Since the start of the Ukraine war, there have been numerous diplomatic visits by Russian officials to Africa and Latin America aiming at boosting Russia’s global influence.
In 2023 Russian officials visited Angola, Burundi, Eritrea, Eswatini, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, South Africa and Sudan.
In the same year, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov toured some areas of Latin America visiting Brazil, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. The objective was to deepen ties and increase the support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.
As the Ukrainian war goes on, some observers have noted that Russia is trying to gather influential support for its position in the war. Its claims to be fighting against the west’s power and neo-colonialism appear to have won some supporters. Ukraine’s attempts to win allies in the same regions by arguing that it is fighting off an empire don’t appear to have resonated so well.
Some observers argue that we are witnessing the “return of the global Russia” through economic and political influence, and through its use of digital disinformation techniques to distribute narratives. In the 2010s, the expansion of Russia’s influence in Africa was the result of economic “opportunism”, but during the Ukraine war, it has become more strategic.
There is evidence that in some African countries the influence of Russia continues to intensify. South Africa, for instance, seems to be moving away from the west and steering towards China’s and Russia’s orbit.
But this could partly be because a challenge to the current liberal order is likely to be beneficial for the global south, giving it more power to negotiate in the international arena and achieve some of its policy targets.
This was hinted at the recent Brics conference meeting of senior leaders from Russia, China, Brazil, India and South Africa. The leaders of these expanding economies are therefore hesitant to fully condemn Russia for its actions in Ukraine.
At the summit, Brazil’s president Lula da Silva said the Ukraine war “showed the limitations of the UN security council”, and pointed to the economic power of the Brics allies as a symbol of its global relevance. The recent decision to integrate six new countries (including Argentina, Iran and UAE) into the bloc will increase that relevance and could enable its members to influence the current world order.
Value of nostalgia
Two interrelated factors can help us understand Russia’s attractiveness to the global south, and reluctance to fully support Ukraine. First, Russia frames itself as an “anti-colonial” agent, particularly in Africa. Such a strategy is based on “memory diplomacy”, aimed at increasing its influence overseas by taking advantage of shared positive memories.
Memory diplomacy, for instance, invokes Russia’s contribution to the victory against fascism during the second world war. In addition, it points out that Russia has never colonised an African country and that it did not participate in the slave trade.
On the contrary, the argument goes, Russia, as the centre of the Soviet Union, supported different anti-colonial struggles in the region during the cold war, for example, in Angola and Mozambique. Another factor in understanding Russia’s appeal to the global south is the “legacy” of Moscow’s solidarity with various countries in the past.
In 1927, the Communist International, an international organisation supportive of world communism that was led by the Soviet Union, sponsored the League Against Imperialism. The league aimed to eliminate colonial rule in the world. It brought together leading anti-colonial activists from around the world and prominent people such as Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi.
Ultimately, the league became an inspiration for many of the leaders of the global south’s decolonisation struggles. In this sense, it has left a long-term legacy in the countries where Moscow’s support had an effect on their anti-colonial struggles.
This is evident in the case of South Africa. Its position towards the war in Ukraine is arguably partly defined by a nostalgia relating to Moscow’s support for its struggle against apartheid combined with a distrust for the west’s policies.
The criticism levelled at the west in the global south by leaders such as Brazil’s Lula is that it upholds democracy at home while being willing to violate democratic principles elsewhere if the advancement of its interests makes it advantageous.
Ukraine has responded to Russia’s diplomatic actions by increasing its embassies in Africa and prioritising the global south as a foreign policy. But this “battle” front may be more difficult than it seems.
Russia continues to advance narratives, usually via its expertise in the use of digital channels, that strengthen its geopolitical influence. In addition, for the global south, Russia is perceived as a counterbalance to the west – particularly the US. And importantly, what can Ukraine offer to the global south?
Ukraine could gather further support from Brics countries by strengthening existing economic ties and pointing out shared problems caused by Russia. Building the proposed new grain hubs for storing crops, such as wheat and corn, is a good start.
This is particularly important because of Russia’s decision to withdraw permission for Ukrainian ships carrying grain to leave Black Sea ports. This is likely to cause food shortages across Africa. The Kenyan government, for instance, denounced Russia’s decision as a “stab in the back” for African countries.
Ukraine could also tap into the similarities of its national struggle and those of the global south’s anti-colonial experiences. Rather than focusing its narrative against Russia, it could begin to build shared “memories” with the global south by concentrating on the commonalities of victimhood.
What is becoming increasingly clear is that any country that attempts to challenge the image of Russia as an anti-imperialist agent, is in for a long battle. Particularly, if those countries cannot effectively appeal to their own shared positive memories.