‘Echoes of the Cold War’ as Blinken heads to Africa, vying for influence with Russia

PRETORIA, South Africa, August 8, 2022: South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor (R) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) attend a strategic dialogue opening meeting at the South African Department of international relations and cooperation.

ANDREW HARNIK/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in South Africa on Monday to begin a three-country tour as major powers jostle for influence on the continent.

The tour will also take the top US diplomat to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, and follows a recent tour by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who visited Egypt, Uganda, Ethiopia and the Republic of Congo in July.

French President Emmanuel Macron recently visited Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau in a bid to revitalize France’s relations with its former colonies.

In a speech on Monday, Blinken said the rest of the world should no longer “dictate” to African nations, and outlined the Biden administration’s priorities for content, such as investment support, security, Covid recovery, clean energy and democracy.

“African nations have been treated as instruments of other nations’ progress, rather than authors of their own,” Blinken said.

According to Alex Vines, director of the Africa program at Chatham House, the underlying purpose of the trip – Blinken’s second since President Joe Biden took office – will be to try to contain Russian and Chinese geopolitical influence on the continent.

“South Africa is a country that does not have good relations with the United States. The governing party, the African National Congress, regularly issues statement statements criticizing the United States, and therefore the effort is how to improve relations and at least have a more constructive dialogue with South Africa,” Vines told CNBC on Monday.

He suggested that this is why South Africa is Blinken’s first stopover, and that particular attention will be paid to aligning the two countries’ perspectives on Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“There is a big difference between the way Pretoria sees the Russian-Ukrainian issue and Washington,” Vines added.

Blinken’s South African counterpart, Naledi Pandor, on Monday reiterated his criticism of the Countering Malicious Activities by Russia in Africa Act, currently pending in the US Congress, which according to it could punish African countries for not aligning themselves with the United States on Ukraine.

Military links

A number of African governments have been reluctant to openly criticize Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, and many abstained in March from a draft UN resolution condemning the Kremlin and calling for a withdrawal of the Ukraine.

The resolution passed by an overwhelming majority with 141 nations voting in favour, but African nations among the 34 that abstained in the vote were: South Africa, Mali, Mozambique, Central African Republic, Angola , Algeria, Burundi, Madagascar, Namibia, Senegal, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

In recent years, Russia has forged a number of military alliances with governments of African countries facing violent insurgencies or political instability, including Libya, Mali, Sudan, Central African Republic and Mozambique. .

Russian Lavrov said his Africa tour was not about Ukraine. Instead, he focused on Africa’s “intrinsic value” to Russia as a trading partner and highlighted the contracts Moscow has on the continent for food, fertilizer and energy exports.

In a recent blog, the European Council on Foreign Relations said that while this message was tailored to African sensibilities, the main focus of Lavrov’s trip was “political theatre”.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov holds a press conference at the Russian Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, July 27, 2022.

Minasse Wondimu Hailu | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

“Despite Western attempts to isolate Russia in its all-out war against Ukraine, Lavrov is using Africa to demonstrate that his country still has partners in some parts of the globe,” said Theodore Murphy, Africa Program Director at the ECFR.

“The second objective of the trip is to expand Russia’s influence in Africa. Lavrov hopes to achieve this by exploiting the strategic mistake made by the West in asking African countries to choose a side against Ukraine.”

At the center of the hard power Russia uses to ingratiate itself in the region is the private mercenary Wagner Group, which has been active in counterinsurgency operations in countries including Mali, CAR and Libya. The Kremlin denies any link with the controversial group, accused of human rights violations.

Blinken spoke directly to the Wagner Group on Monday, accusing the group of exploiting the instability to “loot resources and commit abuses with impunity.”

Vines said the three countries on Blinken’s travel itinerary had been carefully chosen and the DRC visit would likely focus on food security, peace and stability – given renewed conflict in eastern the DRC which would also have implicated the Rwandan forces.

However, he added that much of Washington’s concerns, as always, would center on securing “strategic and critical minerals”.

“The United States is concerned about these supply chains, doesn’t want them falling into Russian or Chinese hands, and therefore really enhanced diplomacy,” he added.

“Finally Rwanda – it is an ally of the United States but the deteriorated situation in the border area eastern Congo with Rwanda worries Washington, and therefore Antony Blinken will use his good offices, he will try to confront Kinshasa and Kigali, and see if they can calm the tensions between the two countries.

The UN has long had a major peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, operating in the DRC. However, the government last week expelled its spokesman Mathias Gillmann after protests against the mission in which 36 people, including four peacekeepers, were killed.

With the United States being a major contributor to UN funds, Vines suggested it could also draw Washington’s attention to the need to defuse tensions in the region.

“Echoes of the Cold War”

In discussing the importance of strategic and critical minerals, Chatham House’s Vines acknowledged that the situation had “Cold War echoes”.

However, he pointed out that the competition for geopolitical, economic and military influence on the African continent extends beyond the United States, Russia and China. These include Turkey, the EU, the UK and even Japan, which is hosting the eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development in Tunis, Tunisia on August 27.

“Russia is trying but it doesn’t have the deep pockets and the presence it had when it was the Soviet Union, so it’s an irritant but it’s not, I think, a long-term challenge. on the African continent the way it was during the Cold War,” Vines said.

The sun sets over one of Mutanda Mining Sarl’s open pit copper mines on July 6, 2016 in Kolwezi, DRC. The mine is 69% owned by Glencore, an Anglo-Swiss multinational commodity trading and mining company.

Per-Anders Pettersson | Getty Images News | Getty Images

While this is unlikely to manifest in the form of a hot war in Africa, he pointed to “proxy activity” already underway in the form of the Wagner Group’s presence and involvement in various pockets of national or regional unrest.

“What I think is more visible right now is this idea of ​​securing critical and strategic minerals and improving supply chains. You also see it in Asian countries like Japan – much more active by example along the East African coast, particularly with regard to minerals and energy supplies – as are a number of other countries,” Vines said.

“The Gulf States, for example, are looking to diversify their sources for food security as well, as well as certain types of minerals for their industrial complexes. I think that’s where the competition is going to be a lot more intense, that’s i.e. the commercial diplomacy of a number of nations, in particular also Russia, China, the United States.”

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