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In Africa, Eastern Europe battles Russian narrative on Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, meets with Macky Sall, Senegal's president and the chair of the African Union, in Sochi, Russia, on June 3. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images)
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With fears growing of a severe food crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine, Kyiv and its Eastern European allies are opening a new front in their battle to build diplomatic alliances against the Kremlin: African nations, many of which depend on grain and fertilizer from Ukraine and Russia to feed their citizens.

The effort is a measure of how Russia’s war in Ukraine is shaping alliances far from the battlefield. The Kremlin has deep ties to many African nations dating back to the Soviet era, and has acted to utilize them in the current crisis, welcoming leaders from the continent to Russia and expanding its own propaganda efforts among local populations.

Central and Eastern European countries shared those ties until the collapse of Communism, but they have spent decades wiring themselves into Western institutions, to the neglect of relations with Africa.

In recent weeks, however, leaders of those countries have been knocking on doors in Africa. Polish President Andrzej Duda traveled to Cairo, the first such trip by a Polish head of state in 30 years. So did Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, the first bilateral visit by a senior official from his country in memory. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke Monday to a gathering of African Union leaders, declared his plan to create a special Ukrainian envoy for Africa and said he would soon send his foreign minister on a tour across the continent.

“What Russia is doing in Ukraine is a 21st-century colonial war, like it or not,” said Rinkevics, who said he is hoping to find time to travel to several sub-Saharan African countries in the coming months. “This is something we will keep pushing … This is part of a battle of narratives.”

The sudden rush of activity is motivated both by humanitarian reasons and political necessity. Many citizens of African nations could soon go hungry because Ukraine’s grain and fertilizer exports are blockaded. Russia, meanwhile, has offered solutions: its own grain and fertilizer, plus some of Ukraine’s, which it has taken from territory it has captured during the four-month-long war.

Russians “need this crisis. They are deliberately exacerbating it. Because they are trying to use you and the suffering of the people to put pressure on the democracies that have imposed sanctions on Russia,” Zelensky told African leaders on Monday by video link, declaring that the continent had been “taken hostage” by Russia during the conflict.

Russia targeted Ukrainian ammunition to weaken Kyiv on the battlefield

The Kremlin has been successful in convincing some African nations otherwise, pinning responsibility for the war on Western efforts to expand NATO to Ukraine, and saying that the food crisis is the consequence of sanctions against Russia, not the invasion and the Kremlin’s blockade of Ukrainian ports.

Now some African leaders are calling for an end to them.

“The situation was bad and now it has become worse, creating a threat to food security in Africa,” said Senegalese President Macky Sall, who is also the chairman of the African Union, alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Russian resort city of Sochi this month.

He called for sanctions to be lifted on “food products, especially grain and fertilizer.”

E.U. officials have said that their financial sanctions against Russia aren’t intended to create a food crisis in Africa, and have said that they want to talk more to African leaders about how to address the issue. E.U. foreign ministers this week promised extra financial support for Egypt as they met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Luxembourg.

Senior Russian officials have leaned into the crisis, saying food shortages will lead to a change in the West’s approach to Russia.

“A cynical joke, or even a slogan, has been circulating lately in Moscow,” said one of the Kremlin’s top propagandists, Margarita Simonyan.

“Hunger is our last hope. What does this mean? This means that once hunger sets in, this will bring them to their senses. This is when they will lift sanctions and will be friends with us because they will understand that there is no way around it,” she said. “Achieving this through hunger is not something we want, but still …”

African leaders’ response to the war has been mixed. About half of Africa’s 54 countries withheld support for a United Nations resolution in March that condemned Russia’s invasion.

“I don’t justify in any way entry by military into Ukraine, but at the same time I understand what’s of concern to the Russians,” said Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian foreign minister who is the outgoing dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo. “These are policies that both the Russians and the Americans have been pursuing for the last 70 years.”

Egypt supported the U.N. resolution that condemned the invasion. But Egyptian leaders are in a difficult position, he said.

“Our problem is, among the two conflicting parties, directly and indirectly, we are friends of all of them and need all of them,” he said. “If anyone was to think we were going to take sides, it’s very naive. We simply cannot afford to take sides, nor would we want to. We face strong economic pressures that are a result of the conflict.”

Some of the African response is shaped by the legacy of empire and colonialism. Ukraine’s biggest European backers are former colonial powers. Russia has had success in portraying the conflict as a response to a Western, imperialist effort to pull Ukraine into its orbit and away from Moscow. Even if that narrative isn’t guided by the facts, Western European leaders sometimes don’t have the credibility in Africa to challenge it effectively.

Eastern Europeans don’t have the same burden. Soviet leaders forcibly incorporated many of their nations into the Kremlin’s sphere, and their experience of shaking off the bonds of empire is similar to African independence efforts in the 1960s and 1970s.

“In the Middle East and in Africa, Central and Eastern Europeans are seen as a different type of European. We went through the same processes. We fought for our own independence. We can use these areas to be heard in our communication with those countries,” said Jedrzej Czerep, head of the Middle East and Africa program at the Polish Institute of International Affairs.

Deep into the current conflict, Central and Eastern European policymakers are realistic about their ability to sway public opinion in Africa, and there is little desire to ask African leaders to take steps that would jeopardize the food security of their citizens. Instead, diplomacy is focused on trying to find alternative food and fertilizer sources, as well as basic economic support.

Egypt is a particular focus, since it is among the hardest hit by the food crisis and also has oil and gas supplies that Europe desperately needs as it tries to wean off Russian fossil fuels. Russia and Ukraine were also major sources of tourism for Egypt — at least before Visa and Mastercard cut off Russian credit cards and Ukrainians stopped traveling because they were too busy defending their homeland.

“This is a fine balance we are seeking, and this is a very fine dance we’re dancing, but if Egypt is willing to provide more oil and gas and willing to explore options to get it into Europe, they are important,” Rinkevics, the Latvian foreign minister who met with top Egyptian officials in Cairo last week, said in an interview.

It was his first visit to Cairo to meet with Egyptian leaders in his decade in office, he said, and he couldn’t recall the last time one of his predecessors had made the trip. Latvia’s diplomatic presence in Egypt is tiny: just four people, including the ambassador, work out of a cramped office that serves as the embassy. Now, though, Eastern European affairs are at the top of Cairo’s agenda, and Rinkevics was whisked into a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.

“President Sissi read his file very carefully,” Rinkevics said. “The first question of the president was, ‘What’s your assessment of the war, and when is it going to end?’ They are really interested.”

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