The war in Ukraine may seem far from Africa, but it is not

To compensate for its possible isolation by the West, Russia could turn its attention to Africa, making the continent the next center stage for imperialist struggles.

The first Russia-Africa Summit held in Sochi, Russia 2019. Credit GCIS via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0.

The war in Ukraine may seem geographically distant, but in many respects, it is geopolitically close to Africa. The most immediate and tangible effects of the war were felt by the thousands of African students who had chosen Ukraine for their studies. Ukraine is a popular destination for African students; it has been estimated that over 15,000 students from various African countries were studying in several Ukrainian cities at the time of Putin’s invasion. The popularity of Ukrainian universities among these students can be traced back to Soviet legacies in Africa. During the Cold War, tens of thousands of African military and political personnel as well as technicians and civil engineers studied in Soviet universities. At the time, the Soviet Union and its allies had been active supporters of African national liberation movements fighting against European and American imperialism and colonial armies.

A few notable names are worth mentioning here, as their political careers grew out of Soviet training: Angola’s former president José Eduardo Dos Santos; Mozambique’s former president and military leader under the Marxist Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO), Armando Guebuza; or the fourth president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, who spent three months in Soviet military training and sustained very close ties with post-Soviet Russia until his resignation in 2018 (not long before his fall, Zuma signed a memorandum of understanding with Russia’s Rosatom to build a new nuclear facility, a project which was later suspended).

Apart from this historical legacy, Ukrainian universities were regarded as relatively affordable for students, and their advanced infrastructure—itself a legacy of the Soviet past—made them appealing not only to African youth but also to many others from the Global South. The very unfortunate events that we saw unfolding on the news were about the struggles of people fleeing Ukraine—among whom Africans and other non-Ukrainians faced racist discrimination at the border of Ukraine and at Kyiv’s and other cities’ train stations. Ukrainian authorities attempted to address this embarrassing issue with some success, while African governments, particularly those of Ghana and Nigeria, condemned the racist treatment of their nationals. They also offered help in returning these innocent students to their home countries, especially since many had fled to neighboring countries before they could return home.

Another important effect of the war that Africans immediately felt is burgeoning global inflation. Even though a few African countries may benefit from a temporary commodity boom, particularly oil-producing countries such as Nigeria and Algeria, the more general effects of global food supply chain disruptions and subsequent price hikes are certainly unwelcome for the majority. Africans primarily live in agricultural societies, but the majority of consumers actually depend on food imports, particularly wheat but also processed food, fertilizers, and other agricultural inputs. Both Russia and Ukraine are among the world’s biggest grain exporters and the war is causing devastating damage to their supply system. Many African countries are particularly vulnerable in this respect; Egypt, for instance, is the world’s largest wheat importer, and 85% of its supply comes from Russia and Ukraine.

Serious disruptions in those supply chains can lead to violent political consequences; we need only remember how the Arab Spring in North Africa started in 2011 in response to uncontrollable prices for food and fuel. In fact, since the invasion, Egyptian authorities have already had to fix bread prices to avoid the escalation of social tensions. Even in countries like Nigeria, inflation in the domestic price system—from fuel to foodstuffs to services—could have serious long-term social and political consequences. Nigeria might arrive at an even bigger geopolitical crossroads as the war unfolds, as spiking oil and gas prices could easily turn the international landscape around, granting more exposure for large oil producers.

As many commentators have highlighted since the outbreak of the war, the Russian invasion has put an end to the international order as we knew it. The war itself, however, was triggered by the long-evolving demise of the post-World War II international system. Russia is not alone in its desire to change the balance of international forces, even if it comes at the expense of other nations; this is why any cooperation between Russia and China—military or economic—looks so threatening to the West. This is a period of new imperialism, with changing relations of power both internationally as well as in local contexts, fueled by fierce competition for resource extraction and the redivision of geopolitical spheres. This new imperialism is associated with a negative sum game in which nobody wins at the end—as seems to be the case with the war in Ukraine.

In the case of Africa, such new imperialism is often referred to as the “new scramble,” a reference to the classical period of imperialism in the late 19th century that led to the division of the continent by European colonial powers. Now, new powers like the BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—and smaller players like Turkey and Saudi Arabia are entering the game for the sake of resource appropriation. But while European and American corporate-military regimes have been seriously challenged in many countries, they have nevertheless mostly remained in place.

As in the late 19th century, repartition has not only been happening with maps on conference tables, but more so on battlefields where power structures are challenged and redefined directly by military and financial apparatuses. Ukraine is not the only battlefield today where great powers are testing each other’s capacities. Bloodshed occurred in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Russia has been an active powerbroker in almost all instances because of its own desire to change the international system.

Russia is not a recent entrant into the new scramble, but it reactivated its interest relatively recently with the early-2000s arrival of Vladimir Putin. This early reinstatement was rather symbolic and attempted to utilize the legacies of the Soviet past. Diplomatic relations between Russia and the West soured with the first attacks on Ukraine in 2014: the annexation of Crimea and Russian military support for East Ukrainian rebels. Russia faced a first round of Western sanctions, the ruble experienced a free fall, oil prices skyrocketed, and Russia was threatened with diplomatic isolation. Russia’s partners outside the transatlantic sphere gained more attention and prominence in its geopolitical efforts, not only to counterbalance its isolation but to gather allies for a reconfiguration of the international system. Russia and China have been working more closely together since then, and Russian diplomacy—following China’s activity in Africa—has also turned toward Africa with more vigorous offers of assistance designed in Russian-style investment packages that were and still are marketable among countries in the Global South.

One notable outcome of this business and diplomatic effort was the Russia-Africa Summit, convened by Vladimir Putin and cohosted by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the picturesque Black Sea resort of Sochi in late October 2019. Although no big project was announced in Sochi, it was a diplomatic success, as 43 heads of state or government representatives from the 54 African countries attended the event. In this and other moves, Russia has carefully avoided any interference with China’s involvement in the scramble, but it purposefully challenges Western activity in Africa and the Middle East, as in the Syrian and Libyan conflicts.

We can discern two important elements that make up Russia’s global aspirations in Africa. One is a military effort undertaken by Russia to seek some kind of a power reconfiguration in order to impose its own political alliances. This happens when there is a fragile local balance of forces that has been broken down by popular discontent or by military coups. This affects a large part of Francophone West and Central Africa, where France’s military and economic influence has been waning for a long time. (The withdrawal of French troops from the Sahel region, or the quest of West African countries to gain monetary independence from France, are illustrative examples.)

Russian paratroopers and private mercenaries backed by the Kremlin—such as the Wagner Group, led by a Putin ally from St. Petersburg nicknamed his “chef”—have already conducted extensive military operations in Mali after the military coup there, as well as in the Libyan and Central African Republic civil wars. In the last case, Russia even obtained an exemption from the UN a few years ago to sell military equipment despite the embargo. A domino effect is not entirely unlikely in the wider Sahel region including Chad, Niger, and Mauritania. But even Nigeria or Burkina Faso could potentially strengthen ties with Russia to fight back local insurgencies and exchange economic concessions. Russian companies are eager to win mining concessions, boost arms sales, and finance infrastructure projects—in short, to gain access to local resources. These efforts can be expected to intensify not only in the above-mentioned areas but elsewhere in Africa, especially if Western sanctions are forcing the Kremlin to seek alternative resources and outlets for its own trade. While old neocolonial systems are falling apart with the breakup of the international system, African countries are searching for capital and technological imports that are less dependent on those old institutional ties.

Another important element of these deals is not exclusively business related: Russia’s more general effort to reduce the effects of diplomatic isolation within the international community, particularly in the UN General Assembly. Russia needs this for its more immediate military adventures, which seem to be aimed at the restoration of Russian influence in the post-Soviet universe. For this reason, it is interesting to note that the UN General Assembly’s resolution denouncing Russian aggression in Ukraine was not signed by 25 African countries (from among the 47 absentees and those who did not participate in the vote). The popularity of Russia’s bid reveals the failure of the international and regional systems designed after World War II to effectively manage international diplomacy. Thus, despite Russia’s total isolation in the West, it has been able to successfully mobilize allies in Africa, which reflects the fact that Russia has gained some space in the scramble. On the other hand, the three non-permanent Security Council members, Gambia, Ghana and Kenya, expressed harsh critiques of Russia’s actions, instead choosing to join the old transatlantic alliance. Russia is therefore far from becoming a unifying force in Africa—in fact, it hopes to use these divisions for its own benefit.

Yet another important geopolitical purpose of Russian-designed investment packages—including debt relief, infrastructural projects funded by Russian credit, and arms sales and technological investments in fields of nuclear energy, military, and telecommunication—is related to Russia’s position in the global economy. Interestingly, due to the harsh financial sanctions it faces, Russia might need to temporarily reduce its otherwise relatively small capital investment in Africa (estimated at around 20 billion USD). But in its more traditional export areas, such as in extractive industries, Russian activity could increase. As a commodity exporter itself, Russia’s economy is not complementary to the economic structures of oil exporters in Africa but rather parallel to them. This may look as if Russian and African economies are competing in the world market, but it is far from the truth. Russia has long endeavored to gain a monopoly over European energy supply. If it had a monopoly, it would be much more difficult to impose sanctions on Russia and isolate it for what it does in its own sphere of influence.

Russian attempts to monopolize the European energy supply have been targeting the main alternative sources of energy—which, in the case of the EU, are to be found in North and West Africa. As I have mentioned above, these regions have already been turned into a kind of battlefield where Russian forces are either directly interfering with local politics, as they have in Libya after the fall of Gaddafi, or actively trying to foster concessions with state-owned national energy giants in Algeria, Egypt, and Nigeria. The key target is not only the extraction industry but also transportation infrastructure, which always needs new investments. Russian companies did gain concessions in Egypt and Algeria, and they sustained a very friendly relationship with Gaddafi before his fall. Nigeria is a little more complicated because of its own aspirations in West Africa, but we nevertheless see a long history of Soviet and Russian efforts to strengthen ties with successive Nigerian governments.

One interesting historical moment in these attempts occurred at the peak of the Cold War, after the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1960s introduced a dynamic between Western colonial powers, the Soviet Union, and China different from that we see today. In response to the Nigerian civil war also unfolding at this time, the Soviet Union actually sided with the US and UK in support of the Nigerian regime, while China and France supported the Igbo nationalist Biafran fighters. France, afraid of losing power in its colonial backyard, aimed to counteract the growing Nigerian and British-American influence in Francophone West Africa. In the meantime, China was trying to take over the role of the Soviet Union as the great ally of anti-imperialist struggles in the Global South. China’s rise to hegemony had just started at the time, leading to confrontation with the Soviet Union. With the fall of the Soviet Union and China’s growing role in the international system, the confrontation turned into a fragile and complicated cooperation in which Russia has a more subordinate role. The war in Ukraine is in part a product of this, demonstrating how dependent Russia has become on China’s support.

The situation in Nigeria today is a mirror of these civil war dynamics. Russia’s more recent efforts have targeted plans for the Trans-Saharan pipeline, which aims to connect oil infrastructure in Algeria and Nigeria, creating a significant supply channel to Europe. This pipeline is more than likely to gain significance in the scramble, creating a new area of possible contestation among the great powers as both the EU and China try to get a stake in this vital project. As with the pipeline, Russia’s Rosatom has tried to sell nuclear packages to both Nigeria and Egypt with little success. If those countries ever invest more into their industrial capacities, Russia will certainly face China’s growing presence as a major investor in the region’s infrastructure. As we can see, these struggles are nothing new. But with the demise of the international system and Russia’s desperate attempt to compensate for the isolation caused by the war, combined with its aim to extend control over the European energy supply, this new scramble could easily turn Africa into the next center stage of imperialist struggles.

Further Reading