In Africa, Eastern Europe battles Russian narratives on Ukraine

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With growing fears of a severe food crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine, Kyiv and its Eastern European allies are opening a new front in their battle to build diplomatic alliances against the Kremlin: African nations, many of whom depend on cereals and fertilizers from Ukraine and Russia to feed their citizens.

The effort is a measure of how Russia’s war in Ukraine is shaping alliances away from the battlefield. The Kremlin has deep ties to many African nations dating back to the Soviet era and has acted to use them in the current crisis, welcoming leaders from the continent to Russia and developing its own propaganda efforts among local populations.

Central and Eastern European countries shared these ties until the collapse of communism, but they spent decades connecting to Western institutions, to the detriment of relations with Africa.

In recent weeks, however, the leaders of these countries have gone door to door in Africa. Polish President Andrzej Duda visited Cairo, the first such trip by a Polish head of state in 30 years. Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics did the same, the first bilateral visit by a senior official to his country of memory. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed a gathering of African Union leaders on Monday, said he intended to create a Ukrainian special envoy for Africa and said he would soon send his foreign minister to tour across the continent.

“What Russia is doing in Ukraine is a 21st century colonial war, like it or not,” said Rinkevics, who said he hoped to find time to visit several sub-Saharan African countries in the coming months. “It’s something that we will continue to push…It’s part of a storytelling battle.”

The sudden rush of activity is driven by both humanitarian reasons and political necessity. Many citizens of African countries may soon go hungry because Ukrainian grain and fertilizer exports are blocked. Russia, meanwhile, offered solutions: its own grain and fertilizer, plus some of Ukraine’s, which it took from territory it captured in the four-month war.

The Russians “need this crisis. They deliberately make it worse. Because they are trying to use you and the suffering of the people to put pressure on the democracies that imposed sanctions on Russia,” Zelensky told African leaders on Monday via video link, saying the continent had been “taken hostage” by Russia during the conflict.

Russia targeted Ukrainian ammunition to weaken Kyiv on the battlefield

The Kremlin has succeeded in convincing some African nations otherwise, blaming the war on Western efforts to extend NATO to Ukraine, and claiming that the food crisis is the consequence of sanctions against Russia, not of the invasion and blockade of Ukrainian ports by the Kremlin. .

Today, some African leaders are calling for their end.

“The situation was bad and now it has gotten worse, creating a threat to food security in Africa,” said Senegalese President Macky Sall, who is also chairman of the African Union, alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin. in the Russian resort of Sochi. this month.

He called for the lifting of sanctions on “food products, in particular cereals and fertilizers”.

EU officials said their financial sanctions against Russia were not aimed at creating a food crisis in Africa and said they wanted to discuss further with African leaders how to resolve the issue. EU foreign ministers pledged additional financial support to Egypt this week during their meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Luxembourg.

Senior Russian officials have addressed the crisis, saying food shortages will lead to a change in the West’s approach to Russia.

“A cynical joke, even a slogan, has been circulating in Moscow lately,” said one of the Kremlin’s top propagandists, Margarita Simonyan.

“Hunger is our last hope. What does it mean? This means that once hunger sets in, it will bring them back to their senses. That’s when they’ll lift the sanctions and be friends with us because they’ll understand there’s no getting around it,” she said. “We don’t want to achieve this through starvation, but still…”

The response of African leaders to the war has been mixed. About half of the 54 African countries refused to support a United Nations resolution in March that condemned the Russian invasion.

“I in no way justify the entry of military personnel into Ukraine, but at the same time I understand what concerns the Russians,” said Nabil Fahmy, former Egyptian foreign minister and outgoing dean of the School of Global Affairs. . and public policy at the American University in Cairo. “These are policies that the Russians and the Americans have been pursuing for 70 years.”

Egypt supported the UN resolution that condemned the invasion. But Egyptian leaders are in a difficult position, he said.

“Our problem is that, between the two conflicting parties, directly and indirectly, we are all friends and need all of them,” he said. “If anyone were to think we were going to take sides, that’s very naive. We simply cannot afford to take sides, nor would we want to. We face strong economic pressures as a result of the conflict.

Part of the African response is shaped by the legacy of empire and colonialism. Ukraine’s biggest European donors are former colonial powers. Russia has successfully portrayed the conflict as a response to a Western imperialist effort to pull Ukraine into its orbit and away from Moscow. Even if this narrative is not fact-driven, Western European leaders sometimes lack the credibility in Africa to challenge it effectively.

Eastern Europeans do not have the same burden. Soviet leaders forcibly incorporated many of their nations into the Kremlin sphere, and their experience of shaking off the ties of empire is similar to African independence efforts in the 1960s and 1970s.

“In the Middle East and Africa, Central and Eastern Europeans are seen as a different type of European. We went through the same processes. We fought for our own independence. We can use these areas to be heard in our communication with these countries,” said Jedrzej Czerep, head of the Middle East and Africa program at the Polish Institute of International Affairs.

In the depths of the current conflict, policy makers in Central and Eastern Europe are realistic about their ability to influence public opinion in Africa, and there is little desire to ask African leaders to take action that would jeopardize the food security of their citizens. Instead, diplomacy focuses on finding alternative sources of food and fertilizer, as well as basic economic support.

Egypt is in particular focus as it is one of the hardest hit by the food crisis and also has desperately needed oil and gas supplies in Europe as it tries to wean off Russian fossil fuels. Russia and Ukraine were also major sources of tourism for Egypt – at least before Visa and Mastercard cut off Russian credit cards and Ukrainians stopped traveling because they were too busy defending their homeland. .

“It’s a nice balance we’re looking for, and it’s a very nice dance we’re dancing, but if Egypt is ready to supply more oil and gas and explore options to bring it to Europe, they are important,” Rinkevics said. , said the Latvian foreign minister who met with senior Egyptian officials in Cairo last week in an interview.

It was his first visit to Cairo to meet Egyptian leaders during his decade in power, he said, and he could not remember the last time any of his predecessors had made the trip. Latvia’s diplomatic presence in Egypt is tiny: just four people, including the ambassador, work in a cramped office that serves as an embassy. Now, however, Eastern European affairs are at the top of Cairo’s agenda, and Rinkevics has been taken to a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi.

“President Sisi has read his file very carefully,” Rinkevics said. “The president’s first question was, ‘What is your assessment of the war, and when is it going to end?’ They are really interested.


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