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

Pretoria, South Africa, August 8, 2022: South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor (R) and Foreign Secretary Antony Blinken (L) attend the inaugural session of the Strategic Dialogue at the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation.

Andrew Harnick/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

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

The trip will take the top US diplomat to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, and follows a recent visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to 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 revive France’s ties with former colonies.

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

“South Africa is a country that does not have good relations with the United States. The party in government, the African National Congress, regularly issues manifestos critical of the United States, and so attempts to improve relations and at least have a more constructive dialogue with South Africa,” Vines said. told CNBC on Monday.

He suggested that it was for this reason that South Africa was Blinken’s first port of call, and that special attention would be paid to aligning the two countries’ perspectives on Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“There is a big difference between how Pretoria views the Russia-Ukraine issue and Washington,” Vines added.

military relations

Many African governments have been reluctant to openly criticize Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Many abstained from a draft UN resolution in March to protest the Kremlin And calling for a withdrawal from Ukraine.

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

Over the years, Russia has formed several military alliances with governments in African countries facing violent insurgencies or political instability, including Libya, Mali, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Mozambique.

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

In a recent blog, The European Council on Foreign Relations While that message was tailored to African sensibilities, the primary purpose of Lavrov’s trip was “political theater.”

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

Minase Wondimu Hailu | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

“Despite Western efforts to isolate Russia with an all-out war on Ukraine, Lavrov is using Africa to show that his country still has partners in some parts of the world,” said Theodore Murphy, director of the Africa program at ECFR.

“The second objective of the visit is to increase Russia’s influence in Africa. Lavrov hopes to achieve this by capitalizing on the strategic error made by the West by asking African countries to choose a side over Ukraine.”

Russia is at the center of the hard power it is using to entrench itself in the region The private mercenary Wagner Group, which is active in counter-insurgency operations in countries such as Mali, CAR and Libya. The Kremlin denies any links to the controversial group, which is accused of human rights abuses.

Vines said the three countries on Blinken’s itinerary had been carefully chosen and that the DRC visit would likely focus on food security and peace and stability – with renewed conflict in eastern DRC reportedly involving Rwandan troops.

However, he added that much of Washington’s concern, as it has historically, will be focused on securing “strategic and critical minerals.”

“The United States is concerned about those supply chains, it doesn’t want to fall into the hands of the Russians or the Chinese, and so that really enhanced diplomacy,” he added.

“Finally Rwanda — it’s a friend of the United States but The situation in the border areas worsened Washington is concerned about eastern Congo, including Rwanda, and so Antony Blinken is going to use his good offices, he’s going to try to get together between Kinshasa and Kigali and see if they can ease the tension between the two countries.”

The UN has a long-term peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, operating in the DRC. However, the government expelled its spokesman Matthias Gilman last week after protests against the mission left 36 people dead, including four UN peacekeepers.

As the US is a major contributor of funds to the UN, Vines suggested that this could draw Washington’s attention to ensure that tensions in the region are defused.

‘Cold War Echoes’

Discussing the importance of strategic and critical minerals, Vines of Chatham House admitted that the situation has “echoes of the Cold War”.

However, the competition for geopolitical, economic and military influence on the African continent has extended beyond the US, Russia and China, he explained. Notably, this includes Turkey, the EU, the UK and even Japan, which hosts the 8th Tokyo International Conference on African Development on August 27 in Tunis, Tunisia.

“Russia is trying, but it doesn’t have the deep pockets and the presence that it did when it was the Soviet Union, so that’s irritating but, in my view, that’s not the long-term challenge on the African continent. It was during the Cold War,” Vines said.

The sun sets over an open pit copper mine at Mutanda Mining Circle on July 6, 2016 in Kolwezi, DRC. The mine is owned (69%) by Glencore, an Anglo-Swiss multinational commodity trading and mining company.

Per-Anders Pettersson | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Although this is unlikely to manifest as a hot war in Africa, he points out that some “proxy activity” is already taking place in the form of the Wagner Group’s presence and involvement in various pockets of domestic or regional unrest.

“I think the idea of ​​securing critical and strategic minerals and improving the supply chain is more visible at the moment. You’ll also see this in Asian countries like Japan – for example on the East African coast, more active with looking at minerals and energy supply – like many other countries,” Vines said. said

“The Gulf states, for example, are looking to diversify their sources for food security, while also looking for certain types of minerals for their industrial complexes. I think the competition here is going to be sharper, which is commercial diplomacy. Many nations, particularly Russia, China, the United States.

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