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Russia-Africa Summit: African nations aren’t tilting towards Putin’s Russia

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Since the very start, Africa has found itself in the middle of the geopolitical divide over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Just days after the invasion last year, its leaders sparked consternation in Western capitals as 17 of Africa’s 54 states abstained from a vote to condemn Russian aggression in the U.N. General Assembly. Another eight African nations made up the bulk of voters absent.

After that, there was an effort in Europe and North America to push the continent into line. It wasn’t always so charming: During a trip last summer to one of the absentee nations, Cameroon, French President Emmanuel Macron said that he had “seen too much hypocrisy, particularly on the African continent,” on the war.

But if Russian President Vladimir Putin thought that he could use Western condescension to charm African leaders, he has once again been overconfident. On Thursday, Putin will host a high-profile summit for African leaders in his hometown of St. Petersburg. Just 16 African heads of state are expected to attend, according to reporting from my colleagues Robyn Dixon and Katharine Houreld.

That’s less than half of the 43 who came to the first Russia-Africa summit in 2019. And that lower scale comes despite a full-scale diplomatic push from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who has made multiple trips to the continent since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Any idea that Africa as a whole leans toward Russia is clearly mistaken. Through the Wagner mercenary group, Russia has played a decisive, though often destructive, role in nations including Mali, the Central African Republic and Sudan, and Moscow has friendly relations with major powers like Egypt and South Africa.

But look at the totality of the five votes against condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine at the United Nations; things aren’t rosy for Moscow. Yes, the majority of Africa’s 54 member states abstained in most of the several votes condemning Russia’s war, but Moscow has only had two African states actually vote with it — pariah states Eritrea and Mali — and even those didn’t do so each time, instead abstaining in some votes. Meanwhile, 19 African states have voted with Ukraine and its allies at least once.

Why Russia’s Wagner Group has been involved in Ukraine, Africa, Mideast

There’s no easy way to summarize the continent’s views of the war in Ukraine. There are 1.3 billion people living across an array of countries, all with their own politics. Whether to support Ukraine, Russia, or neither comes down to a long list of local factors, only some of which overlap. Historically, most countries in Africa have been officially nonaligned.

Far from abandoning the nonaligned position in the long hangover from the 20th-century Cold War between East and West, the ongoing period of multipolarity has led many countries in the Global South to embrace it even more.

It helps that in many parts of the continent, there is a lingering suspicion of the West and its institutions. The International Criminal Court, based in the Netherlands, has repeatedly targeted African leaders, for example, leading some to pull out of the court. That the United States is not a member of the court and has sanctioned its leaders adds to claims of hypocrisy.

During Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to the continent last year — just days after Lavrov’s own regional tour — Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister for international relations and cooperation, complained to reporters of the “patronizing” attempts by European nations to push African nations to support Ukraine.

“One thing I definitely dislike is being told either you choose this — or else,” Pandor told reporters. “I definitely will not be bullied in that way, nor would I expect any African country worth its salt to agree.”

But whether they like it or not, African nations have been dragged into the divide. When the ICC announced an arrest warrant for Putin in March, it put South Africa — as the host of next month’s BRICS international conference and a signatory to the Rome Statute, which established the court — in the uncomfortable position of being expected to arrest one of the most high-profile guests at the summit (South Africa last week announced that Putin would no longer attend the event “by mutual agreement”).

Russia, meanwhile, resumed its Black Sea blockade on exports of Ukrainian grain. For countries in the Horn of Africa that once relied on that grain, it compounds problems of drought and rising food prices. In a sign of the anger in that region, Korir Sing’Oei, a senior Kenyan foreign affairs official, tweeted last week that Russia’s move was a “stab [in] the back.”

Across Africa, many have had to deal with the fallout caused by the massive sanctions and export controls put on Moscow and its allies. It’s led to some awkward moments for countries that sought to keep both of their options open, with countries like Egypt and South Africa chastened by the United States for potential military trade with Russia.

African leaders visited with a peace plan. Putin showed little interest.

Russia has tried to build anti-Western sentiment by focusing on histories of colonialism. While this has obvious resonance in Africa, it also echoes the language used domestically: Last year during a speech in Moscow, Putin accused the West of seeking to create a “golden billion” that “divides the world into first- and second-class people and is therefore essentially racist and neocolonial.”

It’s not hard to see through this patronizing language, given the imperial ambitions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the military-mercantilist actions of Wagner and other Russian groups in African nations. As if to hammer home the point, when African leaders visited Kyiv last month in part of a Ukraine-Russia trip they hoped would end the war, Russia’s military fired missiles at the Ukrainian capital.

But accusations of Western hypocrisy, as well as conditions on aid and disputes over human rights and democracy, mean that the United States and Europe have their own complex relationships with many African nations.

Too often they have paid attention to Africa only when they needed to. A U.K. Parliament report released Wednesday chastised the government for allowing Wagner to “spread its tentacles deep into Africa” while it looked the other way. Often investment in Africa is framed in geopolitical rivalries — though generally, the attention has been not on Russia, but the far more economically relevant power of China, which dwarves Moscow’s meager investment in the continent.

Until the West can come up with a more persuasive argument of its own, African nations are unlikely to jump into line behind it. But that doesn’t mean the continent is aligning with Putin’s Russia either.

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