President Vladimir V. Putin presents himself as the leader of a global movement that stands against the domination of the United States and its allies. On Sunday, his top diplomat was bringing that message directly to Africa, hoping to turn hunger and social strife across the continent to Russia’s advantage.
Sergei V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, made it clear that he would use the trip to try to blame the West for food shortages in African countries and paint Russia as the staunch ally from the continent.
“We know that African colleagues do not approve of the undisguised attempts of the United States and its European satellites to gain the upper hand and impose a unipolar world order on the international community,” Lavrov wrote in an article. published in newspapers. in the four countries he will visit: Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Republic of Congo.
Governments in Africa and the Middle East have been caught between Russia and the West since the start of the Ukraine War, facing Western pressure to express disapproval of the invasion while seeking to maintain the access to Russian grain and other exports.
Western allies have made a concerted effort to prevent them from getting too close to Russia, using diplomatic pressure to persuade several Arab countries, including Egypt, to vote in favor of a United Nations resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine in March. (While the Republic of the Congo voted in favour, Uganda abstained and Ethiopia did not participate.)
Ahead of Lavrov’s visit, Western diplomats in Cairo pressured Egypt behind the scenes not to give the Russian minister too warm a welcome.
US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Mike Hammer, is also due to visit the region on Sunday, traveling to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Ethiopia for talks.
But Western attempts at counter-programming, including editorials and social media posts, have done little to attract more public support in the Middle East. Russian disinformation and propaganda have found fertile ground in a region where many Arabs have long harbored anti-American and anti-Western sentiment stemming from the US invasion of Iraq and Western support for Israel.
For months, the United States, Britain and the European Union have strongly condemned Russia for cutting off the flow of Ukrainian grain to the world via the Black Sea, blaming global food shortages on the feet of Mr Putin.
On Friday, Russia agreed to a UN-brokered deal with Turkey that would allow Ukraine to export its grain, underscoring Putin’s apparent concern for public opinion in the developing world. The next morning, however, Russian missiles hit the port of Odessa, raising questions about Moscow’s intention to honor the deal.
In an interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, said her country would “do everything to accomplish and fulfill its part of the deal.” and “feeding the world”.
But she said the strikes in Odessa showed Russia was not acting in good faith.
“Our farmers plant and harvest even under fire,” Ms Markarova said.
Public opinion in African countries seemed to swing between support for Ukraine and sympathy with Russia’s justification for its invasion.
While few African leaders have publicly backed Russia, no African country has signed on to US and European sanctions against Moscow.
This balancing act was evident last month when the head of the African Union, President Macky Sall of Senegal, met with Mr. Putin. Mr Sall pleaded with Mr Putin to release Ukrainian grain but he also echoed Moscow’s argument that Western sanctions had worsened the food crisis, explicitly calling for the lifting of restrictions on Russian wheat and fertilizer exports.
Although the sanctions don’t actually cover these products, shipping lines, insurers, banks and other companies have been reluctant to do business with Russia for fear of breaking the rules or damaging their reputations.
In his article, Lavrov praised African leaders for resisting Western pressure to join sanctions against Russia. “Such an independent path deserves deep respect,” he wrote.
For Mr Putin, the idea that Russia is leading a global uprising against Western hegemony emerged as the core of his message to world public opinion in the midst of the war. He repeatedly described the population of the United States and its allies as a “golden billion” who live well at the expense of everyone else.
“Why should this golden billion, which represents only a part of the world’s population, dominate everyone and enforce its rules of conduct based on the illusion of exceptionalism?” he said Wednesday at a forum in Moscow. “He mainly got where he is by stealing from other peoples in Asia and Africa.”
But Mr Putin’s message was complicated by the fact that Ukraine has not been able to export its grain by sea since the start of the war, and that Russian officials have not been shy about use the threat of famine in developing countries as bargaining chips. .
Murithi Mutiga, director of the International Crisis Group’s Africa program, said Russia had several advantages as it sought to win hearts and minds on the continent: a network of elites who studied in the Soviet Union, the “enduring loyalty” of the groups it supported in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and the fact that it supplied arms to many African governments.
“Moscow will be disappointed, however, if it expects more African governments to give it full support,” Mutiga said. “The dominant instinct of the mainland authorities is to remain non-aligned and to stay out of the confrontation between Russia and the West.”