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Ukraine’s Story Can Find Listeners in Africa

Kyiv is struggling to find leverage against Russian narratives.

By , a doctoral student in history at the University of Pennsylvania.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses a press conference with international media in Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 23.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses a press conference with international media in Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 23.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses a press conference with international media in Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 23. GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images

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.

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.

Moreover, Russia took advantage of these strategic errors. The English-language Russian Foreign Ministry Twitter account shared a popular video of African students in distress in Sumy decrying the conditions in the besieged city and incorrectly stating that Ukrainians were holding them hostage. The tweet amplified the rumor against Ukraine and compounded the negative view of Ukraine for Africans and many African Americans on the social media platform.

In reality, Russia had the city under siege and would not allow anyone of any nationality to leave safely. The reputational damage done to Ukraine in Africa is one reason Zelensky has received a cold shoulder from African nations, but this is a soft power issue that Ukraine can work to resolve.

Ukraine should follow Kimani’s example and build a relationship with the African Union and its members as former colonies of European imperial powers. Unlike Russia, the United States, or France, which are vying for influence, Ukraine has never been an imperial power, save for its role as a subordinate part of the Soviet Union, nor has it armed any factions or militia groups in the various conflicts that have continued across Cameroon, the Central African Republic, or Mali, to name a few examples. How can Ukraine do this? While it is difficult to maintain a diplomatic presence in countries far from the frontlines of the war, at some point, Ukraine needs to increase the number of embassies and diplomatic staff on the continent. These outposts will be invaluable to African students who want to return to or begin studies in Ukraine.

Furthermore, Ukraine must continue to emphasize its exports to Africa. Africa is facing a monumental food crisis because Russia invaded Ukraine, not vice versa. According to the 2022 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development report, 12 percent of African wheat imports came from Ukraine in 2018 to 2020, while another 32 percent came from Russia. In the same report, it is evident that Africa has struggled with replacing the lost foodstuffs and fertilizers from Ukraine.

Yet Zelensky’s video speech is not enough to counter Lavrov’s Africa tour, which reinforced the Russian narrative that it is Ukraine’s fault these necessary imports have not made it to the continent. Ukrainian leaders have done a commendable job staying on the front page of the Western media cycle and fighting Russian disinformation in the West. Now they need to find ways to do the same in Africa.

Andri Veselovsky, the former Ukrainian representative to the European Union, noted in 2021 that Ukraine needed to strengthen its presence in Africa. Now, six months into Russia’s invasion, the impacts of Ukraine’s inability to forge stronger ties on the continent are visible in its difficulties fighting Russian influence in international organizations such as the United Nations and garnering support from the former colonial holdings that were once under Soviet influence during the Cold War.

Africa can be a valuable ally to Ukraine and that Ukraine provides necessary imports for Africa. A mutually beneficial relationship is waiting to be made, and both sides will have to overcome Russia to do so.

Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon is a doctoral student in history at the University of Pennsylvania focusing on Black experiences and ideas of race, ethnicity, and nationality policy in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet space. She has written on these topics in various publications, including the Moscow Times, Krytyka (Ukraine), and the Kennan Institute’s Russia File blog. Her digital curriculum vitae can be viewed at www.kstjulianvarnon.com.

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