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Countering Russian Influence: Implications of Blinken’s African Trip

On 8 August, the US administration released the new “US Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa.” The document sets a five-year period to achieve the four objectives that advance the US priorities in sub-Saharan Africa, namely fostering openness and open societies, delivering democratic and security dividends, advancing pandemic recovery and economic opportunities, and supporting conservation, climate adaptation, and just energy transition.

The strategy was revealed in tandem with the trip of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda, from 7 to 12 August. Blinken’s trip was meant to assert Washington’s geopolitical role in Africa as a vital partner. The visit came as an integral part of the US strategy to rebuild alliances and partnership with African countries, toward limiting the Russian and Chinese influence in Africa. 

Notwithstanding the importance of the US Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa, the US strategy toward the entire continent remains the striking development that has long, short, and medium-term repercussions, being a policy of great significance in light of the current international developments.

Back to Africa

The previous comprehensive US strategy toward Africa was issued in 2012 by the Barack Obama administration. Essentially, it gave priority to strengthening democratic institutions, spurring economic growth, trade, and investment, promoting peace and security, and fostering development through initiatives in areas of health, food security, and climate change, among others. While these issues remain relevant to the US-African relations in 2022, the partnership between the United States and Africa has gained particular significance in light of the political, economic, security, and geopolitical conditions that have changed considerably in Africa, the United States, and around the world. Notably, this is Blinken’s second tour to Africa after his three-nation visit to Nigeria, Senegal, and Kenya in November 2021.

The United States is seeking to reposition itself in sub-Saharan Africa to counter the influence and expansion of Russia and China and gain allies in its fight against terrorism, particularly in light of the spread and expansion of extremist Islamic groups, following Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’s success in building alliances with some terrorist groups in Africa. Beyond this, the current US administration looks for establishing new bilateral and collective partnerships with African countries through trade, investments, political participation, and assisting African countries through various agencies, development initiatives, and military relations with African governments, civil society, and businesses.

Concerns over Russian Influence in Africa

Blinken’s visit came shortly after the tour of his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Africa in July 2022, which included Egypt, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia and Uganda. The new strategy document revealed the US administration’s concern over the Russian role, warning against the military partnership with Wagner Group and the negative role Russia plays through monitoring security and intelligence information with African countries and destabilizing international and regional peace and security. The document also warns that the military partnership between African countries and Moscow are in the interest of Russia’s strategic and economic benefits rather than the African people. It also warns that Moscow uses these relations to gain support of African countries and undermine the position of African countries to justify its invasion of Ukraine. The new document unfolds allegations and fears of the US administration against both Russia and China and their policy toward Africa.

In many respects, the Russo-Ukrainian war unfolded Russia’s growing influence in Africa, as has been demonstrated in their voting on the United Nations resolution demanding Russian Federation to end illegal use of force in Ukraine. Out of 54 African countries, 25 countries voted in favor of the resolution while the rest abstained from voting. Perhaps this reflects the strength of the approach of Russia in its relations with African countries, where it avoids interfering in the internal affairs of African countries and presents itself as a strategic partner in different fields, without introducing any restrictions.

The new US strategy toward Africa seems inadequate for addressing the challenges of a world that has become more competitive. The tools proposed in the strategy don’t seem to fit the unstable African countries that are afflicted by ethnic, tribal, and national conflicts and sanctions that the United States has always imposed on some of them. Additionally, the US “Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa” Act puts pressure on African governments that work with Russian entities, which makes them subject to sanctions by the US administration. In effect, this legislation provoked backlash from African people and governments.

Overall, the major challenge for the US administration in Africa is the unwillingness of African governments to get involved in a cold war between Russia and China on the one hand and the United States and its allies on the other. Nevertheless, the big question is: to what extent will the United States succeed in putting pressure on African governments to denounce the Russian invasion of Ukraine? This is what the joint US-African summit of December 2022 will unfold.

Salah Khalil
A researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Social and Historical Studies

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