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Putin offers soothing message to African leaders who fear having to pick sides

Moscow hopes to provoke the West into deepening its strategic error of forcing African nations to show their allegiance in the new Cold War

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, spent this week using Africa to score points against the West on a tour of Ethiopia, Uganda, Egypt, and the Republic of Congo.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, with Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni this week

Mr. Lavrov came bearing gifts in the form of nuclear energy development – however unlikely to materialise – to create an image that Russia is expanding into new areas of cooperation beyond its traditional export of no-questions-asked security assistance.

Hewing to Russia’s well-worn strategy of creating political capital out of providing cover against the West’s value-driven critiques of African leaders, he embraced the Ethiopian government’s talking points over the conflict in Tigray and stood by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s rebuff of his questionable democratic credentials.

Putin with African Leaders

The visit was clearly intended to convey that Russia’s global footprint is expanding and that it is winning the war of international opinion.

But there is also a deeper purpose. Moscow’s hope is that it will provoke the West into deepening its original strategic error of forcing African nations to choose its side in the confrontation with Russia over Ukraine.

Russia’s expansion in Africa pre-Ukraine was met largely with a collective yawn from the West. Now, as the announcement of an African tour by Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, shows, Washington is worried enough to stage its own charm offensive.

Mr Lavrov also met Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi in Brazzaville

But claims that the West is losing Africa are hyperbolic. A more accurate critique is that the West misjudged how Africa would react to Ukraine being framed as an attack on the rules-based global order. Rather than rallying Africa to the West, it prompted many in the continent to conclude that they were being enlisted for Cold War redux.

That narrative was born from the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has been reinforced ever since by the West through multiple forums from financial sanctions to sporting event bans.

Not only do many states in Africa disagree on principal with such an approach, but a vote that says ‘you’re either with us or against us’ in the new Cold War constitutes a huge ask for African countries.

Although Africa is seeking to increase its self-sufficiency, it remains deeply reliant on international aid and investment.

Increasingly courted by international suitors – as a source of resources and for its blossoming consumer markets – Africa recognizes its growing power potential. 

But, for the moment, Africa remains in a weaker position vis-à-vis its suitors. To strengthen its hand, Africa needs to court as many nations as possible.

African leaders fear that being asked to sever ties with an important international partner, Russia, it could be precedent-setting. China would likely follow and sacrificing that far more consequential relationship is inconceivable for most Africans. 

The elegance of Russia’s strategy is it leans into Africa’s antipathy to a zero-sum choice. In light of the West’s isolation campaign, Vladimir Putin wins by simply maintaining (and even expanding) his international partnerships. 

Author: Linda .R. Jones

London, UK

lindarj83@gmail.com

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