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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s African Safari Was Not Routine

By Peter Fabricius

  • With Russia’s delegate and France’s president in Africa this week, propaganda around the Ukraine war is intensifying

Russia’s long-time Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted his African safari this week was a routine visit. Western leaders and commentators believe it was a charm offensive to win support for Russia’s war in Ukraine

Lavrov told the state-controlled RT television network before he left that Russia had good political and economic relations with all four countries on his itinerary — Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Republic of Congo. He noted that Egypt was Russia’s ‘number one partner in Africa,’ that the two countries did $5-billion in annual trade, and that Russia was building a nuclear power plant there and creating industrial zones.

Clearly though, his trip was also designed to sell Russia’s narrative that its Ukraine war was about countering Western global hegemony. And that sanctions against Russia — rather than Russia’s blockade of grain exports from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports — were causing the global food crisis being felt most acutely in Africa. 

Indeed Lavrov was soon engaged in a virtual propaganda war with French president Emmanuel Macron, who was also on an African safari — perhaps not coincidentally — visiting Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau. Macron called Russia “one of the last remaining imperial, colonial powers.” 

The rival visits were further evidence that Russia’s war against Ukraine was regressive — taking the world back to Cold War postures and risking making Africa a proxy battleground again. United States president Joe Biden will hold his long-awaited African leaders summit in December, and Lavrov announced in Cairo this week that the second Russia-Africa summit would be held next year. 

Jakkie Cilliers, Head of African Futures and Innovation at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), says it’s no coincidence that Lavrov is visiting Africa soon after Russia consented to lift its blockade on Odesa and other Ukrainian Black Sea ports. The deal, brokered by United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres and Turkish president Tayyip Recep Erdoğan, would allow over 20 million tons of embargoed Ukrainian grain to be exported to global markets. 

The embargo and consequent grain shortage helped double grain prices and aggravated food insecurity, especially in Africa. In June, the African Union (AU) quickly dispatched its chair Macky Sall and AU Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat to Sochi to meet Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and plead for relief. 

“I think the whole agreement on opening up Odesa was a very strategic move by Russia,” Cilliers says. “Ukraine has been smartly managing the global discourse; they’ve determined the narrative on Russia’s invasion.”

Putin tried to blame Ukraine for the grain blockade because it had mined its ports (in fact, to protect them from Russian invasion). But this Russian narrative didn’t sell well. “Putin senses that they are losing the propaganda struggle.” And so lifting the grain embargo was a deliberate move to show that Russia was responsive to African pleas “and to get Russia off the back foot on a global narrative that has really cornered Russia.” 

Steven Gruzd, Head of the Russia-Africa project at the South African Institute of International Affairs, agrees that Putin sent Lavrov to Africa partly as a propaganda move. But also “to counter the very effective public relations that president [Volodymyr] Zelensky has had on social media.” Gruzd also believes the visit is a “deliberate ploy by Russia to show that it’s not isolated and can still get support on the international stage.”

Africa, in that sense, was a good choice for Russia. The continent has been less critical of Russia than other regions, with 25 of 54 states abstaining or not voting to condemn Russia’s Ukraine invasion during a UN General Assembly resolution on 2 March. That was a significantly higher average than in other regions. South Africa and many others among those 25 say they will remain ‘non-aligned’ — echoing the formal position developing countries took during the Cold War.

It makes sense for African states not to become entangled in a war in distant Europe. Yet the ‘non-aligned’ stance implies that the war is an ethically equivalent conflict between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Russia, rather than unprovoked aggression by Moscow against a democratic neighbour. 

So visiting Africa helps Lavrov underscore the Cold War-type narrative, as Joseph Siegle, Director of Research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, observes. In fact, “Russia is also vying to normalise an international order where might makes right,” he writes. “And democracy and respect for human rights are optional.”

Siegle and others noted that Lavrov chose interlocutors who weren’t very democratic and who may have fallen out with the West for this reason. This would be consistent with the intensifying activities in the Central African Republic, Mali and Libya of the Wagner private military company, which is propping up warlords and putschists. Wagner is widely regarded as a proxy force for Putin to counter Western influence. 

Siegle suggests Russia has much more to gain from better relations with Africa than African states do. Russia is already the largest arms supplier to the continent and may hope to increase this. Besides weapons, Russia is a tiny investor and trader compared to the West and China. 

However, ISS Researcher Priyal Singh notes that improving relations with Russia isn’t inherently bad for Africa, as certain states benefit “tremendously” from having diverse international partners. This argument is also often offered for Africa strengthening ties with China. 

It seems Lavrov went down quite well in Africa — not only with the leadership of the four carefully chosen destination countries, but also in Addis Ababa where he met several other countries’ ambassadors. 

Siegle warns that the African countries getting cosier with Russia risk losing the confidence of Western governments and investors who demand environments where the rule of law prevails. But that observation invokes one of the great imponderables of Africa’s international relations. 

Egypt particularly is strategically too important to the West for Lavrov’s visit to really sour relations. Arguably the West might get friendlier with all these African countries to prevent them from drifting further into Moscow’s embrace. That’s an argument one hears from some Western diplomats in Pretoria about South Africa’s ‘non-aligned’ stance, which has visibly annoyed some of their colleagues. 

These dynamics and dilemmas echo those of the ‘first’ Cold War — though whether the world of 2022 is analogous with that of circa 1972 is a larger question. DM

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

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