Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, left, holds talks with his Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita, in Rabat, Morocco, on May 22.STR/The Associated Press

Ukraine is launching a wave of embassy openings and diplomatic visits across Africa as it makes a frantic effort to catch up to Russia’s growing political advantage on the continent.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba announced plans to establish embassies in Mozambique and Rwanda this week as he neared the end of a four-country African tour. He also touted a strategy to boost Ukrainian grain exports to help feed the continent.

But there is little doubt that Ukraine has fallen far behind the Kremlin in cultivating African support. Moscow has forged military or economic agreements with most countries across the continent: sending Russian mercenaries and military equipment to some, holding high-level diplomatic meetings in others, and orchestrating an extensive propaganda campaign on African social media. Dozens of African leaders will attend a Russia-Africa summit in the Russian city of St. Petersburg in July.

“Unfortunately, our relations with African countries did not receive proper attention in our foreign policy for years, and we lost a lot,” Mr. Kuleba told a press conference this week in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.

In a tacit response to the Russia-Africa summit, he said his government is now planning its own Ukraine-Africa summit this year. It has also adopted its first Africa strategy and has “intensified” its political dialogue with many African countries, he said.

Mr. Kuleba’s visit this week to Morocco, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Mozambique was his second African tour in the past seven months as Ukraine struggles to reverse the neglect that weakened its support in the continent.

“Today, Ukraine is reinvigorating its foreign policy toward Africa aimed at a Ukrainian-African renaissance,” he said in a statement released on Thursday during his first-ever visit to the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa.

Ukrainian food supplies are a key element in the new strategy. Ukraine has exported more than three million tonnes of agricultural products on 123 ships to nine African countries under a United Nations initiative that partly unblocked its sea ports, Mr. Kuleba said. It has also donated 170,000 tonnes of wheat on six ships to Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Yemen, he said.

Russia and Ukraine have been feuding over who is to blame for the rising cost of food and fuel in Africa. Moscow alleges that Western sanctions are the biggest reason, even though food and fertilizer are exempted from the sanctions. Ukraine says the Russian naval blockade of Ukrainian ports is the main reason for the rising prices.

“More ships are being prepared,” Mr. Kuleba said. “No family in Africa should suffer because of Russia’s war against Ukraine.”

Africa is becoming the new frontline in the conflict between Russia and the West

South Africa’s drift into Russian sphere triggers Western concern

As it lobbies for African support, Moscow has emphasized its historical connections to African anti-colonial movements during the Soviet era. Many African countries feel a traditional loyalty to Russia because of this Soviet legacy. In an attempt to counter this, Ukraine has begun boasting of its own historical links to Africa, although it was part of the Soviet Union at the time.

From 1965 to the 1980s, “brave fighters of African national liberation movements were trained on Ukrainian soil,” Mr. Kuleba said. “We are proud of it and won’t let anyone steal this common past from us.”

But even as he was pleading for support, there were more signs of Russia’s growing influence in Africa.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held talks with his Somalian counterpart, Abshir Omar Jama, in Moscow on Friday and offered military support for its counterterrorism efforts. Mr. Lavrov is also preparing to visit South Africa next week for a meeting of the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

It will be his second visit to South Africa this year alone, while Mr. Kuleba has not yet managed to visit the country once. Mr. Lavrov has also visited nine other African countries since January.

Fikile Mbalula, Secretary-General of South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, said this week that the ANC would welcome a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite a war-crimes arrest warrant against him by the International Criminal Court.

In March, more than 40 African countries sent delegations to Moscow for a Russia-Africa parliamentary conference. “The partnership between Russia and African countries has gained additional momentum and is reaching a whole new level,” Mr. Putin told the conference.