Ukraine’s Story Can Find Listeners in Africa | Foreign Policy

Kyiv is struggling to find leverage against Russian narratives.

by UKCHP_Admin

On June 20, 2022, in a closed-door video conference, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made an impassioned plea to leaders and representatives of the African Union to support the Ukrainian war effort and to resist Russian blackmail regarding wheat shortages in the continent. Yet it was clear that African heads of state were not particularly interested in what Zelensky had to say. Only four African leaders participated, while others sent ambassadors or foreign ministers.

After the video conference, the Senegalese African Union Chair Macky Sall tweeted his thanks to Zelensky for his address. He concluded with boilerplate language reassuring the African Union’s respect for international law and hope for a peaceful resolution to “conflicts.” A few weeks later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made an in-person tour of Africa and received a considerably warmer welcome from Egyptian, Congolese, Ugandan, and Ethiopian heads of state.

Although Zelensky’s pleas seem to have borne little fruit, it is the right strategy for Ukraine to engage with the African Union and Africans as equals and allies. This approach allows Ukraine to counter Russia’s influence on the continent and bolsters Ukraine’s image as a European but anti-colonial state.

Zelensky’s June appearance followed months of appeals to the African Union for an audience. Ukraine needs allies in the African Union, chiefly because it needs African support in the United Nations. At the outset of Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine, Kenyan U.N. Ambassador Martin Kimani made a powerful statement, condemning Russia’s behavior and juxtaposing Ukraine’s plight with Africa’s struggle to decolonize.

Yet, despite Kimani’s remarks, African leaders have overwhelmingly remained neutral or have supported Russia. For example, in the United Nations General Assembly vote to suspend Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council in April, only 24 countries voted against the measure, including nine African countries. Of the 58 abstention votes, 20 were from African countries, including Kimani’s Kenya. These votes and Africa’s continued friendliness toward Russia are the culmination of decadeslong Russian attempts to monopolize the relationships many African countries had with the Soviet Union.

As Chatham House’s Paul Melly recently argued, Ukraine cannot yet compete with Russia’s material and political influence on the continent. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been a significant supplier of grain, arms, and money to African nations, rivaled only by China when competing for influence. While Ukraine will never be able to be a financial rival to Russia, it can capitalize on its history of hosting African students and trainees, being a Russian colony, and providing major grain and fertilizer exports to the continent to counter Russia’s reputation in Africa.

Russia has traded on the memory of the Soviet Union as an ally to newly decolonized African nations. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union positioned itself as a supporter of various decolonization movements across Africa. Both materially and financially, the Soviets supported burgeoning governments willing to engage with it. Africans were critical to the Soviet ideology and image of anti-capitalist and anti-colonial internationalism.

However, Ukraine was also an integral piece of the Soviet effort to gain influence in Africa. Thousands of African students studied throughout the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and this legacy continued in independent Ukraine until Russia’s invasion in February. Despite Russia’s head start, Ukraine should continue to focus on engaging with the African Union and countering Russia’s stolen valor as a crusader for decolonization and independence on the continent as the successor to the Soviet Union.

Yet Ukraine must also address and atone for the instances of racism against Africans students at the beginning of the war. These became international news in early March as videos of African students waiting hours to cross the border and being removed from trains permeated the internet. Ukraine’s initial response was lackluster, further damaging its reputation. The hashtag #AfricansInUkraine trended on Twitter, often accompanied by comments that said Russia’s allegations that Ukraine was a “Nazi country” were correct.

Although Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba broadly acknowledged the issues at the border and many of the denials at the border were due to diplomatic issues involving European Union agreements for third-country nationals, the ensuing public outrage harmed Ukraine’s position in Africa.

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