Is Russia winning the battle for support for Africa?


Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s charm offensive in Africa this week, as part of efforts to rally support in the face of growing isolation, has sparked new Western concerns. Is Moscow gaining ground in the emerging world? Why can’t African nations see that Russia is waging a war of conquest? On the other hand, as you might expect, he fed the propaganda with plenty of propaganda. “Russia is winning the fight for Africa,” a state television presenter told viewers. “The tour turned out to be a triumphal march.”

Both are way off.

Since its invasion of Ukraine in February, there is no doubt that Russia has found more friendly or outwardly neutral partners in the Global South than the West would like. Kenya gave an enthusiastic speech to the Security Council outlining the dangerous implications of Russian irredentism, but when the 193-member General Assembly passed a resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine, 35 countries – about half of Africa, including South Africa and Senegal – abstained. Others, such as Ethiopia and Morocco, did not vote at all.

Soviet-era anti-colonial ties play to Moscow’s advantage here, as well as widespread mistrust of the West, fueled by expanding Russian disinformation campaigns portraying the war as the rich world against the rest. No less crucial are defense and security ties – what the Kremlin lacks in investment capacity (and it doesn’t come close to China’s billions for infrastructure) it makes up for in arms sales and private military contractors, without asking awkward questions. Russia is also a major exporter of grain and fertilizer to a vulnerable region that badly needs it. Countries like Egypt, the first stop on Lavrov’s tour, need not be reminded of the dangers of soaring food inflation.

Yet its destinations – Egypt, Uganda, the Republic of Congo and Ethiopia – speak volumes about the limits of the Kremlin’s effort. Russia’s limited means (and Africa’s patchwork of political systems) force it to adopt a selective approach. There are no flashy money promises from a nation struggling to develop its own sanctioned economy, and although Egypt is an important trading partner – there’s a reason its leader made an appearance. virtual at President Vladimir Putin’s Davos-lite rally in June – others are less so. None of the stops top the Democratic rankings either, so it’s been less of a triumph than a ride of autocratic nations happy to get a boost from a like-minded government.

The problem is, that was enough. Too few African nations have seen the benefit of coming out of the fence, and that has as much to do with non-aligned traditions and Russia’s historical might as with Western disengagement. It’s not that Europe and the United States are absent – French President Emmanuel Macron has just completed a tour of Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau – but they have proved easily distracted by other demands. . They tend to present Africa as a geopolitical battleground and their investment priorities do not always match those of the continent. After a diplomatic withdrawal during the Trump years, US embassies remain understaffed, and a summit of American-African leaders announced last year (the second, after a first in 2014) has just been scheduled for completion. 2022. Not to mention the gaffe. to attempt to portray the crisis in Ukraine as a war of values ​​on a continent that has seen ample evidence of Western hypocrisy.

To help Africa and squeeze Russia, that has to change.

It is clear what Russia, which needs friends and trading partners, gets out of Africa. It’s a resource-rich region that Europe considers its backyard, with often weak governments that make it relatively inexpensive to advance Moscow’s interests (and those of close Kremlin associates benefiting from resource and security agreements).

But what about the vast majority of Africans? Russia accounts for less than 1% of foreign direct investment in Africa in 2020, and its stagnant economy is not going to prosper anytime soon as the Kremlin prioritizes Putin’s imperial illusions over growth. Import restrictions, Moscow’s withdrawal from international payment systems, lack of innovation and research make it an unlikely partner for anything other than resources, which have long been the bulk of Russian investment in the continent. , while Africa needs technology instead. Russia accounted for 44% of arms sales to Africa in 2017-21, but even that will recede as import restrictions bite and Russia scrambles to resupply its own armed forces.

Allied governments, eager to maintain their support for Ukraine as the war drags on, should seize the opportunity. First, they must recognize current food security concerns, especially with generous financial and logistical support for nations dependent on food and fertilizer imports and generously support the United Nations Food Import Financing Mechanism. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and other mechanisms.

Europe and the United States must also recognize that the worsening crises – climate, fuel, security, agriculture – require long-term solutions that include a dramatic increase in the production of renewable energy, a production and a more sustainable use of fertilizers, more resilient crops, as well as improved infrastructure. to limit the amount of food wasted. Private companies can and should be crowded together.

Then there is the need for long-term diplomatic engagement and communication. Employ embassies and invest in the kind of media and educational partnerships that China has used to good effect. It is not enough to wring hands in Brussels and Washington when the head of the African Union makes misleading comments about Western sanctions and plays Putin’s hunger games. By then it is far too late.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Putin shows that food becomes the ultimate weapon: Hal Brands

• To save the planet, poor countries must be paid: Mihir Sharma

• US should challenge Tunisian leader’s takeover: Bobby Ghosh

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, UK, Italy and Russia.

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