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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Russia and the U.S. are diplomatically facing off in Africa this week, with top envoys from both countries trying to influence an African audience that is keen to take financial backing, but not at all as keen to take sides on Ukraine.
While in Egypt, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, conscious that the war in Ukraine has led to critical grain shortages in Africa, claimed that the Kremlin should not be blamed for invading Ukraine: “Western and Ukrainian propaganda that accuses Russia of allegedly ‘exporting hunger’ is completely groundless,” Lavrov wrote in a letter published in African papers.
The State Department appeared to hit back, with spokesperson Ned Price saying: “Russia should be condemned for its actions,… exacerbating and perpetuating the global food crisis. It is becoming clear that Russia is recognizing that its own actions have caused it to become a pariah.”
African countries have largely steered clear of taking sides over the war in Ukraine, with 17 nations abstaining rather than condemning Russia for its ‘aggression’ at a U.N. General Assembly vote to criticize Russia. Many import Russian grain and arms, with some utilizing Russia’s shadowy Wagner Group mercenaries to settle unsavory scores.
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However, many African countries are wary of losing Western aid and trade ties should they go all in with the Kremlin. Ukrainian grain, when it is available, is also shipped to the continent. Egypt imports over 96% of its grain – principally from Russia, but historically 24% of it coming from Ukraine.
African states are “being wooed simultaneously by the Russians, the U.S. and the French, with President Emmanuel Macron also visiting three countries in Africa,” Steven Gruzd, the head of the Russia-Africa Program at the South African Institute of International Affairs, told Fox News Digital. “Africa’s leaders must realize that they might be used as props in the grand geopolitical theater being led by these big powers.”
“They need to be very clear about the risks and rewards of these meetings”, added Gruzd. “Most do not want to have to choose between Russia and the West, and will try to maintain relationships with both sides. This is definitely a Russian move to show they are not isolated, and what better way to do it than Minister Lavrov smiling and shaking hands with African presidents and foreign ministers?”
Russia is rolling out a strategic plan in Africa, Rebekah Koffler, former intelligence officer in Russian doctrine and strategy for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), told Fox News Digital: “Since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war, Putin’s objectives have been to build alternative trade and commerce relationships in light of the economic sanctions levied by the West on Russia.”
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The Kremlin is also providing energy to Africa. This week, work started on a massive new Russian-backed nuclear power station in Egypt, and there are plans for several more across the continent.
While no similar offers this week from the U.S., the Biden administration has sent in Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Mike Hammer to talk about a hydroelectric project, while the State Department Hammer says he will also address “efforts to advance peace talks between the Ethiopian Government and Tigrayan authorities.”
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Meanwhile, Lavrov this week also met with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Analysts say Uganda has turned from the West because Russia does not criticize the East African nation over its record on human rights and democratic principles. In an apparent Twitter love fest, Museveni’s son Muhoozi Kainerugaba tweeted: “The majority of mankind [that are non-white] support Russia’s stand in Ukraine. Putin is absolutely right!”
With Uganda evidently pro-Russian in outlook, analysts say U.S. Representative to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield may have a challenging time when she touches down in Uganda next week, especially when the State Department says she will bring up “the U.S. and global response to the impact of Russia’s war against Ukraine on global food security”.
It is a good week for motorcade watchers in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Both Lavrov and Hammer are headed there; both of them aiming at trying to influence the continent’s diplomats based at the city’s African Union headquarters.
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Russia appears to have the head start, although perhaps at an unofficial level, with African ambassadors invited to meet with Lavrov Wednesday, reportedly off the African Union campus. Western donors are said by one source to be unhappy about diplomats meeting with the Russian as they believe it would show a shift towards the Kremlin.
Envoy Hammer is reportedly hoping to be allowed into the African Union building, with the State Department saying he will consult with the organization.
Gruzd concluded that this diplomatic jockeying risks casting African countries “as pawns in a grand chess game.”