Winning African Hearts And Minds: Why Russia Has An Edge Over The West
Russia's Foreign Minister is in South Africa for the second time in a year. In spite of the West's best efforts, Vladimir Putin's delegation is still welcomed in large parts of Africa, which still harbors colonial resentment toward Europe.
PARIS — Sergey Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Minister, has not traveled much since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But he arrived yesterday on an official visit to South Africa, his second official trip there in a year.
But it is not a coincidence: Africa is a priority for Russian diplomacy.
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The West was caught off guard when, at the United Nations last year, a large part of Africa refused to condemn the Russian aggression on Ukrainian territory. They were all the more surprised because, since the 1960s, the African continent has wisely adopted a principle recognizing the borders inherited from colonization: it wanted to avoid possible inter-state targeting, which is what Russia is trying to do in Ukraine.
Moscow has been able to capitalize on this refusal of Africa to align itself with the West.
Russian is blowing on the poorly extinguished embers of resentment towards the former colonial powers. This is currently exemplified by France's announcement to bring to an end its eight-year anti-jihadist operation in the Sahel in North Africa.
The latest addition is Burkina Faso's request for the withdrawal of French troops within a month, as Mali did previously.
Joint naval maneuvers
The case of South Africa is revealing. Even if it is going through a bad patch, it remains one of the continent's strongest powers, regularly mentioned for a permanent seat on the Security Council. It is the interlocutor of Europeans or Americans on global affairs.
They don't want to take sides because they don't feel concerned by a war between Europeans.
And yet, the ANC, the party in power, Nelson Mandela's party, has not forgotten that during the apartheid, it was the USSR, not the West, that supported it. The ANC is still grateful to Moscow, even if it is misplaced today in the midst of the Russian aggression on Ukraine.
It goes even further, since next month South Africa, with the Chinese and Russian navy, will be hosting naval maneuvers off the coast of Durban, in the Indian Ocean. A South African news site called them "obscene" because the maneuvers will coincide with the first anniversary of the start of the war.
But South Africa, like many states on the continent, is not looking at this conflict the way we do in Europe or the United States. They don't want to take sides because they don't feel concerned by a war between Europeans.
The West has not succeeded in convincing South Africa that it is a question of saving international law because their behavior in the past has been far from exemplary.
There is a boomerang effect originating from a history of interference. Because South Africa is a democracy, there is a debate, and the parliamentary opposition is denouncing the "moral fault" of what it labels as alignment with Russia. Yet it was unable to prevent the government from rolling out the red carpet for Vladimir Putin's envoy.
We are not done analyzing why, from South Africa to Mali, African states extend a welcome to Russia despite the war in Ukraine.
Massive disinformation does not explain everything. It is not enough to understand why the West is becoming irrelevant in an increasingly important part of the world.
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