'Echoes of the Cold War' as Blinken heads to Africa, vying with Russia for influence

Key Points
  • The tour will also take the top U.S. diplomat to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda.
  • It follows a recent tour by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who visited Egypt, Uganda, Ethiopia and the Republic of Congo in July.
  • The underlying purpose of the trip — Blinken's second since President Joe Biden's administration took office — will be to try to contain Russian and Chinese geopolitical influence on the continent, according to Chatham House's Alex Vines.
PRETORIA, South Africa, August 8, 2022: South Africa's Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor (R) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) attend a strategic dialogue opening session meeting at the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in South Africa on Monday to begin a three-country tour as major powers jostle for influence on the continent.

The tour will also take the top U.S. diplomat to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, and follows a recent tour by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who visited Egypt, Uganda, Ethiopia and the Republic of Congo in July.

French President Emmanuel Macron recently visited Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau in a bid to revitalize France's relations with its former colonies.

In a speech on Monday, Blinken said the rest of the world should no longer "dictate" to African nations, and outlined the Biden administration's priorities for the content, such as supporting investment, security, Covid recovery, clean energy and democracy.

"African nations have been treated as instruments of other nations' progress, rather than the authors of their own," Blinken said.

The underlying purpose of the trip — Blinken's second since President Joe Biden's administration took office — will be to try to contain Russian and Chinese geopolitical influence on the continent, according to Alex Vines, director of the Africa program at Chatham House.

"South Africa is a country which doesn't have a good relationship with the United States. The party of government, the African National Congress, regularly issues declaration communiques criticizing the United States, and so the effort there is how to improve the relationship and at least have a more constructive dialog with South Africa," Vines told CNBC on Monday.

He suggested that this is the reason why South Africa is Blinken's first port of call, and that particular attention will be paid to aligning the two countries' perspectives on Russia's war in Ukraine.

"There's a big difference between how Pretoria sees the Russia-Ukraine issue, and Washington," Vines added.

Blinken's South African counterpart, Naledi Pandor, on Monday reiterated criticism of the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act, currently going through U.S. Congress, which she said could punish African countries for not aligning with the U.S. on the subject of Ukraine.

Military ties

A number of African governments have been reluctant to overtly criticize Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, and many abstained from a draft U.N. resolution in March condemning the Kremlin and calling for a withdrawal from Ukraine.

The resolution passed overwhelmingly with 141 nations voting in favor, but the African nations among the 34 that abstained from the vote were: South Africa, Mali, Mozambique, the Central African Republic, Angola, Algeria, Burundi, Madagascar, Namibia, Senegal, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

Over the past few years, Russia has built a number of military alliances with governments in African countries facing violent insurgencies or political instability, including Libya, Mali, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Mozambique.

Russia's Lavrov claimed that his tour of Africa was not about Ukraine. He instead focused on Africa's "intrinsic value" to Russia as a trade partner and highlighted the contracts Moscow has on the continent for exports of food, fertilizers and energy. 

In a recent blog, the European Council on Foreign Relations said that while that message was tailored to African sensitivities, the primary objective of Lavrov's trip was "political theater." 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov holds a press conference at Russian Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on July 27, 2022.
Minasse Wondimu Hailu | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

"Despite Western attempts to isolate Russia over its all-out war on Ukraine, Lavrov is using Africa to demonstrate that his country still has partners in some parts of the globe," said Theodore Murphy, director of the Africa program at the ECFR. 

"The second objective of the trip is to expand Russia's influence in Africa. Lavrov hopes to achieve this by exploiting the strategic error the West made by asking African countries to choose a side over Ukraine." 

Central to the hard power Russia is using to ingratiate itself in the region is the private mercenary Wagner Group, which has been active in counterinsurgency operations in countries such as Mali, the CAR and Libya. The Kremlin denies any links to the controversial group, which has been accused of human rights violations.

Blinken addressed Wagner Group directly on Monday, accusing the group of exploiting instability to "pillage resources and commit abuses with impunity."

Vines said the three countries on Blinken's travel itinerary had been carefully chosen, and that the DRC visit would likely focus on food security and peace and stability – given renewed conflict in the eastern DRC that has also been reported to involve Rwandan forces. 

However, he added that much of Washington's concern, as has historically been the case, would be centered around securing "strategic and critical minerals." 

Blinken will announce a new U.S. strategy toward Africa during his South Africa visit: Researcher
Blinken to announce U.S. strategy on Africa in South Africa visit: Researcher

"The United States is concerned about those supply chains, doesn't want them to fall into the hands of the Russians or Chinese, and so really enhanced diplomacy," he added. 

"Finally Rwanda — it is an ally of the United States but the deteriorated situation on the border area of eastern Congo with Rwanda is worrying Washington, and so Antony Blinken is going to use his good offices, he's going to try and knock heads together between Kinshasa and Kigali, and see if they can dial down on the tensions between both countries." 

The U.N. has long had a substantial peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, operating in the DRC. However, the government last week expelled its spokesman Mathias Gillmann after protests against the mission in which 36 people, including four U.N. peacekeepers, were killed. 

With the U.S. a major contributor of funds to the U.N., Vines suggested that this may also draw Washington's attention to ensuring tensions in the region can be defused. 

'Echoes of the Cold War' 

In discussing the significance of strategic and critical minerals, Chatham House's Vines acknowledged that the situation has "echoes of the Cold War." 

However, he highlighted that the competition for geopolitical, economic and military influence on the African continent extended beyond the U.S., Russia and China. Notably, these include Turkey, the EU, the U.K. and even Japan, which holds the eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development in Tunis, Tunisia on Aug. 27. 

"Russia is trying but it doesn't have the deep pockets and the presence that it did when it was the Soviet Union, so it's an irritant but it's not, I think, a long-term challenge on the African continent in the way that it was during the Cold War," Vines said. 

The sun sets on one of the open pit copper mines at Mutanda Mining Sarl on July 6, 2016 in Kolwezi, DRC. The mine is owned (69%) by Glencore, an Anglo-Swiss multinational commodity trading and mining company.
Per-Anders Pettersson | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Although this is unlikely to manifest itself in the form of a hot war in Africa, he pointed to some "proxy activity" already taking place in the form of the Wagner Group's presence and involvement in various pockets of domestic or regional unrest. 

"What I do think is more visible at the moment is this idea of securing critical and strategic minerals and improving supply chains. You see this also in Asian countries like Japan — much more active for example along the East African coast, including looking at minerals and energy supply — as are a number of other countries," Vines said.  

"The Gulf states, for example, are looking to diversify their sources for food security also, as well as certain types of minerals for their industrial complexes. This I think is where the competition is going to be much sharper, which is the commercial diplomacy of a number of nations, particularly also Russia, China, the United States."