Ukraine vows long fight to counter Russia's 'grip' on Africa

Thursday August 17 2023
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. PHOTO | AFP


Ukraine will make "long-term" efforts to deepen ties with African countries as it seeks to counter Russia's influence on the continent, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told AFP this week.

Moscow has longstanding partnerships with several African countries but stepped up efforts to cement ties on the continent since becoming isolated from the West over its invasion of Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed "new levels" of cooperation hosting more than a dozen African leaders including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at a summit in Saint Petersburg last month.

"We are starting from scratch in Africa. This continent needs systematic and long-term work," Kuleba told AFP journalists at the Foreign Ministry in Kyiv.

"It's not something that happens overnight."

Read: The new scramble for Africa


In the wide-ranging interview on Wednesday, Kuleba also pledged that Ukrainian forces will liberate all Russian-occupied territory regardless of the timeframe and pressed Western allies for sustained military assistance while brushing off concerns over their slow counteroffensive.

He compared Kyiv's push to bolster ties with governments in Africa to a diplomatic "counteroffensive" against Russian efforts.

"Our strategy is not to replace Russia but to free Africa from Russia's grip," Kuleba said, adding that Ukraine wanted to approach its diplomatic interactions in Africa with "respect and with the principal of mutual benefit."

Read: Ukraine seeks Africa’s support for Zelensky’s ‘peace plan’

'Coercion, bribery, fear'

This was in contrast to Russia's approach, Kuleba said. He told AFP that Kremlin's most powerful exports to the region were fighters from the Wagner mercenary group and "propaganda".

"Russia is trying very hard to keep countries in its orbit through coercion, bribery and fear," he said.

"Russia has two tools for its work in Africa, the most powerful ones are propaganda and Wagner."

The mercenary outfit has partnered with several African nations including Mali and the Central African Republic, leading to accusations of abuses by rights groups and Western governments. 

Read: Russia's presence in Africa: Weapons, Wagner and energy

Its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former Kremlin ally who fell afoul of the authorities after trying to topple Russia's senior military leadership, has been sanctioned by the West for what it says is the group's destructive role on the continent.

Kuleba also said that Putin's publicly voiced concerns about food security in Africa are baseless, given Moscow's exit from the Black Sea grain deal last month.

The accord was brokered last year by Turkey and the United Nations, and allowed around 33 million tonnes of grain to leave Ukrainian ports, helping to stabilise global food prices and avert shortages.

"People in Africa saw that all of Putin's stories about how he cares about African countries are lies," Kuleba said.

He described Ukrainian farmers and people in Africa depending on bread availability as the main victims of Moscow's decision to end safe passage for cargo ships to and from Ukraine's ports.

'Our goal is victory'

"Putin solves his own problems at the expense of Africans and Ukrainians," Kuleba said.

Some 18 months into the Kremlin's campaign to topple the Ukrainian government and bring the country into Moscow's fold, Kuleba reiterated that Kyiv's military will liberate all territory occupied by Russian forces.

"Our goal is victory, victory in the form of the liberation of our territories within (Ukraine's) borders of 1991. And we don't care how long it takes," he said.

Read: Time to end Russia's war, Zelensky tells G20

"As long as the Ukrainian people share this goal, the Ukrainian government will move hand in hand with its own people."

Kyiv launched a long-anticipated counteroffensive in June but has acknowledged tough battles as it struggles to break through heavily fortified Russian positions.

But Ukraine is not under pressure from its Western allies, which have provided far-reaching contributions to the military, to make faster gains, Kuleba said. 

"We're not feeling this," he said, acknowledging "an increase in the voices of commentators and experts in the public space" discussing the pace of Ukraine's gains on frontlines in the east and south of the country.

He jokingly encouraged critics of Ukraine's offensive to "go and join the foreign legion" to aid its efforts.

"It's easy to say that you want everything to be faster when you are not there."

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu this week said Ukraine's military resources were "almost exhausted", despite receiving Western arms deliveries.

His forces have been posting gains in the northeastern Kharkiv region near Russia's border, but Ukraine announced this week it had recaptured a village along the southern frontline in the industrial Donetsk region.

Kuleba said that Ukraine will still need a steady supply of Western arms and ammunition until its military has routed Russian forces from all occupied territory.

"The truth is that until we have won, we need more, we need to move forward, because war is a reality, and in this reality, we need to win. There is no other way," he said.