NAIROBI, Kenya – Since the days of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s leaders have rejected American criticism of their friendships with autocrats like Fidel Castro of Cuba and Muammar al-Qaddafi of Libya, whose countries backed them during the most desperate moments of anti-apartheid struggle.
Now South Africans are defending their loyalty to another autocrat – Vladimir V. Putin – and sitting out the global outcry over his invasion of Ukraine.
At the United Nations on Wednesday, South Africa was among 24 African countries that declined to join the resounding vote denouncing Russian aggression: 16 African countries abstained, seven did not vote at all and one – Eritrea – voted against it, keeping company only with Russia, Belarus, Syria and North Korea.
The striking tally reflected the ambiguous attitude across much of the continent where, with a handful of exceptions, the Ukraine war has been greeted with conspicuous silence – a sharp contrast with Western countries that are expanding sanctions, seizing oligarchs’ yachts, pressing for war crimes investigations, and even openly threatening to collapse the Russian economy.
“Russia is our friend through and through,” Lindiwe Zulu, South Africa’s minister of social development, who studied in Moscow during the apartheid years, said in an interview. “We are not about to denounce that relationship that we have always had.”
Many African countries have a longstanding affinity with Russia stretching back to the Cold War: some political and military leaders studied there, and trade links have grown. And in recent years a growing number of countries have contracted with Russian mercenaries and bought ever-greater quantities of Russian weapons.
A few African countries have condemned Russian aggression as an attack on the international order, notably Kenya and Ghana. Some 25 African nations voted for the UN resolution that denounced Mr. Putin’s actions on Wednesday. But deep divisions in the continent’s response were apparent from the start.
The deputy leader of Sudan flew into Moscow on the first day of the conflict, exchanging warm handshakes with Russia’s foreign minister as warplanes bombed Ukrainian cities. Morocco, a longtime American ally, offered a watery statement, annoying American officials who nonetheless kept quiet.
In Ethiopia, Russian flags flew at a ceremony on Wednesday to commemorate a famous 19th century battle against Italian invaders, recalling the involvement of Russian volunteers who sided with Ethiopian fighters.
African sympathies for Ukraine were also diluted by reports of Ukrainian border guards forcing African students to the back of lines as they attempted to leave the country, raising a furor over racism and discrimination. President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, which has 4,000 students in Ukraine, decried the reports.
Mr. Putin has partly sidestepped opprobrium in Africa by calling in chits that date back to the Cold War, when Moscow backed African liberation movements and presented itself as a bulwark against Western neocolonialism. On Sunday, Russia’s foreign ministry paused its focus on Ukraine to remind South Africa, in a Tweet, of its support for the fight against apartheid.
But Mr. Putin has also divided African opinion thanks to his own efforts to expand Russian influence across the continent through an unusual combination of diplomacy, guns and mercenaries.
In an effort to regain some of the influence that Moscow lost in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mr. Putin hosted a glitzy summit in the southern Russian city of Sochi in 2019 that was attended by 43 African heads of state. A second Russia-Africa summit is scheduled for this fall.
But as Russia’s economy strained under Western sanctions imposed following the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, it could not afford the expensive enticements offered by other powers in Africa, like China’s cheap loans or Western development aid.
So it has offered no-questions weapons sales and the services of Russian mercenaries, many employed by the Wagner Group, a company linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Mr. Putin who is known as “Putin’s cook.”
In recent years, Wagner mercenaries have fought in civil wars in Libya and Mozambique, and are currently guarding the president of the Central African Republic, where they helped repel a rebel assault on the capital last year.
In January, Wagner fighters appeared in Mali, as part of a deal to combat Islamist insurgents that infuriated France, the former colonial power, which last month declared it was pulling its own soldiers out of Mali.
The military junta ruling Mali denies inviting Wagner into the country, but US military officials say as many as 1,000 Russian mercenaries are already operating there.
Russia’s influence also stems from weapons sales. Russia accounts for nearly half of all arms imports into Africa, according to Russia’s arms export agency and organizations that monitor weapons transfers.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Things to Know
A Ukrainian city falls. Russian troops gained control of Kherson, the first city to be overcome during the war. The overtaking of Kherson is significant as it allows the Russians to control more of Ukraine’s southern coastline and to push west toward the city of Odessa.
One of Mr. Putin’s staunchest defenders in the past week was a powerful figure in Uganda, a major customer for Russian weapons. Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, son of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, said in a Tweet:
“The majority of mankind (that are non-white) support Russia’s stand in Ukraine.”
He added, “When the USSR parked nuclear armed missiles in Cuba in 1962, the West was ready to blow up the world over it. Now when NATO does the same they expect Russia to do differently. ”
That reference highlighted a jarring contradiction in Mr. Putin’s new embrace of Africa, said Maxim Matusevich, a history professor at Seton Hall University, in New Jersey, who studies Russia’s relationships in Africa.
“During the Cold War, the Soviets were trying to sell socialism to African nations while criticizing Western colonialism and imperialism,” he said. Now, Russia is engaged in a fresh bid for influence in Africa, but driven by right-wing nationalism.
A similar divide has emerged in Asia, where nations with authoritarian leaders or weak ties to the West have embraced Mr. Putin’s war or avoided criticism of Russian military aggression.
For Africans, the war could hit hard in the pocket. Last week the Automobile Association of South Africa predicted that rising fuel prices would reach a record high in the coming weeks. Food is getting more expensive too – Russia and Ukraine are major sources of wheat and fertilizer in Africa – at a time when many African countries are still reeling from the pandemic.
But the war could also have an economic upside for Africa, albeit one that could take years to be felt. As Europe pivots away from Russian gas imports, it could turn to African countries looking to exploit recently-discovered energy reserves.
President Samia Suluhu Hassan of Tanzania, who is seeking a $ 30 billion investment to tap a huge gas discovery in the Indian Ocean, said the invasion of Ukraine could provide an opportunity.
“Whether Africa or Europe or America, we are looking for markets,” she told The Africa Report, an online news outlet.
Elsewhere, though, Mr. Putin is still benefiting from his image as a thorn in the West’s side. Many South Africans remember that the United States supported the apartheid regime until the 1980s. South Africans also took a sour view of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Sithembile Mbete, a senior lecturer in political science and international relations at the University of Pretoria.
However, aside from the historical ties with Russia, South Africa is motivated to call for diplomacy rather than fighting because that approach aligns with the country’s stance on international conflicts for the past 30 years, she said.
“That is the lesson they took from South Africa’s own struggle – that actually apartheid ended when the two sides sat down at the table,” Ms. Mebete said. “When it came down to it, the conflict only ended through negotiation and through compromise.”
Reporting was contributed by Abdi Latif Dahir in Nairobi, Kenya, Ruth Maclean in Dakar, Senegal, Lynsey Chutel in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Aida Alami in Casablanca, Morocco.