The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine
is already beginning to register the effects of what will be a seismic change
in the global economic and political order. This is because Ukraine is at the
centre of a proxy war in which the geostrategic interests of the United
States-led West is being pitted against those of the Russian Federation. And
the resultant fracture, which has caused a rise in the cost of oil and the
shortage of wheat and a range of commodities, will now almost certainly lead
not only to the creation of distinct and competing global trading blocs, but
also to a Eurasian military alliance which will stand in opposition to the
nations comprising the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). In this world
order transformed from a state of de facto unipolarity to one of multipolarity,
the onus will be on the African continent to avoid the perils of navigating
between mutually hostile power blocs vying for access to Africa’s abundant
natural resources by resolving to achieve economic self-sufficiency.
One of the immediate effects of the launching of what Russian President Vladimir Putin called a “special military operation” in the eastern part of Ukraine was the visibility of a large number of African students at railway stations and border posts seeking to leave the country. Ukraine was a favoured destination for African students, particularly in the fields of medicine and engineering, because of the economic value of obtaining a high-quality education relative to the costs which they would have incurred in most Western universities.
But the effect of the war in Ukraine on the African continent will not be limited to the re-direction of migrant students. It will have far reaching consequences spanning issues related to food security, national security, international political allegiances and economic development. Indeed, no sooner had the Russian operation begun did analysts begin to assess the likely impact of higher oil prices on African economies, as well as the threat of hunger. Oil prices, at over $100 per barrel, have surged to their highest for many years, while the cost of wheat, of which Russia and Ukraine account for at least 30% of global production, will lead to an intolerable rise in the cost of bread.
While the rise in oil prices threaten to disrupt the development of African economies which have already suffered from problems associated with the covid pandemic, the disruption of the distribution of wheat and fertiliser owing to the closure of ports on the Black Sea have led to prognostications of food shortages and famine.
Martin Qaim, a professor of food economics and rural development at the University of Bonn has stated that over 100 million people will be sucked into a spiralling epidemic of poverty and hunger, while Matthias Berninger, a former German minister of agriculture, has predicted a large-scale global famine in 2023.
These consequences will compound the lessons African states, to the exclusion of none, have failed to learn from the past. These lessons include the failure of the non-aligned movement which germinated in the wake of the ideological Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as the failure of African nations, despite the abundance of natural and human resources on the continent, to develop for themselves an industrial base within their national economies.
The importance of economic self-sufficiency cannot be overstated because it is the state of affairs which will guarantee the autonomy of African nations if in the future, they are pressured to conform to any ultimatums directed at them by power blocs in competition for their natural resources.
In some respects, the reasons for the fissure in the relations between the West and Russia, which by implication will also involve fractures in the West’s relationship with China, are unimportant: Africa will simply need to adapt to the realities associated with the fast-dawning age of multi-polarity. Nonetheless, it is vital to give a brief background to the genesis of the US-Russia conflict after the ending of the Cold War.
There are of course always two sides to a story.
The Western narrative, often the dominant one given the “soft-power” advantage of control of the media including the resources of the Internet, posits the crisis in Ukraine as being the result of the national paranoia and the ambitions of a revanchist Russian state under the control of an authoritarian leader named Vladimir Putin. And as evidence of this seemingly ineradicable tendency towards national chauvinism and a propensity for territorial expansion, Putin, it is often repeated, has designs to recreate the borders of the old Soviet Union because he once asserted that the disintegration of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century.
It did not help when three years later in 2008, Putin claimed that Ukraine “is not even a state”. He has followed this by making successive statements that consistently emphasise that Russians and Ukrainians are “one and the same people.” The implication here according to the Western view is that Putin and the policymakers of the Kremlin do not accept that Ukraine has the right to a separate and independent existence.
The counter-narrative to this is predicated on a historical geostrategic imperative on the part of the United States-led West to apply both military and economic pressure on Russia to the point at which it will surrender its national sovereignty; the idea being that a weakened Russia, whether remaining territorially intact or becoming balkanised, will exist not as a military and economic competitor, but as a geographical entity which is solely dedicated to service the energy needs of the West.
This point of analysis has a theoretical basis in the geostrategic philosophy of Halford Mackinder’s “World Island” thesis. Building on a 1904 paper he titled The Geographical Pivot of History, in 1919 Mackinder asserted “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; Who rules the World-Island controls the world”.
Russia, a contiguous land mass which covers both European and Asian continents, has thus been portrayed in the imagination and political calculations of Western policymakers as a threat to their global domination. Thus, it was that the empires of Britain and the United States confronted respectively what they perceived as the threat of Tsarist and then Soviet expansion. Mackinder’s theory was validated in the thinking of the highly influential Polish-American geostrategist Zbigniew Brzezinski whose 1988 book The Grand Chessboard explicitly outlines the need for the United States to militarily intimidate Russia to the point at which it is dismantled and transformed into a pliant source of Western energy needs. Importantly, Brzezinski identifies Ukraine as one of three weak points through which pressure could be applied against Russia.
The dissolution of the Soviet empire and the de-sovietisation of eastern Europe which followed on from the ending of the Cold War brought with it a unipolar world which the policymakers of the United States sought to retain. The Wolfowitz Doctrine enunciated in the early 1990s, prescribed that the United States had to do what it could to prevent the rise of another power which could take the place of the vanquished Soviet Union. This meant that the post-Soviet Russian state would be in the gunsights of America which has worked ceaselessly to get Russia to surrender its sovereignty through military and economic measures.
The military component of this two-pronged strategy is borne out by the refusal to dissolve NATO, the military alliance created to confront the Soviet Union, and instead to pursue NATO expansion in defiance of an agreement that the organisation would not advance an inch eastward after the USSR allowed for the reunification of Germany. The United States also proceeded to dismantle the nuclear treaty security system related to both anti-ballistic missiles and intermediate nuclear forces while installing missile shields. Russia is encircled by a host of US military bases on the European and Asian continents. America has also encouraged a range of “colour revolutions” in states situated on Russia’s borders.
The economic component initially involved trying to gain Western control of Russia’s resources through oligarchs such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and when this failed by initiating a series of anti-Russian provocations which were followed by sanctions imposed after the inevitable Russian reaction.
Ukraine has been the centre of this geopolitical confrontation and it is important to point out that the present war which is largely fixated in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine has its roots in the US-sponsored coup of February 2014 in which the democratically elected president, perceived as pro-Russian by the West, was overthrown with the decisive use of neo-Nazi and ultranationalist groups. The Russophobic overtones of the new regime which banned Russian as an official language, as well as the unpunished actions of neo-Nazi groups against dissenting Russian speakers such as the burning to death of protesters in the city of Odessa in May 2014 formally kickstarted a civil conflict between the Ukrainians state and two Russian-speaking separatist oblasts in the Donbas region. The conflict has been ongoing since 2014 at a cost of the lives of thousands of Russian-speaking civilians, despite the signing of the Minsk Accords, which successive Ukrainian governments respectively led by Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky have failed to implement.
The Russian “special military operation” or invasion can thus be argued to be a culmination of this overarching policy of pressurising Russia. It is a policy which several eminent statesmen and diplomats predicted would lead to conflict between NATO and Russia. George F. Kennan, the architect of the Cold War strategy of “Containment”, Dr. Henry Kissinger, the long-term US National Security Advisor, and Jack Matlock, a former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, all warned of dire consequences resulting from the decision to embark on the eastward expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders. William J. Burns, a former US Ambassador to Russia, specifically predicted a civil war ensuing in Ukraine which would result in Russian intervention, a conclusion supported by the academic, Professor John Mearsheimer, who stated the following in 2015:
The West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked.
The escalation of conflict and the breakdown in relations between the West and Russia has inevitably led to continuous analyses of which side the international community of nations supports. Where Africa is concerned, some states have strongly condemned Russia’s actions while most have remained quiet, a state of affairs reflected in the UN vote taken on March 2nd, which supported the resolution which condemned Russia’s “aggression against Ukraine”.
There are various standpoints to examine the attitudes of African states and their populations to what all recognise as being fundamentally a conflict between Russia and the West.
One basis of African opposition to the Russian action is predicated on the long-term official attitude of African supra-national institutions towards the inviolability of national borders. Thus, the invasion of Ukraine which will almost certainly lead to the country’s balkanisation, offends the rationale of successive declarations by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and then by the African Union (AU) on the sanctity of colonial-imposed borders.
Also, support for the United States may also simply be based on the realities of American military, economic and cultural domination since its emergence as a global hegemon in the second half of the 20th century.
On the other hand, support for Russia is often based on anti-Western sentiment stemming from the historical legacy of European colonisation and exploitation of the continent. And while modern Russia itself is the inheritor of lands colonised during the time of the Tsars, its role as the dominant part of the Soviet Union in supporting anti-colonial national liberation movements in Africa has tended to provide it with a formidable level of respect not given to the United States which is seen as having bolstered the rule of despots such as Mobutu Sese Seko of the Congo.
The association of the United States with the ruthless implementation of neo-colonial policies on the African continent has been deepened in recent times by NATO’s destruction of Libya during an operation in which Islamist proxies were used to effect the overthrow of the secular government of Colonel Muamar Gaddafi. Libya had been earmarked for regime change because of Gaddafi’s plan for African nations to create a common trading currency which it was envisaged would be backed by gold and commodities; thus forgoing the use of the US dollar which has long operated as the de facto world reserve currency.
The US-backed operation in Libya provides a useful backdrop to an examination of a world being transformed from a unipolar to multipolar one. This is because Africa will be in danger of becoming a battleground between Western and Eurasian blocs over its natural resources. The West and China do not possess most of the resources found in Africa and in an atmosphere where a US-led Western alliance of nations is pitted against a Chinese-led alliance, competition for scarce resources threatens to lead to an unwelcome division of the globe into nations which are either supportive of or are hostile to either camp.
One of the effects of NATO’s overthrow of Gaddafi was to destroy significant investments in Libya made by Russia and China, both of which will comprise the significant segment of an alternative trading bloc to that of the Western model.
It is ironic that the pressures applied to Russia by the West over the years has had the effect of pushing Russia into a closer economic partnership with China, thus fostering the creation of a Eurasian union which is antithetical to the continued domination of the global economy by the West.
Africa remains vulnerable today as it was in previous eras to the manipulations of extra-continental powers who vie for global hegemony. The “either you are with us or against us” mentality will prevail in a polarised world. The phrase was popularised by US President George Bush during the so-called “War Against Terror,” when Pakistan was threatened with being bombed back into the stone age if it did not come fully onboard as an ally. But the basis of this approach to international relations are not confined to the circumstances of a unipolar world when the United States threatened other nations to conform with its policies. It is also applicable to a multipolar setting, of which the conduct of the protagonists during the ideological Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union provides abundant evidence.
For instance, the United States was adamant in its policy towards Nasser-led Egypt and Nkrumah-led Ghana that it would not support their respective economic policies unless each country severed its relations with the Soviet bloc. Pressure was even put on Nasser to join the “Baghdad Pact,” an anti-communist military alliance in the Middle East which was modelled on NATO. Failure to acquiesce to Western demands drove Egypt and Ghana into the Soviet sphere, ensuring an animus from the West which led in the case of Ghana to measures that included economic sabotage.
Efforts to develop an effective non-aligned movement ultimately proved fruitless and consequently Africa suffered badly from Cold War-era confrontations between the West and the Soviet Bloc on the continent. Although the USSR had not built up a significant presence in central Africa in the early 1960s, the threat that Patrice Lumumba, the Prime Minister of Congo, would steer his country towards closer relations with the Soviet bloc led to the West’s encouragement of Katangan secession and Lumumba’s assassination. One proceed of this intervention was the installation of Joseph Mobutu as the West’s choice of leader; a man who would back Western interests on the continent while he became an extremely wealthy man, the Head of State of a nation that was phenomenally rich in mineral resources, but which remained one of the poorest nations on earth.
The fears which the West had during the Cold War of Soviet expansion inevitably leading to the Soviet Union’s monopolising of Africa's mineral resources proved to be largely unfounded. It was a conflict fundamentally predicated on ideology.
However, a future Cold War between the West and China (which will be allied with Russia), would largely centre on the access of both parties to mineral resources which they do not possess. This factor as mentioned earlier may lead to Africa becoming the venue of externally directed wars for its resources.
Is Africa in a position to resist this? The prognosis is not good.
Major African states such as Nigeria, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo who continue to struggle, often violently, over the basis of national unity are not well placed to resist the range of economic and military pressures which could be brought on them. In examining this, it is important to comprehend the coercive methods of economic control which can be employed.
For instance, the global economic institutions comprising the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund which provide loans and oversee development projects have been used as the vehicle through which the exercise by developing nations of their sovereign rights can be trampled on. International debt relief mechanisms are tools that clearly undermine economic self-determination.
Further than this, the tactics employed by the West to destroy the Russian economy, regardless of the wrongs or rights of Russia’s actions in Ukraine ought to provide African countries with ample food for thought. For the logical train of thought of any diligent and self-respecting nation state which may in the not-too-distant future be faced with an “you are either with us or against us” ultimatum should be how could my country survive an aggressive bout of economic sanctions?
The West cut Russia off from the SWIFT system of international money payments. It also froze all of Russia’s foreign reserves held in Western banks, a draconian act analogous to Britain’s recent seizure of Venezuela’s $2 billion worth of gold reserves and the United States freezing of Iran’s foreign assets after the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. The West has also taken steps to try to reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian energy and the United States has sought to discourage other countries from purchasing Russian oil.
These measures, which were intended to sink the rouble and create the circumstances that would engineer a revolt against President Vladimir Putin, have failed to achieve the objective of his overthrow. In fact it has boomeranged and caused Western economies a great deal of distress which do not augur well for the future. The prospect of the “de-dollarisation” of the world economy will become a reality if a sizable number of countries begin to purchase Russian oil in roubles, and if Russia and China go ahead and create their own system of international payments while they develop trade in Asia and other parts of the world.
Far from being as the late US Senator John McCain put it, a “gas station masquerading as nation”, Russia’s control of many commodities, minerals and fertiliser, mark it out as a key player in the global economy. The denigrating references to its gross domestic product amounting to no more than that of Spain and less than that of the state of Texas, in addition to the comment by McCain led to an underestimation of its ability to withstand the severest form of sanctions.
The question of whether any African nation state alone or a combination of allied African states could remain resilient in the face of a similar onslaught is doubtful.
As the economist J.K. Galbraith has outlined, Russia has survived because it is a self-sufficient nation which has developed an industrial base:
In a test of wills of power, Russia starts in a strong position. It is nearly self-sufficient in every essential including energy, food, heavy industry and weapons. The loss of familiar western consumer goods can be made up through local initiative - not lacking in today’s Russia, compared with Soviet times - or with China. Russia’s financial assets greatly exceed her debts, even after the loss of her foreign-held reserves.
This point is arguably the biggest lesson African nations should take from the fallout from the Russia-Ukraine conflict: Africa will not be able to withstand the future machinations of those extra-continental powers intent on exploiting her mineral wealth if its countries fail to be bestirred into taking action to achieve economic self-sufficiency and building an adequate industrial base.
And given the perils posed by an encroaching multipolar world, the mindset of the political and intellectual leadership of the African continent ought to be infused with the ferocious resolve of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin who in 1931 said the following:
We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make up this gap in ten years. Either we do it or they will crush us.
© Adeyinka Makinde (2022).
Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England. He has an interest in history and geopolitics.