Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says his current visit to Africa is not about Ukraine. He argues that the trip is driven by Africa’s intrinsic value as a partner to Russia. While this message is tailored to African sensibilities, it does not mask the main purpose of his visit: political theater – the image the trip gives to the world beyond Africa. Despite Western attempts to isolate Russia in its all-out war against Ukraine, Lavrov is using Africa to demonstrate that his country still has partners in certain parts of the globe.
The second objective of the trip is to expand Russia’s influence in Africa. Lavrov hopes to achieve this by exploiting the strategic mistake made by the West in asking African countries to choose a side against Ukraine.
This mistake has its roots in the West’s push for African countries to vote in favor of a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia for the war. Western diplomats tried to convince their African counterparts that the conflict symbolized an attack not only on Ukraine, but also on the rules-based global order. The West assumed that expanding the consequences of war to encompass a threat to world order would create common ground with Africa. But African leaders heard something different: the first shot of the new Cold War. Choosing a side in this Cold War is a much bigger decision for African countries than condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine – a decision the West had failed to do the groundwork to match demand. .
The West’s subsequent use of multilateral forums to isolate Russia reinforced the view among African leaders that the Cold War was back. As a result, with each new Western move to punish Russia, African support for the West has grown more lukewarm. This merges into a new, albeit still nascent, African doctrine of non-alignment.
The top priority for African countries is to maximize their options in relations with foreign powers. Their non-alignment should be seen as an attempt to avoid a world order in which Africa is forced to depend on one big power bloc. Africa’s goal is to minimize its vulnerability and preserve its ability to seize opportunities.
The proliferation of global crises such as the pandemic and the climate emergency has hit African countries the hardest. They are less resilient than the developed world. Unlike countries in the developed world, African nations generally do not have the ability to accumulate national debt or create stimulus packages to fight crises. Although African countries are striving to increase their self-sufficiency for future crises, they remain deeply dependent on international assistance to deal with such onslaughts.
In terms of opportunities, economic development is paramount for African leaders. African countries are increasingly attracting the attention of foreign partners with their abundant natural resources and rapidly growing markets. But, for now, they’re generally in a weaker position than their partners — meaning they struggle to reach mutually beneficial deals. This is reflected in the fact that African states are often forced to sell commodities rather than secure foreign investment to manufacture higher value products with them – and grant access to their consumer markets. soon to be lucrative without receiving technology transfers in exchange. .
If African states are to gain the leverage they need to change this dynamic, they will need to maximize the number and quality of their international partnerships. The idea is to have as many friends as possible in times of global crisis – and to encourage competition between their partners to strengthen their economic bargaining position.
Consequently, African leaders fear that the new Cold War will force them to limit their international partnerships. They fear that the West’s growing campaign against Russia in multilateral forums will culminate in a demand that they cut all ties with Moscow. More importantly, African leaders fear it will set a dangerous precedent. If the international order became even more divided, the West could ask them to do the same with China, a move that would be far more damaging.
All of this explains why the West’s demand created a strategic opening for Russia. Moscow simply needs to play on the willingness of African states to maintain relations with all international partners to achieve two goals: to undermine the West’s attempt to isolate Russia and to increase Russian influence in Africa. Essentially, the message from Russian diplomats to Africa is that while the West wants you to limit your options, we won’t ask you to pick a side.
By making new partnership offers to African countries, Russia is setting a trap for the West. Moscow hopes Western leaders will pressure their African counterparts to reject the offers. This would backfire and even strengthen Russia’s position in Africa. This is because the position of African states on non-alignment is hardening to the point that any such request to avoid an international partnership would meet with rejection in principle. And, in a dynamic where the West’s loss is Russia’s gain, any Western demand for alignment now has an air of Russian exclusion. African leaders will interpret an effort to align themselves with the West on any given issue – however minor – as a step toward partisanship in the new Cold War. The cynical truth is that Russia achieved this effect simply by making offers to African countries without needing to honor them. The West must circumvent this trap by focusing on being the best partner. Rather than forcing Africa to limit its options, the West should be Africa’s first and best option.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take a collective position. ECFR publications represent the views of their individual authors only.