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Must Read: How Russia outflanked Ukraine in Africa


Addresses to summits and national parliaments around the world by Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky have become a staple of the diplomatic calendar over the last few months. But when he spoke to the African Union (AU) on Monday only four heads of state from the continent listened in, with the others represented by subordinates or officials. The disappointing turnout was symptomatic of the unequal struggle that Kyiv faces in getting across its message in a continent of 54 countries where it has just 10 embassies - only a quarter of the Russian presence. So, in trying to shift African perspectives on Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion, Mr Zelensky cannot deploy political or security clout comparable with Moscow's. Ukraine is not a global military power and it is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council, unlike Russia. As a result, many African leaders have concluded that they simply cannot afford to emulate direct Western confrontation with Moscow. That is particularly the case now that the blockage of grain export shipments from Ukraine is contributing to an already serious food crisis, driving up the price of imports and jeopardising the flow of wheat, other cereals and cooking oil to African countries that are not self-sufficient.


Early this month Senegal's President Macky Sall, the current head of the AU, flew to the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi to discuss with Mr Putin how to free up the obstacles that are curbing desperately needed food exports from both Russia and Ukraine. And last week South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa called Mr Putin to discuss deliveries of Russian agricultural products and fertiliser to Africa. The talks produced some modest progress though not a decisive breakthrough. Meanwhile, there are some hints that the invasion of Ukraine may be putting strains on Russian military engagement in Africa, with unconfirmed rumours of some troops from the mercenary group Wagner being called back from Central African Republic (CAR). That would hardly be a surprise, given the demands of the intense military campaign in the crucial Donbas region. However, there is no sign of a reduction in Wagner's presence in Mali - where its men have frequently been seen on operations alongside national forces. Dramatic new international context Moreover, official Russian security and military deals in Africa are actually being reinforced. Cameroon has become the latest target of this charm offensive. Cameroon's Defence Minister Joseph Beti Assomo was in Moscow last month to join his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu in signing a five-year military cooperation agreement. This embraces intelligence, training and sharing expertise in tackling terrorism and maritime piracy. Joint exercises are planned. The document makes no mention of arms shipments but hints suggestively that additional forms of collaboration could yet be agreed. In fact, a 2015 deal had already provided for Russian deliveries of artillery and logistical and air support - useful for the campaign against jihadists in Cameroon's Far North region. Although this new agreement is less specific, it appears to be stirring concern in Western capitals. Within weeks the French foreign ministry's Africa director, Christophe Bigot, had flown to Yaoundé, seemingly to reassure Cameroon's Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute that Paris too remains committed to economic, cultural and anti-terrorist cooperation. The accord with Cameroon was signed against the dramatic new international context - the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Western leaders now regard Ru