Exclusive: US State Department’s Nuland calls on Africa to stand up to Russia

By Julian Pecquet

Posted on Thursday, 31 March 2022 10:39, updated on Friday, 1 April 2022 10:52
Victoria Nuland, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, speaks during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations to examine U.S.-Russia policy, on Capitol Hill, Washington, U.S. December 7, 2021. Alex Brandon/Pool via REUTERS

The Joe Biden administration has a message for African fence-sitters in the Ukraine conflict. This is not a new Cold War between rival superpowers on a distant continent. Rather, it's a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism that is already having a profound impact across the African continent, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland tells The Africa Report.

“Just as we have tried to stand with African countries that have faced instability, have faced threats to their sovereignty and territorial integrity, now we need all the countries of the world to stand with Ukraine as it’s under attack,” the State Department’s fourth highest-ranking official said. “Because these same principles are at stake.”

She also urged African nations not to allow Russia to use them to escape US and international sanctions.

“What’s most important is that as Russia tries to evade the sanctions that we have put on, that countries in Africa do not become sanctuaries for dirty Russian money, for oligarchs’ ill-gotten gains, for them to stash their airplanes and their yachts,” she said.

A former Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs and ambassador to NATO, Nuland now oversees overall regional and bilateral policy issues, including the Bureau of African Affairs headed by Assistant Secretary of State Molly Phee. Her media outreach is part of a weeks-long effort to build international pressure on Russia to end the war and ensure that Moscow gets the blame for rising food and energy prices.

The day after almost half of all African countries refrained from denouncing Russia’s invasion at the United Nations, Phee held a press call with African media to insist that “the United States believes strongly that African voices matter in the international community, that your voices matter in the global conversation.”

Since then the administration has repeatedly urged African leaders to take a stance, notably during the Chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat’s visit to Washington earlier this month and during Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s current trip to Morocco and Algeria.

“During the course of his trip, the secretary will emphasise to all of the foreign leaders he meets that the US stands in solidarity with the government and people of Ukraine in the face of the Kremlin’s aggression,” the State Department said in a preview of Blinken’s trip. “We will continue to work closely with our allies and partners to impose further costs on [Russia’s President Vladimir] Putin and his enablers if Putin does not change course.”

In an exclusive interview with The Africa Report, Victoria Nuland called on African nations to stand up for an international system that has provided many life-saving peacekeeping missions in their time of need.

The Africa Report: What is the key message you hope to share with our readers in Africa today?

Nuland: What I’d like to say to folks in Africa, is that even though this conflict is far from you, it is a conflict that has global impact. You have here a permanent member of the Security Council, a country of 150 million people, in a completely unprovoked and brutal manner, attacking its smaller neighbour of 40 million people, completely violating all principles of the UN Charter and the AU (African Union) charter, violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of that country, and taking this fight to the most brutal, inhumane level, attacking schools, attacking hospitals, more than half the children of Ukraine displaced.

So this is something that all of us have to stand against, and have to rally the world’s efforts. And we are very grateful to the vast majority of countries in Africa that have stood up in the UN and said no to this aggression (Editor’s note: Only 28 out of 54 African countries voted to denounced Russia’s invasion at the UN General Assembly on 2 March).

I would also say that Africa is already feeling the downstream effects of this conflict. You know, five days ago, the city of Mariupol was Ukraine’s largest port for wheat and grain exports to Africa. And now that port is blocked, and we’re already adding to the already difficult food insecurity that Africa and the Middle East were feeling. You feel fuel prices rising as a result of this war. So again, we need to all stand up and say to Mr. Putin, end this war.

The Joe Biden administration has insisted that this is not a new Cold War, which is how some in Africa have framed it, but a key test of the rules-based international order. Why is it so important to you that Africa see things that way, and respond accordingly?

Because, again, we built this rules-based order together. All the democracies around the world have a stake in a global system, where big, powerful countries cannot just turn their militaries on their neighbour when they feel like conquering their territory. We all have to stand up for the rules that we built that have made us more secure, more free and more prosperous over the last 60-70 years. That’s true for us, it’s also true for most of the countries of Africa.

And if we don’t protect this system, then it is going to be might makes right, not simply when Mr. Putin chooses to use his military up in Europe, but also it’s going to be an excuse for every other authoritarian around the world to trample over the rights of other countries.

What are some of the inaccurate narratives and perceptions you’ve seen, particularly in Africa, that you hope to correct?

That we care about this more because it’s in Europe and not in Africa, or other parts of the world. I think Africans have, over the last 40-50 years, spilled lots of blood protecting their own gains from attack, and we’ve tried to support peacekeeping efforts across Africa. And now, unfortunately, conflict has come to Ukraine.

So just as we have tried to stand with African countries that have faced instability, have faced threats to their sovereignty and territorial integrity, now, we need all the countries of the world to stand with Ukraine as it’s under attack, because these same principles are at stake.

This is really a moment (to say) live by the rules, or face the wrath of all of us.

So it’s not a matter of north or south. It’s not a matter of east or west, or rich or poor. It’s a matter of the system that favours freedom, favours self-determination of states, favours independence, favours sovereignty, versus the authoritarians, whether they’re in Russia, they’re in China, they’re in Iran, they’re in North Korea, telling any of the rest of us what to do, and using pernicious weapons and coercion to do it.

We have many readers in the Sahel, where Russia has been particularly active of late. Do you think they see the conflict in Ukraine as an act of aggression?

People in the Sahel, particularly those in Mali, have first-hand experience of what it means when Russians with weapons come to their territory. And by that I mean the Wagner group, which came to Mali and pledged security, and instead, has done nothing but make the country poorer and less secure, just as it has in CAR (the Central African Republic) and as it has in in Libya.

So when folks from Moscow show up with weapons and tell you that they’re there for your sake, don’t believe it. And Russia also uses these proxy forces as a sort of an advanced form of its own aggression. So I think folks in the Sahel have already felt what it’s like when Russia’s out for its own interests, not for your interest. No good has come to Africa when Russian forces and weapons have shown up. And the Ukrainians are now feeling the same thing.

Critics of the pressure campaign on Russia, notably in Africa, have pointed out that sanctions have come almost entirely from Western powers, namely the US and Western Europe along with Australia and Japan – a very limited concept of the “international community”. The US administration has talked about wanting to work with US allies and partners to “impose further costs” on Moscow. Could you tell us how important it is to get Africa on board the sanctions campaign, and whether you think that’s realistic given the continent’s long-standing ties to Moscow and resistance to getting tangled up in foreign conflicts.

What’s most important is that as Russia tries to evade the sanctions that we have put on, that countries in Africa not become sanctuaries for dirty Russian money, for oligarchs’ ill-gotten gains, for them to stash their airplanes and their yachts. That African countries, to the extent that they can, help us close the loopholes in sanctions.

You know, some of the sanctions that we’ve imposed, particularly export controls on high-technology goods going to Russia, will have some residual impact on Africa, because any products made in Africa with US components that go on to Russia – it’s a relatively small amount – could be impacted by the sanctions. But I think what’s most important here is the impact on Africa of this conflict, as we talked about before, that food prices are going up, fuel prices are going up as a direct result of this war, and Putin is to blame.

And therefore it is in Africa’s interest to – whether it’s in the UN, or whether it’s in their encounters with Russians – to say no to this war, and to understand that Putin’s after his own selfish imperial ambitions. And he will, in this context, use and abuse the goodwill of African governments if they allow him to hide and stash his money there.

What is the global direction of travel here?

I would just say that we as a global community are really facing a rising threat from autocratic powers around the world. And we’re also increasingly seeing an alignment between Russia and China, including with regard to this conflict, in their efforts to change the rules of the road, to favour closed societies, to favour coercive use of power, to favour state-sponsored surveillance, to take advantage of poor and weaker nations, whether it’s sending Wagner to strip mine in CAR and in Mali, or whether it is the way the Chinese use the Belt and Road Initiative to trick African countries and countries around the world into loans that they can’t afford and projects that don’t pay out.

So this is really a moment, as President Biden has been saying, for the democracies all over the world, including the democracies of Africa who have fought so hard and long for their own freedom and for their own opportunity and their own territorial integrity and prosperity, to stand up with the rest of the democracies of the world for the system of governance that has served us well. And to say to this permanent member of the Security Council, live by the rules or face the wrath of all of us.

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