The surprise visit by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Nairobi on 29 May caught many by surprise.
In several previous trips to the continent since the beginning of the year, Russia’s top diplomat had avoided Kenya after the East African country’s envoy to the UN slammed the invasion of Ukraine at the Security Council in February 2022. In his address to the council, Martin Kimani had called on Russia to respect Ukraine’s borders by invoking Africa’s colonial past to highlight the dangers of stoking the “embers of dead empires”.
Kimani’s speech was widely covered by the international media and praised by Western leaders for its sharp tone, in contrast with other African interventions. Indeed, Kenya was the only country in the East Africa Community trade bloc to openly criticise Russia while fellow member states stayed quiet.
However, since Kenya’s two-year term on the council ended last year, Nairobi’s tough stance appears to be softening.
The change of tone began after the newly installed president, William Ruto, welcomed Dmitry Maksimychev (Russia’s ambassador to Kenya) at State House in November. Six months later, the diplomatic shift became even more apparent when Ruto hosted Belarus Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Aleinik – a meeting that some political analysts argue was the one that paved the way for Lavrov’s visit a month later.
Aleinik’s visit drew a lot of attention since the Eastern European nation is one of Russia’s staunchest allies and is currently facing sanctions for human rights violations as well as support for the invasion of Ukraine.
After the meeting, Ruto hinted that Kenya would seek to import farm equipment from Belarus to help increase food production.
“With 65% of the world’s uncultivated land, Africa is home to the globe’s agriculture,” Ruto said. “This is where tractors from Belarus have a future.
Kenya’s trade with Belarus however remains very low compared to its dealings with the US or the UK. The main imports from the Eastern European country are fertilisers and organic chemicals.
We [cannot] follow the anti-Russia-China-Belarus stance being propagated by some Western countries
Sources in the government confirm that Aleinik’s visit helped pave the way for Lavrov’s 29 May stopover in Nairobi. He was en route to South Africa to attend a summit of the BRICS, the organisation that brings together the five regional economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
“Hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at State House, Nairobi,” Ruto said on Twitter. Agreed on the need to push for reforms in the United Nations Security Council to make it more representative and more responsive to the needs of the current century.”
President Ruto also announced that the two countries would sign pacts to boost trade. Lavrov praised the 60 years of friendship between his country and Kenya, saying Russia’s relationship with the continent is gathering momentum after the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit.
According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, an online data visualisation and distribution platform, in 2021 Kenya exported $99.9m worth of products to Russia while importing $281m. Kenya’s main import from Russia was wheat, while tea topped the export list.
This is low compared to the amount of trade between Kenya and the US. Figures provided by the US Embassy in Kenya indicate that in 2021, US exports to Kenya were worth $551m while imports from the East African country topped $685m.
Despite the strong relations Kenya enjoys with Western powers, the meetings were viewed as a diplomatic shift by the Ruto administration away from the hardline stance from the EU, Britain and the US.
Ironically, Ruto had run a campaign that portrayed him as pro-Western and standing up to China and Russia.
At one point on the campaign trail in the Mt Kenya region early last year, Ruto warned that if he assumed power, he would deport Chinese citizens “for taking over jobs meant for Kenyans”.
At the time, Ruto’s campaign team had no kind words for Russia, which it accused of failing to respect international borders and the sovereignty of Ukraine.
When Ruto was declared the winner of the 2022 presidential election, ambassadors representing powerful Western countries were quick to congratulate him. They also defended Ruto’s win when his new administration faced street demonstrations organised by opposition leader Raila Odinga.
Why then has the Kenya Kwanza Alliance administration decided to soften its stance against Russia and its allies even though Ruto is widely viewed as the “darling of the West”?
According to sources in government, Kenya’s economy is in dire straits. To turn things around, Ruto now needs all the help it can get.
The heavy debt burden and the poor economic growth left Kenya with little room to manoeuvre when it comes to deciding the side it ought to belong to
“If we completely follow the anti-Russia-China-Belarus stance being propagated by some Western countries it will be us who will suffer in the long run,” says a source in the ministry of trade who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.”We must go out there and build partnerships.”
In fact, Ruto dispatched cabinet secretaries Moses Kuria (trade) and Mithika Linturi (agriculture) to Belarus earlier this month to explore avenues of trade and investment.
“We attended the Belarus Agricultural Expo which is famous the world over,” Kuria says. “We also had very good discussions […] on how we can cooperate in agricultural production and industrialisation.”
According to Kuria, the government is organising a visit to Belarus for all 47 governors to learn how to establish county aggregation and industrial parks. The first company to be set up is expected to be Belarusian.
Linturi concurs, saying the government’s aim is to seek investments and trade partnerships across the world.
“We indeed held positive bilateral talks with the government of Belarus to support Kenya’s agricultural sector,” he says.
Last month, Linturi was in the coastal town of Mombasa to receive a shipment of 34,000 tons of fertiliser donated by Russian fertiliser producer Uralchem-Uralkali Group. Accompanied by Russian Ambassador Dmitry Maksimychev, Linturi thanked Russia for the donation, reiterating Ruto’s remarks that the Kenyan government would establish stronger trade relations with Moscow.
Alfred Mutua, the diaspora and foreign affairs cabinet secretary, confirms that Kenya’s foreign policy has changed to “focus more on trade and partnerships”.
“This is true when looking at the visitors the president has hosted in Nairobi and also in the visits he has made abroad,” Mutua says.
The Ruto administration is skillfully exploiting the rivalry between the two countries [Russia and Ukraine] and making the most of their fears to advance the national interest
Mutua adds that Kenya will continue to ink trade deals with countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America and Latin America, and that the interest of the country will be the main driver.
However, if it goes ahead with plans to import tractors from Belarus, East Africa’s largest economy might find itself on a collision course with the US-led Western alliance that has blacklisted the Eastern Europe country.
Political analyst John Charo is not surprised by Kenya’s change of heart towards Russia, saying the country’s poor economic situation means the government has to look both East and West for support.
“The heavy debt burden and the poor economic growth left Kenya with little room to manoeuvre when it comes to deciding the side it ought to belong to,” says Charo.
Putin’s charm offensive
Political analyst Charles Otieno says Lavrov’s visit to Kenya and the fertiliser donation are part of President Vladimir Putin’s charm offensive targeting countries that are viewed as sympathetic to Ukraine.
Lavrov’s visit to Kenya was “part of Russia’s diplomatic offensive to convince African countries to avoid condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”, says Otieno.
He argues that the fertiliser donation was a reaction to the 25,000 metric tons of wheat Ukraine donated to Kenya in February.
Kuria Kimani, an international relations expert, says Kenya is leaving Western powers guessing as it adapts “strategic ambiguity” as its new approach.
“The Ruto administration is skillfully exploiting the rivalry between the two countries [Russia and Ukraine] and making the most of their fears to advance the national interest,” says Kimani.
So far, he adds, Moscow is succeeding in convincing African countries to stand aside.
“President Ruto’s current stand is that time is rife for world leaders to stop finger-pointing and [playing the] blame game over the Russia-Ukraine war and seek a peaceful solution,” Kimani says. “This is a diplomatic shift no matter how you look at it.”
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