus on specific issues, like the abduction of children, the exchange of [prisoners of war], or support for international humanitarian law.”

Not returning Ukraine’s investment may indeed make sense to many African countries that believe a European war is not their business. But Russia’s growing African activities make it clear that the war is not so distant after all. DM

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

First published by ISS Today.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

    Ukrainians are smart by not putting their eggs in one basket, they just need artillery to finish the war BRICS is real.

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