Viewpoint: Africa and the Russian invasion of Ukraine

President Cyril Ramaphosa during plenary session at the Russia-Africa Summit held in Sochi, Russia
Image by South African Government
Creative Commons BY-ND

Mark N. Katz

Addis Abeba – America and its Western allies have condemned Russia for invading Ukraine.  But in much of the developing world—including Africa—there has been much more sympathy for Russia.  One reason why African governments and public opinion have reportedly been sympathetic to Russia is because its predecessor, the Soviet Union, supported African independence from European colonial rule as well as liberation from white minority rule in southern Africa during the Cold War. Many Africans, then, feel a sense of anti-Western solidarity with Russia: just as Moscow supported Africa against the West in the past, many Africans sympathize with Russia in its confrontation with the West now.

But while this feeling is widespread in Africa, there is something inconsistent in the logic behind it. Tsarist Russia, after all, was also a European colonial empire. Unlike Britain, France, Portugal, Holland, Belgium, and Spain which built overseas colonial empires, Tsarist Russia built an overland one. Just as the European colonial powers conquered and ruled over non-European peoples and territories, Tsarist Russia conquered and ruled over non-Russian peoples and territories—including those in Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Baltic region, Ukraine, and elsewhere.

Essentially, then, what the European colonial powers were to Africa, Russia was to Ukraine

After the downfall of Tsarist Russia, the new communist rulers recaptured most (though not all) of the non-Russian territories that had been lost during the Bolshevik Revolution and latter stages of World War I. The new Soviet leadership created numerous non-Russian republics as a way of trying to assuage the nationalist sentiments of the various non-Russian peoples.  But the reality was that these non-Russian “republics” were as much Russia’s colonies as the various “protectorates” in Africa and elsewhere were.  And just as Europe’s colonies and protectorates in Africa were not satisfied with this status but seized the opportunity to assert their independence when they could during the Cold War, Russia’s colonies—including Ukraine—seized the opportunity to assert their independence when they had opportunity to do so at the end of the Cold War.

Essentially, then, what the European colonial powers were to Africa, Russia was to Ukraine.  For Putin now seeking to regain control over part or even all of Ukraine on the basis that a part of its population is Russian and want Russian rule to return is the equivalent, say, of Britain or Holland seeking to regain control over South Africa on the basis that the white South African minority is English or Dutch and wants British or Dutch rule to return.

By the same token, Soviet support for African independence and Black majority rule during the Cold War is equivalent to Western support for Ukrainian independence and Ukrainian majority rule inside Ukraine now.  It is precisely because Africa threw off European colonial rule in the past that Africans should support Ukraine resist the re-imposition of colonial rule by Russia now. AS

Editor’s Note: Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

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