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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Secretary of State Antony Blinken will fly to a superpower battlefield this weekend when he goes to Africa. But he’s not the new Captain America in a Marvel movie. Rather, he is the last senior diplomat to enter the ring in the struggle for influence on the continent between the US, China and Russia.
In recent weeks, envoys from Washington and Russia have exchanged 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 Linda Thomas-Greenfield said as she fired a salvo at 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.”
In response to the Biden administration, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hit back when he toured Africa last week, claiming that the food shortage in Africa “is due to the absolutely inadequate response from the West, which announced sanctions and the availability of the food in the markets.”
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After his trip to Asia, Blinken will arrive on the continent this weekend, and as the State Department noted, he will send a message that “African countries are geostrategic players.” Blinken will show his friendliest face when he meets with leaders in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda over the coming week.
“The timing and intentions of Blinken’s visit are clear and unequivocal,” Priyal Singh, senior researcher 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 illustrated that Russia could look to partners on the continent to address its growing isolation among Western states, Blinken’s visit could accordingly further underline the renewed geostrategic importance and relevance of the continent,” he added.
But the Secretary of State will not find it all smooth sailing, says Singh: “Blinken will have to be particularly tactful in how the US gains more support for its stance on the invasion of Ukraine, given that the most important foreign policy officials and decision-makers within the ruling parties of some African states maintain an entrenched worldview of international affairs”.
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That’s an understatement when it comes to Blinken’s first stop, South Africa. The country is a member of BRICS, the trade and political fan club whose members also include Brazil, Russia, India and China. Politicians here still believe in repaying the historic support given to the Kremlin in the fall of apartheid. South Africa was one of 17 countries that abstained in a UN 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 is the only way to end the current conflict.”
Monyela stressed South Africa’s support for the nonaligned movement and stressed that Pretoria will not take sides over Ukraine.
The Biden administration is not having an easy time trying to get African countries to follow Washington’s path. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield met with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni this week, and the US envoy interpreted diplomatic words and made her point clear: “They discussed efforts to reduce the effect of the Russian war on Ukraine on global food security and to soften raw material prices.” according to the US mission to the acting UN spokesman, Melissa Quartell.
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But the chair she sat in, in the State House, was still warm from the Russian Lavrov’s visit a few days earlier. Standing next to Russia’s foreign minister, Museveni waxed lyrical: “If Russia makes mistakes, we’ll tell them,” he said, “but if they haven’t made a mistake, we can’t be against them.”
When Museveni was asked about Thomas-Greenfield, his answer was not so friendly: “No one can give us instructions,” he told the BBC.
Another indication, analysts say, that the US is not getting its way in Africa is the warning not to buy Russian oil or gas, which Thomas-Greenfield fired just after coming out of the meeting with Museveni: “If a country decides to with Russia, where there are sanctions, then they break those sanctions.” And she added: “then…they have a chance that measures will be taken against them.”
State Secretary Blinken has not alluded to such threats. But even before his plane entered African airspace this weekend, the Atlantic Council has joined others in criticizing the timing of the trip. “This visit is almost too late, it comes after Lavrov’s visit,” Ambassador Rama Yade, Senior Director at the Council’s Africa Center, told Fox News.
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“South Africa, and beyond the African continent itself, is so strategic that everyone should have understood that before Lavrov’s trip. Moscow treats African countries as strategic partners.”
Yade concluded that support in Africa strongly favors Russia: “Vladimir Putin attended the latest BRICS summit as a guest of honor, while Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s online speech at the African Union (AU) Summit in June was followed by just four African heads of state. “