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How Ukraine is combating Russia's influence in Africa

June 27, 2024

To curb Moscow’s influence in Africa, Ukraine is deploying diplomatic and strategic initiatives. The focus is on undermining Russia's propaganda and military engagements.

A group of people stand on the street waving Ukraine flags.
South Africans protest against Russia's Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa in 2023Image: Jerome Delay/AP Photo/picture alliance

A number of African nations have a deep historical relationship with Russia going back to when it was the Soviet Union and supported their independence struggles.

"Ukraine failed to claim part of that [Soviet] legacy, and that is a strategic mistake," Iliya Kusa, an expert on international relations, told DW.

"Ukraine didn't try to claim that it was part of that story because many Ukrainians as part of the Soviet Union were all over Africa as engineers, technicians, teachers and doctors."

The reason, Kusa believes, is that modern Ukraine, especially after Russia's full-scale invasion, wants nothing to do its Soviet past.

Russian President Vladimir Putin started rekindling these ties and seeking new ones about a decade ago. His support ranged from more conventional military assistance to running mass disinformation campaigns against leaders' political rivals.

As for Ukraine, before it was invaded by Russia it had scant diplomatic infrastructure in Africa, with only 10 embassies compared to Russia's 43. 

"We understood that we need other countries, we need other non-western countries to build dialogue with them in order to improve our position in the context of the war with Russia," Kusa told DW.

"Its diplomatic history with the continent was zero," said Ovigwe Eguegu, a Nigerian-based policy analyst at the international consultancy Development Reimagined. 

This is made clear by the limited support shown by African nations for Ukraine at various UN General Assembly votes since the war started in February 2022. The first resolution calling for an immediate end to the war on Ukraine saw 28 African nations voting in favor, one against, 17 abstaining and eight absent.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg.
Vladimir Putin, seen here with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the 2023 Russia Africa summit, started wooing African leaders more than a decade agoImage: Mikhail Metzel/TASS/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Diplomatic push

Ukraine is now seeking to make diplomatic inroads in Africa. It recently opened six new embassies, including in Rwanda, Botswana and Mozambique, and four more are planned.

"Ukraine realized that Africa is very, very important when it comes to building a strong position in the United Nations, in particular the General Assembly, because Africa presents the largest voting bloc of any continent," Ovigwe told DW.

"It needs those diplomatic missions to formalize the relationship with African countries and continue to maintain high-level contact with African countries." 

Another reason for Ukraine's diplomatic efforts is to counter Russia's considerable influence on the continent, said journalist and foreign policy analyst Peter Fabricius, a consultant for the Institute of Security Studies, an Africa-based think tank. 

Ukraine has been "quite explicit" about wanting to counter Russian influence and propaganda, Fabricius told DW. 

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also made a flurry of trips to a dozen African nations in 2022 and 2023, as well as the African Union

Ukraine is "late" to Africa, said geopolitical expert Eguegu: "In Ukraine's 32 years of diplomatic history since it became independent [after the collapse of the Soviet Union], there was not a single visit from a Ukrainian president or foreign minister to the continent."

But that is gradually changing, according to Iliya Kusa.

"On the expert and the political level in Ukraine, there is a widespread acknowledgment that Africa is an important and significant region that Ukraine needs as partners to build dialogue and relations with," Kusa said. He noted that Africa was becoming more and more relevant on the international stage and had some countries that could shape international politics. 

For its part, Russia announced in May that it was preparing to open four new diplomatic missions, bringing its number to 47 in total. Equally, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has been jetting across the continent, most recently in June when he visited Guinea, Chad, Burkina Faso and the Republic of Congo. 

Donating grain

Another way Ukraine is seeking to garner influence is through food diplomacy. Before the war, Ukraine was Africa's second-biggest supplier of maize and third-biggest supplier of wheat outside the continent, making it vital to food security on the continent.

Ukraine started donating free grain as part of its Grain from Ukraine program set up in November 2022. So far, war-torn Sudan has received two shipments of flour, totaling more than 21,000 tons, milled from Ukrainian wheat. Ukraine has also donated wheat to Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.

A woman sits under an umbrella surrounded by bags of different grains as a man walks past.
A Somali trader sells wheat imported from Ukraine in the capital, MogadishuImage: Feisal Omar/REUTERS

This is despite Ukraine having to use an alternative route to export its grain after Russia in mid-2023 pulled out of the Black Sea grain initiative, which had allowed Ukrainian ships to export wheat and corn through the quicker Black Sea route.

In a similar vein, Russia began shipping free grain to Africa in November 2023 as part of a promise to provide six nations, including Burkina Faso and Mali, with up to 50,000 tons.

But it's not stopping at providing grain. Mali, one of Africa's biggest gold producers, is to get a gold refinery, while insurgency-hit Burkina Faso, where Russia reopened its embassy after it was shut more than 30 years ago, saw Russian military troops deployed, reportedly to help with training. These are just two examples of Russia's growing influence across Africa. 

Fighting Russia on African soil

It seems that Ukraine is learning from Russia. It has reportedly sent a special forces unit to Sudan to support the army fight's against the rebel Rapid Support Forces, who, in turn, are backed by Russian mercenaries. 

While Ukraine hasn't officially confirmed or denied this, Ukraine military official Andriy Yusov told Politico magazine that "Ukrainian intelligence has to be present wherever there is a need to destroy the enemy, which is waging a full-scale war against Ukraine." 

"We are present wherever it is possible to weaken the interests of Russia," he was quoted as saying. 

Ukraine reportedly also has troops in Somalia to counter potential Russian activities there.

'Low return on investment'

But Ukraine's Foreign Minister Kuleba candidly told visiting African journalists, including Peter Fabricius, last November that the country had seen "a pretty low return on their investment in Africa."

"They've been making a big effort, visiting 12 countries … and opening up these embassies," said Fabricius. "You don't expect African countries to be rushing to open up embassies in [the capital] Kyiv in the middle of a war, but still they were expecting a bit more."

Kusa agreed that there was still little information about Africa among Ukrainians.

"On the social level there is little known about Africa [until today] unfortunately," Kusa said, adding that Ukraine could do that by sending journalists to Africa and encouraging Africans to visit Ukraine.

The lack of success was evident in the Ukraine peace summit held earlier this month. Of the 82 states that signed a communique on a peace framework, only 11 were from Africa.

Summit on peace in Ukraine ends in disunity over declaration

While some countries such as Ghana and Kenya have strongly voiced their support for Ukraine, for Fabricius, there are two main reasons why many African nations are reluctant to do so. 

"One is simply that it's a long way from home for a lot of African countries," he said. "And secondly, African countries have — and some to quite a large degree — tried to maintain a certain degree of non-alignment, such as South Africa. They regarded it as a European war."

As for Ovigwe Eguegu, he believes the problem is in Ukraine's diplomatic messaging and that its voice is overshadowed by Western nations, which have lost credibility across many parts of Africa. 

"Some of the apathy towards Ukraine is because the people speaking on behalf of Ukraine are not popular on the continent anymore," Eguegu said. 

Edited by: Sarah Hucal

This article was updated on June 27 to reflect new developments.

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Kate Hairsine Australian-born journalist and senior editor who mainly focuses on Africa.