The Russo-Ukrainian war is upsetting the system of international relations and the alliances between governments of different continents. Governments have to choose whether to side with Ukraine and the Western coalition, or with Russia and its remaining allies (China, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela and Cuba). In particular, the African continent is today the scene of a great diplomatic and economic game contested among European and Arab countries, Russia and China.

Africa is suffering from the repercussions of the ongoing war, such as the termination of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which jeopardizes its food needs. Furthermore, Russia is exerting its influence on the countries of the sub-Saharan belt, through the presence of Wagner mercenaries fostering coups d’état and supporting local dictators in exchange for control of local mineral resources (gold, diamonds, uranium, manganese).

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The coup in Niger, which holds the world’s fourth largest uranium reserves, is the latest move by Russia, aimed at blackmailing Europe, which needs the uranium for its nuclear power plants. Russia is offering to substitute France, with a bad image as former colonial power, and supports ambitious African leaders looking for military protection and diplomatic recognition.

In fact, on July 27-28 this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted for a summit in St. Petersburg for the delegations of 49 African countries, including 17 heads of state. The representatives agreed to promote a multipolar world order and fight “neocolonialism.”

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Putin claimed that “Russia’s attention to Africa is steadily growing” and offered free supplies of grain to woo African allies: “In the coming months, we will be able to ensure free supplies of 25,000 to 50,000 tons of grain to Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Central African Republic and Eritrea,” he said. In response, the chairman of the African Union Azali Assoumani (President of Comoros) said that the offer of grain to Africa by the Russian President was insufficient and he should reopen the Black Sea Grain Corridor.

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Ukraine also wants to play an important role in this change of influence system. On Dec. 3, 2022, President Volodymyr Zelensky announced the decision to open 10 new embassies in African countries. Moreover, in an Aug. 17 interview with AFP, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba confirmed this line and spoke about Ukraine’s strategy to work to “revive” its relations with Africa. “For too many years, things were wasted, but we will be moving forward with a Ukrainian-African renaissance, reviving these relations. This continent requires systematic and long-term work,” said Kuleba, who mentioned the “slow erosion of Russia’s positions in Africa.”

Diplomatic deficiencies

But Ukrainian ambitions are penalized by a diplomatic network that is still insufficient in terms of number of ambassadors and experience. There are 54 African countries and Ukraine does not have an embassy in most of them, because there are not enough diplomats. In addition, Ukraine on Independence Day inherited some Soviet-trained ambassadors, and no diplomacy schools, all of which remained in Moscow. Today, the Ukrainian diplomatic corps is somewhat rejuvenated, but still has to create a homogeneous style and communication. The removal of Ukraine’s ambassadors in Berlin and London for comments deviating from the government line showed that there is still a lot of work to be done in selection and training.

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For a strategy of growing diplomatic influence over Africa to counter the Russian presence, Ukraine needs to get trusted information channels to receive reports on the orientations of each African government towards Russia and Ukraine. Russia has built its influence on these countries also because it has invested heavily in political relations and cultural exchanges since the days of the USSR, when Moscow universities hosted students from the new African ruling classes.

Mohammad Farajallah, Chief Editor of “Ukraine in Arabic,” an information portal and opinion-maker of the Ukrainian Institute of the Future in Kyiv, said: “The most important thing we must realize, and the Ukrainians can contribute their share, is that Africa cannot be lost… We should really work with local leaders, to support the economy, to support democracy, freedom of speech. And each order there, we will take it away from Russia.”

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But the training of new diplomats and the opening of new embassies in little-known states takes a long time, while the opportunities to acquire diplomatic successes present themselves almost every day. To cover this moment of transition, a diplomatic partnership with another country could be a solution. There is already an established diplomatic practice that, where a country does not have its own embassy, it can ask a friendly state to take care of his nationals and act as representative.

Enter Italy

From this point of view, Italy is the ideal country for a diplomatic partnership with Ukraine, focused on relations with African countries. In fact, among the G7 and EU countries, Italy is the one with the best diplomatic relations in Africa, thanks to investments in humanitarian aid and a long diplomatic tradition that has led to a broad understanding of the continent.

Italy has long been the source of many missionary initiatives to Africa. Some of these have also played a decisive role in the peace process, such as the Community of Sant’Egidio in Mozambique, which was decisive in mediating between the warring parties and in the signing of the peace accords on Oct. 4, 1992.

Other large European countries with excellent diplomats are penalized in Africa either by some skeletons in the closet, such as France and the UK’s colonial past, (the UK is also hobbled by its special relationship with the US). Meanwhile Germany is in a politically difficult position given its economic relations with Russia.

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In this regard, the political scientist and professor of modern history Aldo Giannuli (author of the book Spie in Ucraina) said: “Italy enjoys considerable soft power in Africa, where it is seen as a nation that brings missionaries and engineers, who distribute food and build bridges. France and England are not very popular due to bad memories of colonialism and their militaristic policies. By contrast, African countries are not afraid of Italy.”

As such, a project of diplomatic cooperation between Italy and Ukraine aimed at Africa could offer significant advantages to Kyiv. First, it would provide up-to-date information from confidential sources on the politics, culture and economy of the countries where the Ukrainian government is blind due to lack of embassies. Furthermore, an official collaboration with Italy would be an advantage in terms of image, which would facilitate good relations with African governments. This cooperation could include training of Ukrainian diplomats in Italy and internships in Italian embassies.

“A diplomatic partnership with Ukraine would also be a gain for Italy, because it would improve its political status for the important aid directed toward Ukraine – in this case non-military – and it would show the Italian competence in international relations, which today is undervalued,” added Prof. Giannuli.

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