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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Secretary of State Antony Blinken flies to a superpower battleground when it visits Africa this weekend. But he’s not the new Captain America in a Marvel movie. Rather, he is the latest senior diplomat to step into the ring in the struggle for influence on the continent between the United States, China and Russia.
In recent weeks, envoys from Washington and Russia have traded accusations about Ukraine and related food issues as they sit down with African leaders.
“People are starving. People are suffering,” US Ambassador to the United Nations said Linda Thomas Greenfield as she fired safely into the Kremlin. “The reason there is a food insecurity crisis on the African continent right now is because of Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine.”
Responding to the Biden administration, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hit back as he swept across Africa last week, saying Africa’s food shortage was “due to the West’s absolutely inadequate response , which announced sanctions, jeopardizing the availability of food in the markets.”
After his trip to Asia, Blinken will arrive on the continent this weekend and, as noted by the State Department, he will send a message that “African countries are geostrategic players.” Blinken will put on his friendliest face as he sits down with leaders from South Africathe Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda over the next week.
“The timing and intentions of Blinken’s visit are clear and unambiguous,” Priyal Singh, senior fellow at the Institute for Security Studies, told Fox News. There is a “geopolitical competition for influence between African states, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine”.
“While the Russian Foreign Minister’s visit more or less served to illustrate that Russia could turn to partners on the continent in order to address its growing isolation among Western states, Blinken’s visit could, therefore , further underscore the renewed geostrategic importance and relevance of the continent,” he added.
But the secretary of state won’t think all is well, Singh said: “Blinken will have to be particularly tactful in how the United States goes about building support for its position on the Ukrainian invasiongiven that key foreign policy makers and decision makers within the ruling parties of a number of African states maintain an entrenched worldview on international affairs”.
That’s an understatement when it comes to Blinken’s first stop, South Africa. The country is a member of BRICS, the business and political fan club which also counts Brazil, Russia, India and China among its members. Politicians here still believe in repaying the historic support the Kremlin gave to the fall of apartheid. South Africa was one of 17 countries that abstained in a United Nations General Assembly vote, rather than condemning Russia for its actions in Ukraine.
“South Africa is not indifferent to what is happening in Ukraine,” Clayson Monyela, head of public diplomacy at the South African equivalent of the State Department, told Fox News. “We continue to emphasize that dialogue, mediation and diplomacy are the only way to end the current conflict.”
Underlining South Africa’s support for the Non-Aligned Movement and emphasizing that Pretoria will not take sides on Ukraine, Monyela added: “We have resisted being drawn into the policy of confrontation and aggression advocated by powerful countries.
The Biden administration has no easy task in its efforts to influence African countries to follow Washington’s path. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield met with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni this week, and, interpreting the diplomatic speech, the US envoy delivered his message: “They discussed efforts to help mitigate the effect of the war in Russia vs. Ukraine on global food security and commodity prices”. according to acting spokeswoman for the US mission to the UN, Melissa Quartell.
But the seat she was sitting in, at State House, was still warm after visiting Russian Lavrov a few days earlier. As he stood beside the Russian foreign ministerMuseveni waxed lyrical: “If Russia makes mistakes, then we tell them,” he said, “but when they haven’t made a mistake, we can’t be against them.”
When Museveni was asked about Thomas-Greenfield, his response was not so friendly: “Nobody can give us instructions,” he told the BBC.
Another indication, analysts say, that the United States is not succeeding in Africa is the warning not to buy Russian oil or gas that Thomas-Greenfield issued just after he left the meeting with Museveni: “If a country decides to engage with Russia, where there are sanctions, then they violate those sanctions.” And she added, “so…they’re lucky to have some action taken against them.”
Secretary of State Blinken made no reference to any of these threats. But even before his plane entered African airspace this weekend, the Atlantic Council joined others in criticizing the timing of the trip. “This visit is almost too late, coming after Lavrov’s visit,” Ambassador Rama Yade, senior director of the council’s Africa Center, told Fox News.
“South Africa, and beyond the African continent itself, is so strategic that everyone should have understood this before Lavrov’s trip. Moscow treats African countries as strategic partners.”
Yade concluded that support in Africa heavily favors Russia: “Vladimir Putin attended the last BRICS summit as a guest of honor, while Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s online speech at the African Union (AU) summit ) in June was only attended by four African Heads of State”.