How African Neutrality on Ukraine War Is Counter-Productive

cc State Duma of Russian Federation, modified,,_20_March_2023.jpg

From the very beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a major disconnect has emerged between, on the one hand, the developed, largely culturally Western countries, which immediately condemned Russia’s aggression, and, on the other hand, a multitude of sovereign states, belonging to what has been dubbed as the “new continent” of the Global South grouping, which tended to avoid taking a categorical stance for or against Russia’s “special military operation.” On 2 March 2022, at an emergency session of the UN General Assembly, a resolution demanding that Russia promptly leave the territory of Ukraine and refrain from any further offensive actions was adopted, though 35 countries, including China, India, and 17 sovereign states in Africa abstained while 5 (Russia, Belarus, Syria, North Korea, and Eritrea) voted against. Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs, has spoken of the necessity to counter Russian narratives in Latin America, Africa, and most of Asia, with the lack of overt alignment with the Western views demonstrated by many of the countries comprising the Global South also being frustrating for European and American policy-makers, in part due to these states’ unwillingness to join the sanctions imposed on the Kremlin regime.

Firstly, if we are to focus exclusively on African countries, no matter the nature of the settlement that will eventually result in a definitive end to the hostilities currently taking place on Ukrainian soil, the emphasis on neutrality or maintaining equidistance from both Russia and Ukraine may compromise their future ability to project and yield “soft power,” which is a resource that remains uncultivated in Africa. Some of the potentially negative effects for the citizens of certain African countries may turn out to be more visible or easier to measure. In June 2023, Ville Tavio, the recently appointed Finnish Minister for Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade, stated that Finland may refuse to provide development aid to governments and countries that are supportive of Russia’s war in Ukraine. In this regard, the perception that the elites (and by extension the general public) in a number of African states are reading from Putin’s script when it comes to the war in Ukraine may also arguably contribute to hardening of anti-immigrant and anti-refugee attitudes in other Nordic countries like Denmark and Sweden where sympathizers of right-wing parties, in the past frequently willing to endorse politicians with a rhetoric similar to that of Putin, have become, like their counterparts in other European countries, more lukewarm toward the Russian leader. The narratives pertaining to the threats posed by immigrants have in recent years been gaining traction in Scandinavia, with center-left parties notably starting to align with the political right on the topic of migration. Assuming that even more restrictive policies regarding immigration from African countries will begin to take shape in the Nordic states, the former may have to contend with negative economic fallouts. The money that is sent by migrants to their home countries represent vital financial resources from the standpoint of developing countries and remittances are proven to generally have a positive impact on economic growth.

Secondly, despite reaching out to and attempting to portray itself as a friend and anti-colonial ally of the African continent, Putin’s regime itself has shown no compunction about meddling in the internal affairs of the sovereign states in Africa, successfully utilizing the elite co-option model. The Wagner Group, a (formerly) Russian-backed private military company, has played a prominent role when it comes to such developments, especially in its testing ground in the Central African Republic (CAR), but the group has also been subjected to accusations of undermining the sovereignty of countries such as Mali and Libya. Given the Wagner-Kremlin decoupling following the June 2023 rebellion in Russia and the two main Wagner leaders perishing in the August 2023 Tver plane crash, it is likely that the mercenary group will abandon all of its engagements in Europe and fully shift its focus on operations in Africa, posing further challenges to the security and stability of African states.

Furthermore, if the ultimate outcome of the war is widely perceived to correspond closely to Russia’s maximalist aims, which have been continuously evolving throughout the course of the military campaign, but possibly entail retaining effective control over most of the Ukrainian territories conquered during the first half of 2022, there are strong reasons to assume that the long-term implications for many African states will be detrimental.

In fact, even a limited Russian victory that sees Ukraine unable to fully reclaim its internationally recognized orders will leave at least part of the international community with the impression that a profound reshaping of the international security order is a justifiable price to pay for the sake of not unduly provoking a powerful aggressor country. African countries will likely be encouraged to increase their military expenditures, which may be at the cost of economic growth, if the fundamental principle of the international system, which entails respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, suddenly starts to be regarded as negotiable by rogue regimes. From a historical standpoint, the weakening of sovereignty norms has resulted in the ushering in of periods of intense warfare between states. The sovereignty of the African states that emerged in the postcolonial period rests on their recognition by the UN and other states while the actual effectiveness of governance (which remains an acute problem in many African states) does not enter into the equation. Thus, international legal sovereignty has been described as an invaluable resource, especially to the weak African states, allowing them to persevere in maintaining their independence in a sometimes hostile international environment. As affirmed by Martin Kimani, Kenya’s ambassador to the UN, shortly before the start of the invasion, African countries settled for the borders they inherited on gaining independence not because they regarded them as corresponding neatly to ethnic or cultural lines, but in order to escape a cycle of never-ending conflicts. Putin, by using the situation in the Donbass prior to 2022 as an excuse to contest the viability and legitimacy of Ukraine as an independent country, might be dangerously close to entrenching the very opposite norm – that it is acceptable for a country’s full sovereignty to be compromised if it is unable to exert sufficient control over certain parts of its territory.

As a rule, the African states that have succeeded in maximizing their economic potential and managed to achieve a level of technological sophistication somewhat comparable to those of the developed countries from Europe and North America have been rather small and thus incapable of exerting significant influence beyond their borders. A vulnerability of African countries vis-à-vis their neighbors is thus potentially a feature of the geopolitical landscape even for regional powers in Africa such as Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa. All of these countries have a long way to go in terms of reaching a stage where they are on the cusp of superpower status, which coupled with them lacking the luxury of nuclear deterrence at their disposal, means that they remain exposed to actions by neighboring states that could threaten their sovereignty. One example illustrating that the categories of “large” and “small” states are somewhat relative in Africa pertains to how the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a potential powerhouse on the continent, is often susceptible to border incursions from the much smaller neighboring country of Rwanda, with the latter’s active support for the predominantly Tutsi March 23 Movement, frequently appraised to be a violation of the former’s sovereignty. DRC was also a major player in a devastating war, involving multiple African states and dubbed as Africa’s World War, which only ended 20 years ago.

One of the recipes against protracted inter-state conflicts is the existence of a deeply ingrained norm of respect for sovereignty. Another one is the credible threat of the deployment of a multinational force for the purpose of defending a country that has been attacked and/or safeguarding regional stability. In addition to shunning the notion that national sovereignty is intrinsically important, Russia also appears willing to discredit the role of collective security mechanisms if its narrow national interests appear to be threatened. During the ongoing Nigerien crisis, the Russian government has opposed the efforts of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to restore regional peace by sending a standby force to Niger, attaching a higher priority to a Russian-friendly regime gaining a foothold on power in the West African country.

While African countries should of course have the right to engage in the type of diplomacy they believe is the most conducive to securing their national interests, from the perspective of the newly consolidated West, their insistence on sitting on the fence is akin to a silent approval of the Russian war. Even though it is probably tempting to view the marching in lockstep with Russia and its “military solution” to the Ukrainian crisis as a way to assert opposition to Western neo-colonialism in Africa, it needs to be acknowledged that if Putin’s war succeeds in undermining the rules-based international order, both the short- and long-term consequences for many African states will be unlikely to be to their benefit, especially if national security considerations are taken into account.

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