Africa: the theatre of the new cold war between Russia and the West?

Radia Mernissi is an International Relations student, her Moroccan background make her particularly interested in North African politics and neo-imperialism. She also enjoys researching about International Law and its application to conflict and security.

During his diplomatic visit to Cameroon in July 2022, French president Macron called out African countries on their “hypocrisy” regarding the Russian armed invasion of Ukraine. In the same month, Russian foreign ministry Lavrov, on an official Ethiopian visit, adopted a different tone, congratulating African countries for their neutral stance, even under Western pressure. The Ukrainian crisis accelerated the growing tensions between Russia and the West at an unprecedented rate, leading to the deployment of new foreign policy from both sides. 

This article will uncover the deployment of Russia’s foreign policy in Africa, and the Western response to it, in an attempt to answer the following question:

Should we be in a cold war psychosis?

The end of history? 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many believed in the triumph of the American-led ideology, soon enough this unipolar order seemed to be jeopardised notably by the 9/11 attacks and the economic rise of China. However, the Putin-led invasion of Ukrainian lands has shown new unpresented dynamics, of a so-called “new cold war”. This could make changes in foreign policy, especially as countries outside of the West have chosen to take a neutral stance. This article proposes to concentrate on the contrasting foreign policies in Africa. 

Following the military intervention of Russia in Ukraine, in April 2022, the UN general assembly published a resolution calling countries to recognise that Russia had to “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders”. Out of all African countries, more than half have abstained from voting, choosing a neutral stance. 

What factors have conditioned their vote? To what extent is Russia actively shaping African states’ interests?

Africa’s historic connection to the Soviet Union and Pan-Africanism at the heart of the Russian propaganda:

First, ties with the African continent can be traced back to the historic Soviet Union era through military and political aid. In fact, it was involved during the post-colonial wave and helped African states seek independence. For example, Angola’s ruling party, the MPLA is influenced on the military level. Instructors and methods are based on Russian models, and there are direct ties with Russian political elites.

Furthermore, Putin’s regime; in addition to re-engaging with the past ties, also harvests its support from the Pan-African ideology, which believes African interests should be unified and sees it possible by getting rid of Western intervention. It prioritises an alliance with Russia to foresee its development. Political figures adhering to this ideology have openly been showing their support for Russia’s actions. For instance, Julius Malema, a South African leader, declared, “We are here to tell NATO and the United States that we stand with Russia. Today we want to say to Russia thank you for being there and don’t doubt our support. Teach them a lesson, we need a new world order, we are tired of being dictated to by the United States”. 

A new strategy for Russia: the Sahel example

Following the Russian propaganda, like it had done in post-colonial Africa, Russia has a mission to counter western influences in Ukraine. The following narratives find themselves being applied directly through the intermediary of economic and recently, private military tools. 

First, Russia quickly established itself as the first country to sell arms in Africa. According to a 2020 report by the peace research group SIPRI, approximately 30% of all weaponry transferred to nations in sub-Saharan Africa between 2016 and 2020  originated from Russia.

Second, private military groups have been used mostly in Africa as a key foreign policy tool for Russia. An interesting case to illustrate this strategy takes place in the Sahel region. Previously occupied by French troops during the counter terrorist operation, “Operation Berkhane”, their departure was quickly followed by Russia through private military groups such as the Wagner group. Russia can satisfy its economic interest through this presence, as it can more easily access new trade markets and natural resources; but also, the occupation gained social acceptance, in accordance with the Pan-African ideology. The approval of Russia’s presence is undeniably linked to anti-French animosity. For instance, in Mali there are regular anti-French demonstrations, as seen in the image above, the slogan can be translated as: Russia = hope for Mali and Poutine(Putin) = solution. The burning of EU flags at the departure of French troops also illustrates this. 

The Western response: 

Western counterparts were quick to respond to Russia’s foreign policy in Africa.

During his tour of West African nations, the French president attempted to convey a different version of the story. He also used comparison to gain social acceptance, stressing that Russia is “the last colonial power” and that African countries’ previous experiences should be compared to the current political climate in Ukraine. He also blatantly called out the urgency of the situation, and the duty of these states to be on the side of Western power.  

The United States became even more direct in putting its security and political interests before its human rights stance. Even before the disruption caused by the Ukrainian crisis, in 2018, John Bolton unveiled the new American strategy in a speech, with the primary goal of countering Russian and Chinese influences in the African continent. Following the UN votes, the US released the Meeks bill, a new series of laws through which sanctions are to be given to African countries who collaborate with Russian counterparts, such as private military companies.

The question now is whether these sanctions will further anger African countries, or  force them to succumb and take a clear stance amid Western pressure?

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