Ukraine’s effort to build influence in Africa
On August 21, the Ukrainian government has identified an opportunity to enhance its diplomatic connections in Africa, capitalising on Russia’s efforts to maintain its key allies in the region. As the BRICS summit in Johannesburg approaches, both Russia and Ukraine view this event as a chance to solidify their international relationships and influence in Africa and around the world.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, recently expressed the country’s intention to significantly expand its strategic engagement with African partners after years of disregard. He emphasised that „though much time has been lost, we are committed to advancing a rebirth of Ukrainian-African ties, propelling these connections back to life.”
Pointing out Russia’s utilisation of “coercion, corruption, and intimidation” to wield authority across multiple African nations, Kuleba stressed that Ukraine “does not aspire to become a replacement for Russia. Our approach centres on liberating Africa from Russia’s grasp.” He pinpointed several countries, including Liberia, Kenya, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Equatorial Guinea, where Russian influence is gradually weakening. Nevertheless, the Kremlin finds itself prepared to sustain its accustomed level of influence. As a consequence, Russia’s ongoing manoeuvres in Africa will cast a significant shadow over this year’s BRICS summit, which convenes the leadership of Brazil, China, Russia, India, and South Africa.
Although Vladimir Putin will not make an in-person appearance due to the potential risk of being arrested under an International Criminal Court warrant, his presence will only be virtual. The remaining four governments will face intense scrutiny for their often unclear stances toward his administration, with particular attention on South Africa.
South Africa is a country that has above-standards relations with Russia. Since Russia initiated a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, criticism from Ukraine’s allied governments has been directed towards South African President Cyril Ramaphosa for his relationship with the Kremlin. Despite declaring neutrality in the conflict, South Africa was accussed of supplying arms and ammunition to Russia. Subsequently, Ramaphosa granted immunity to Putin, even though there was an international arrest warrant, enabling Putin to potentially attend the BRICS summit in person without the risk of arrest.
From a Western standpoint, it might appear perplexing that South Africa and other African nations maintain a welcoming stance towards Russia despite its actions in Ukraine. There is a longstanding connection with Russia in many parts of Southern Africa since Russia extended support to the ANC during their exile and went beyond that by backing Cuban armed forces in Angola. These forces thwarted the South African (then apartheid regime) military’s advances in Angola on two occasions, playing a pivotal role. In South Africa and resource-rich Angola, the Russians are still credited with playing a substantial role in shaping this sequence of events.
Nevertheless, Ramaphosa has encountered significant domestic opposition due to his position on the war, exacerbated by the perceived mishandling of efforts to involve South Africa and Africa more broadly in the conflict’s dynamics.