Russia/Ukraine: How the war drums in Europe will echo in Africa

By Patrick Smith
Posted on Tuesday, 22 February 2022 18:14, updated on Tuesday, 8 March 2022 15:50

Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi
Russia's President Vladimir Putin waves during a family photo with heads of countries taking part in the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit at the Sirius Park of Science and Art in Sochi, Russia, October 24, 2019. Sergei Chirikov/Pool via REUTERS

The longest shadow over Africa’s disappointing summit with the European Union on 17-18 February was cast by the war drums – this time on Europe’s eastern flank. Russia’s despatch of troops into Ukraine’s eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, after formally recognising their independence on 21 February, further ratchets up the crisis and its capacity to disrupt the global system.

It will reverberate across Africa’s economies and political systems. Some countries will face tricky diplomatic trade-offs, some will strive to stay neutral while energy and mineral exporters could cash on a price boom.

The long brewing crisis in Ukraine marks another triumph of geopolitics over globalisation. It is both a replay of a 19th century theme and a precursor to a multi-polar world order.

The playbook runs like this: a strong and resource-rich state, nursing historic grievances against western Europe and the US, wants to regain its great power status. It jealously guards its control over its land and maritime borders, arguing these are crucial to its security. It regards its “near abroad” as its sphere of influence.

On the main stage, it applies to Russia and China but in very different ways. China has regained its great power status. It is the second biggest economy in the world, by some measures the biggest. But it seeks the diplomatic and geopolitical heft to counter US hegemony in the world system.

Russia, is the eleventh biggest economy, behind Italy and South Korea. But it is the third biggest oil producer in the world and has one of the most sophisticated high-tech military industrial complexes.

Gains and losses for Africa in the geopolitical turmoil

Some governments see a return to the Cold War when canny African diplomats could play off Washington against Moscow.

Beijing’s emergence as a dominant economic power wielding geopolitical influence modifies that calculus if it lines up closely with Moscow.

This week’s debates at the UN Security Council will show the battle lines. From their statements, it seems probable that Gabon, Ghana and Kenya, the three African non-permanent members, will back resolutions critical of Russia.

They are set to follow UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s swift condemnation of Moscow’s dispatch of troops into Eastern Ukraine.

Several of Africa’s biggest economies – such as South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Libya, and Angola – are building trade with Russia. The new crop of military regimes – Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso and Sudan – are strengthening their ties with Moscow.

African financial institutions such as Afreximbank have close relations with Russian banks which face immediate pressure from European governments.

South Africa faces some tough choices. It sees its membership of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) as a vital counter to Western hegemony. But it also values its membership of the G20 where it effectively represents the entire African continent.

Under Jacob Zuma’s presidency, South Africa did not condemn Russia’s invasion of Crimea. It privileged its close ties with Russia, born during the ANC’s time as a liberation movement, against the risks of eroding its credibility as an advocate of territorial integrity and the rights of smaller states.

Cyril Ramaphosa’s accession to the presidency hasn’t much changed South Africa’s position. It says it wants to stay neutral between Russia and Ukraine, issuing no statements on the crisis nor sending any fact-finding missions to the region.

Pretoria, however, upholds the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states and, like the AU, the backs the inviolability of borders.

  • It fiercely opposed NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011 which it blamed for destabilising the country and the wider Sahel. That put it on the side of Russia.
  • Pretoria also abstained on the UN General Assembly resolution on Ukraine and Crimea in March 2014 as did all its BRICS partners.

From the economic fall-out, more uncertainty and volatility

The most direct effects on Africa, including South Africa, of the escalating crisis in Ukraine will be economic, the uncertainties and volatility hitting countries recovering from two years of the pandemic.

A European war will hit the commodity markets – slowing economic activity, hindering trade and raising prices as supplies tighten.

Most immediately threatening would be a tightening of supplies of wheat to countries such as Egupt and Libya. Ukraine and Russia together supply almost 30% of the world’s wheat.

Rocketing bread prices are likely to follow any supply shortfall. In the past bread shortages have sparked unrest and revolution in North Africa.

Russia is likely to weaponise its commodity trades in response to sanctions. The West’s stand off with Russia will limit its access to copper, palladium, aluminium/bauxite and nickel – all minerals and metals in plentiful supply in Africa

The biggest short-term opportunities in Africa will be for those economies exporting oil and gas. Their revenues will surge, with oil prices already at over $90 a barrel. But it will be a cruel blow for oil importing countries.

It may force Western governments to abandon their stance on blocking finance for fossil fuel developments in Africa in the name of a green energy transition.

As the crisis forces Europe, which buys 40% of its gas from Russia to diversify its supplies, it will turn to Africa and the Middle East. The question then will be who has the most gas available in the shortest time. In the very short-term, the big winners will be Saudi Arabia’s oil and Qatar’s gas.

Plans for green transitions will be another casualty of the conflict warned US climate envoy John Kerry en route to Egypt this week for talks about the COP27 climate set for November.

In the longer-term, a widening conflict in Europe and accompanying geo-political schisms will distract the countries most responsible for global warming from acting more effectively to mitigate climate change. And that will be a burden for the entire planet, especially those countries already strafed by extreme weather and droughts.

China and Russia seal a quasi-alliance

As shown by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s choreographed tryst with China’s President Xi Jinping at the opening of the Winter Olympics this month, Moscow and Beijing are now quasi allies.

They may distrust each other in several areas. But they face the same opponents.

Russia’s claims that hostile foreign powers fomented the crisis in Ukraine resonates with Beijing’s worries about activists abroad collaborating with local dissidents. Think Hong Kong and Beijing’s crackdown there.

China will make its own trade-offs as the Ukraine crisis escalates.  Battered by western sanctions, Russia could become a more dependent partner for Beijing.

The terms of trade for Russia’s oil and gas exports and imports of manufactures will shift in Beijing’s favour.

Western sanctions will also be road-tested. When Russia seized Crimea in 2014, it was threatened with huge economic damage. Four years later it was hosting the World Cup and Putin was sharing his Presidential VIP box with European leaders.

If the threatened sanctions impose serious costs on Russia, they will also instruct Beijing on how to prepare for future clashes.

But if Moscow and Beijing can cooperate to lessen the impact of sanctions that will further weaken the credibility of Western economic threats.

The US and the EU will struggle to target resources traded between Russia and China. They can’t touch payments outside the US dollar system. Beijing can lend to Moscow in renminbi with which Russia can buy Chinese goods and services.

Beijing will watch closely the West’s response to Russia’s use of force in Ukraine when calculating its strategy on Taiwan.

Although China blames the European Union and NATO for the political crisis in Ukraine, there are limits to its backing for Russia’s plans.

Beijing’s Foreign Minister Wang Yii told the Munich Security conference on 19 February that “the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of any country should be respected,” calling for dialogue and consultation.

Any military conflict, especially large-scale war, could slow China’s trade and investment in Europe, the world’s biggest single market. Most directly, China has billions of dollars in construction contracts in Ukraine and Huawei is a major player the telecoms there.

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