Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was a decisive rupture in international affairs, sparking heightened global geopolitical tensions among major powers not seen in the post–Cold War era. Although many Western countries swiftly and universally condemned Russia’s aggression as a clear violation of the international rules-based order, as enshrined in the United Nations (UN) Charter, the responses of African states have been far more divided and ambiguous. In fact, the region represented by the African voting group in the UN General Assembly has consistently been the most divided globally regarding support for the adoption of resolutions seeking to condemn Russia’s aggression, upholding Ukraine’s territorial integrity or addressing the fallout of the conflict in terms of human rights violations and the humanitarian consequences.
The collective positions of African states on the ongoing conflict sharply contrast with those of countries such as Germany, whose leaders have characterised it as a watershed moment – famously captured by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s “Zeitenwende” address to the Bundestag on 27 February 2022. This speech marked a decisive shift in German foreign and defence policy, signalling increased budgetary allocations for defence spending and a more pronounced stance on military deterrence than has been seen since the country’s reunification. This has certainly resonated with many countries that do indeed view the brazenness of Russia’s invasion as the effective end of the post–Cold War international system, and the beginning of a new form of European security order.
For many African states, however, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has barely registered as a blip on their respective foreign policy agendas, with Africa consistently accounting for the largest number of abstentions in the UN General Assembly’s 11th Emergency Special Session on Ukraine. For many of these countries, the conflict in Ukraine is seen in terms similar to most other conflicts that have been raging across the continent for many years. Accordingly, the framing of the Russian invasion as some form of “epochal change” for the entire global order is viewed as puzzling at best, or disingenuous at worst.
In light of these contrasting positions, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) undertook a study of Russia-Africa relations in 2022. One of the aims was to analyse why concepts such as “Zeitenwende” have gained little traction among African governments. The study was based on an analysis of recent political and economic developments between Russia and African states, primary source interviews as well as a statistical analysis of the UN Security Council and UN General Assembly voting patterns of Russia and African states. We came up with three main findings.
What it is not: Russian influence in Africa
The general reluctance of many African states to explicitly condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has very little to do with Russian influence on the continent (beyond a handful of states that have clearly benefited from Russian military and financial support in recent years). For many countries, Russia has remained a marginal player across the African continent when compared to other traditional and emerging powers. From trade and development assistance to investment in infrastructure, mining, energy and other key economic sectors, Moscow lags far behind the continent’s major partners, such as China, the United States, the European Union, and even India and Turkey.
Accordingly, Moscow maintains very little political leverage over African states, despite a strategic pivot back to the African continent in recent years – particularly following the inaugural Africa-Russia Summit in 2019. In sum, Moscow is still largely attempting to catch up with other global powers that capitalized on its disengagement from Africa throughout much of the 1990s and 2000s. The only major exception, however, is the arms trade, where Russia has remained either a top or leading exporter.
Despite this limited economic investment, Moscow is nonetheless seen as having achieved an outsized degree of political influence in a handful of African states, building upon its relatively frugal investments. This may be explained by longstanding historical ties, or, more likely, by the shared worldviews of African states, which see their marginal place in the international system as a consequence of its unjust, unfair and unrepresentative structure. Against this backdrop, Moscow plays on these deep-seated grievances, framing its partnership with the continent as an attractive alternative to the West, which remains burdened by a history of abuse and exploitation in its engagements with Africa.
What it could be: Shared historical links
Longstanding historical and interpersonal ties between Soviet-era officials and former liberation struggle stalwarts in Africa are one important factor for understanding contemporary relations between Russia and African states. Many African leaders currently in power received considerable material and financial support from the former Soviet Union, including military training, arms and education (often centred around trainings in the Marxist-Leninist school of thought). Extensive Soviet support for African liberation movements ranged from the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa to the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) in Namibia, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the Liberation Front of Mozambique (FRELIMO), among others.
This shared history has been wholly claimed by Russia (to the exclusion of other former Soviet Socialist Republics), given its position as the official legal successor to the Soviet Union. Consequently, the modern Russian state and the former Soviet Union continue to be viewed in fairly analogous terms across Africa, despite glaring substantive differences that are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. As Moscow has more recently sought to rekindle these old ties, it has specifically honed in on these deep, historical, ideological and emotive relationships that were defined through a common struggle against the ongoing abuses of colonial and imperial powers across the world. This has afforded Moscow a particularly privileged position, in contrast to many of the continent’s Western partners.
What it is: Shared worldviews of African states
ISS research suggests that one of the main reasons for Africa’s ambiguous response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not so much the engagements or relations of African states with Russia. Instead, it is due to the frustrations of African states and growing disillusionment with the nature of the current global order. Whereas Germany’s “Zeitenwende” seeks to develop a response to a significant turning point in the international system based on the brazenness with which global laws and norms have been violated, for many African states, on the other hand, this invasion simply parallels many other instances in which the international rules-based order was disregarded by a major power – in pursuit of their own narrow interests. Accordingly, the Russian invasion of Ukraine does not represent any significant deviation from the standard behaviour of any major power, let alone an “epochal change”.
The ongoing conflict has simply reinforced the need for the meaningful reform of an international system that has consistently failed the African continent, namely by failing to constrain the aggression and abuses of power by dominant states, and to address the continent’s persistent marginalisation in world affairs. Of course, not all 54 African states share such a dim view of the international system, but the broad contours of a shared worldview can indeed be found based on common historical experiences in overcoming colonialism, and the hard lessons learnt during the Cold War. Accordingly, the divided response across the continent’s 54 states is not so much an indictment of their commitment (or lack thereof) to a rules-based global order, but rather a sign of growing mistrust in a flawed system that does not treat all conflicts or countries equally.
What it means for Germany’s Africa Policy
Germany and other Western partners’ engagement with African countries needs to be grounded in a realistic and pragmatic framework that clearly acknowledges the divergent worldviews of African states. Although the “Zeitenwende” may carry a lot of weight in Germany, and across Europe, this framing of the international system’s future does not align with contemporary international relations of African states. Accordingly, German policymakers should seek to broaden and nuance their conception of a “Zeitenwende” by attempting to understand the utility of this term from a “Southern” perspective – beyond the conceptual or policy confines of the immediate European security environment. In doing so, policymakers could better recognise that the foreign policy perspectives of many African states are primarily informed by their continued marginal position in an international system that is perceived as flawed, inequitable and unjust. In the absence of major changes, African states will remain naturally poised as revisionist actors on the world stage, pushing them into a closer orbit with other states in the Global South, as was recently illustrated by the expansion of the BRICS group. This could result in a greater pursuit of a more multipolar international order at the expense of the liberal normative bedrock underpinning the current system.
Priyal Singh is Senior Researcher for Africa in the World at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria, South Africa.
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