In December 2022, President Biden invited most of Africa’s presidents to the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington DC.

Much has been written about the geopolitical fallout since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Not enough has been said about the divergence between Europe and Africa on how to respond to the war. This is most evident in the split in voting between African countries on the 2nd of March 2022 draft UN resolution that condemned Russia’s actions. Out of 35 countries that abstained, 17 were African. Eritrea was one of very few nations who voted against the motion. This evidenced different response to the conflict on both continents should cause concern in European capitals. In the UN vote I referred to only 60% of African countries voted in favour of the Ukrainian position while 83% of non-African countries that voted, backed Ukraine.

A map of Africa with countries colour coded to indicate how they voted on the UN Ukraine declaration

So, what’s going on? Part of this undoubtedly relates to the former Soviet Union’s historic connection with political elites in some African countries. This was particularly the case with post-colonial States and those who were those most aligned with the campaign against apartheid in South Africa such as Angola and Mozambique.

And today, Russian uses soft power to cultivate relationships, exert its political control and create allies with the aim of pursuing its strategic foreign policy objectives. In Libya, Russia’s mercenary group Wagner has been backing the commander of the Libyan National Army, General Khalifa Haftar. The aim is to use this relationship and influence to create a Libyan leadership that is sympathetic to Russian aims, in a country that has significant geo-strategic importance as a result of its oil reserves, deep-sea ports and positioning across from a member of NATO.

Russia in particular, often uses these techniques in countries with less stable regimes, whose leaders are maintained by dictatorial and non-democratic methods and who may be ostracised by western powers sometimes inclined to make values-based judgements on who they want to engage with. Additionally, Russia has attempted to exert its political influence and forge alliances through mercenaries, supplying arms, spreading disinformation and enabling undemocratic actors. An implicit form of support can lead to a debt that is often repaid in geopolitical support. This pattern can be seen to an extent in those countries that abstained and voted against the UN resolution such as the Central African Republic.

Uganda suggested that their role as incoming chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, which advocates for the avoidance of interference in the affairs of sovereign states and for the avoidance of the use of force, was sufficient reason to abstain. Uganda, amongst other some other African nations, argue that their neutrality increases their credibility and utility as potential mediators. There is no evidence of that fabled conciliatory role being at play at all in Ukraine.

What do we expect to happen from here? This isn’t a static set of relationships. Elections, economics and politics can alter geopolitics. In a more recent UN vote of October 2022 some countries climbed off the fence on the issue of Russian annexation of Ukraine. This further UN resolution declared that Russia’s illegally annexed regions in Ukraine are invalid under international law, shouldn’t be recognised as belonging to Russia and should be withdrawn from by Russia, immediately. No African countries voted against it on this occasion and Senegal and Angola voted for the resolution, having voted to abstain in the March vote.

But a bigger factor in influencing alliances for many African governments on Ukraine is their own relationships with China. In this context what does China worry about? One thing, among others, is that they never want to be internationally isolated. So, once they had decided to abstain at the UN, they worked hard to ensure they were in crowded company. And the closest to reach are those African nations who are part of their Belt and Road project. China knows that there are limits to some governments’ abstentionism, practically when their own interests are directly impacted. That’s one of the reasons why we see China strongly urging Moscow to open grain sea-routes to prevent further food shortages in Africa.

So, when considering the schism between African and European postures on Ukraine it’s important to understand the context of Russia’s legacy on the continent. But it is more important to appreciate China’s geopolitical needs in a conflict which they aren’t even a direct party to.