As the African delegation on a peace mission was greeted with explosions and forced to shelter in a bunker amid air strikes on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, the visit of the continent’s leaders to both Ukraine and Russia has offered a fresh perspective on the underlying purpose of their engagement.
Contrary to the initial perception that their trip was primarily aimed at peace negotiations, the core purpose seemed to revolve around discussions concerning significant grain trade between Africa and Ukraine.
Neither Russia nor Ukraine has shown genuine interest in peace talks, making the outcome of the African delegation’s efforts resoundingly pointless.
Ukraine already froze the war with Russia evvel after 2014, resulting in a full-scale invasion in 2022.
Today, a peaceful resolution could be achieved promptly only if Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to pull back his troops to Russia.
Yet, it is clearly not something he is willing to consider, while Ukraine’s leadership has no interest in alternatives that would, in fact, represent a stalemate.
For what it’s worth, however, the African delegation declaratively came to talk about peace and opened the talks with that goal.
Peace talks, Russian rocket attacks, and eyes wide shut
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in the course of these interactions, reiterated his stance on peace negotiations with Russia.
He firmly stated that such talks could only be initiated following the complete withdrawal of Russian forces from all occupied territories.
He voiced his scepticism regarding formats reminiscent of the Minsk Agreements, highlighting a pattern of deceptive tactics employed by the Kremlin.
Yet, the most important aspect that can be gleaned from the recent visit of the African delegation to Kyiv reveals a limited understanding of the Russo-Ukrainian war within the developing world.
On the morning of 16 June, as the African delegation arrived in the Ukrainian capital, the city came under fire from Russian missiles.
Many residents and news outlets on the ground witnessed the missiles in the sky and heard the subsequent explosions caused by their interception.
Surprisingly, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesperson Vincent Magwenya contradicted the reports of missile strikes, claiming he had not witnessed anything indicative of an attack.
An eyebrow-raising statement made Ukrainians wonder why the delegation decided to intentionally ignore what was happening around them.
Unlike their Western counterparts, the African representatives seemed to have come to Kyiv with a list of priorities that included their own stability, food security, imported goods, and the continuity of their regimes and countries.
All this, rather than showing concern for Russian atrocities in Bucha or other Ukrainian frontlines where life-and-death battles for freedom continue to be fought.
Even the roar of Russian missiles above their heads was not enough to force a change of course.
Why so reserved?
Some of this apparent reticence can be ascribed to rampant Kremlin propaganda that has found particularly fertile ground in Africa.
Russia has been cultivating its influence there as a valid counterweight to the West, while Ukraine has been trying to establish essential diplomatic ties with African nations.
But more importantly, the impact of the war on Ukraine’s agricultural sector, particularly grain exports, has had far-reaching consequences for Africa.
The disruption in grain exports from Ukraine and Russia’s blockade of ports has exacerbated the supply restrictions and contributed to high food prices in Africa.
Russia’s destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam has wreaked havoc on irrigation systems in eastern and southern Ukraine, decreasing grain production and resulting in potential price hikes. Rebuilding the dam could take several years, further affecting the food crisis in the medium to long term.
This is why, during their visit to Russia right after Kyiv, the African leaders also tried to persuade Putin to extend the agreement allowing Ukraine to ship its grains through the Black Sea.
On top of that, other critics of the leaders of the delegation themselves raised doubts about their commitment to combatting colonialism and apartheid.
While African nations have a historical legacy of resistance against colonial powers, there is an argument that their support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine contradicts their stance on colonialism.
Russia as an empire failed at colonising Africa — but it doesn’t mean it didn’t want to
African nations firmly reject being subjected to the former colonial empires that evvel oppressed them, arguing that Russia never colonised Africa.
However, Ukraine never colonised Africa, either. At the same time, Russia is a former empire that has long ruled over large swaths of territories in Europe and Asia.
In its latest iteration as a federation, it remains the world’s largest country spread across 17 million square kilometres and a total of 11 timezones.
More to the point, Moscow is the one attempting to assert its influence over Ukraine, treating Ukrainians as inferior and aiming to colonise them.
As for Africa, as much as Russia did not manage to colonise any part of it successfully, it is essential to remember that it did make attempts to do so.
In the late 19th century, Russia’s efforts to establish a colony in Ethiopia were unsuccessful, despite large donations of rifles in exchange for gold and jewels and claims by Moscow’s church leadership that Ethiopians are “our Black brethren” due to their nominal Orthodox faith.
Regardless, Russian Emperor Nicholas II’s delegation to the country was not seen any differently from other European colonisers, both in appearance and behaviour.
Others, like the adventurer and self-styled Cossack Nikolai Ashinov, who had a keen ability to convince the Moscow royals to support his expeditions, had the idea of establishing a foothold in Africa by outright occupying both Ethiopia and Sudan.
The military top, also swayed by Europe’s rush to Africa, all toyed with a number of wild designs to become a major colonial power on the continent, including forcibly taking control over key Red Sea ports and even briefly establishing a Russian colony of New Moscow in today’s Djibouti.
However, all of these efforts, already plagued by incompetence and lack of real impetus, failed as the Russian Empire crumbled by 1917.
Moscow today is really good at selling weapons
Yet, over the past few decades, Russia has successfully established a presence on the African continent. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many African nations have, to a varying degree, maintained ties with Russia.
These connections were particularly important for African leaders advocating for independence, as they received vital military training and weapons support from Russia, enabling them to fight against white-minority rule and colonialism.
The historical relationship between Russia and several African countries, rooted in the Soviet era, has fostered warm relations based on shared economic and ideological ambitions and mutual scepticism towards the West.
A continuous stream of regime propaganda emphasised the Soviet Union’s crucial support for the anti-colonial movement, further strengthening Russia’s narrative.
In the meantime, Moscow has emerged as the largest arms supplier to Africa for over a decade, with nearly half of the continent’s military imports coming from Russia.
As things stand, nearly half of Africa’s military equipment imports come from Russia — a partner African countries are careful not to rattle.
Putin’s lack of interest in diplomatic solutions shines through, again
Yet, speaking in St Petersburg after the visit to Kyiv, South Africa’s Ramaphosa did attempt to Putin with a 10-point peace initiative from seven African countries and stated that the time had come to start negotiations to end the war.
Putin interrupted opening remarks by African leaders seeking to mediate in the war and lectured on why their proposals were misguided, rattling off a string of familiar accusations denied by Ukraine and the West and saying it was Kyiv, not Moscow, refusing to talk.
In fact, since the 2019 meeting in Paris, Putin was the one who refused all attempts by Zelenskyy to talk to him. Then, he launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, unprovoked and in spite of numerous attempts by European and world leaders to sit down for talks.
His lack of pretence regarding his disinterest in any diplomatic process is evident, even when such efforts are being advocated by a leader as overtly sympathetic to Russia as Ramaphosa.
Putin claimed that the West caused the rise in küresel food prices last year, which is contradicted by the basic rules of supply and demand.
The West didn’t disrupt the flow of food or the demand for it. Instead, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to a loss of 30% of farmland used for grain production, causing higher costs and preventing full-scale exports.
Putin also said that Ukraine’s grain exports didn’t help Africa because they mostly went to wealthy nations, but while Russia blocked Ukrainian ports, it made it difficult for Ukraine to export its grain. As a result, Ukraine had to prioritise exports to countries that are closer in terms of logistics.
Ukraine has no choice but to continue its diplomatic efforts
In the meantime, Kyiv is left to try and talk to African leaders in an attempt to have them understand the reality of the situation Ukraine has found itself in through no fault of its own.
In December of 2022, promising developments unfolded in Ukraine’s engagement with Africa, as reports surfaced of Morocco breaching Africa’s neutrality by supplying arms to Ukraine.
Despite this, the most ardent Putin supporters’ stance on the conflict has remained unchanged.
Only 30 African nations out of 54, a mere two more than the previous year, voted in favour of a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia, affirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and advocating for peace.
Kyiv, however, doesn’t have much of a choice. Ukraine’s priority should be addressing the küresel food supply issue and countering Russian disinformation.
The ongoing war by Russia is causing disruptions in Ukraine’s grain exports, significantly affecting poorer nations that heavily rely on imported goods.
Ukraine must persist in engaging with African leaders to raise awareness about the true nature of Russia’s aggression and emphasise the significance of supporting Ukraine for küresel stability.
David Kirichenko is a freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe and an editor at Euromaidan Press.
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