Is Russia's war in Ukraine a ploy to win over Africa?

When Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed former President Uhuru Kenyatta to the inaugural Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi. [PCS]

Ukraine has refused to get off the headlines. The fog of war seems to be getting thicker with more fronts opening.

The most recent front is technological. The other is Africa.

The use of the tank, an innovation of the first World War that wreaked havoc in the trenches and plains of Europe, is being emphasised again.

This is curious when the war is becoming more unconventional with drones and hypersonic weapons, more on that later.

The West seems determined to re-invent this weapon just when its future was uncertain. Like Harambee, several countries are contributing to buying tanks for Ukraine.

Surprisingly, there was a Kenyan precedence. Kenyan tribes did some Harambee to buy planes for the British Empire during the Second World War (WWII). The aircrafts were named after the tribes. Any elder who can recall that?

The Kenyan contribution to WW II has never been fully appreciated. Which county has a memorial for its soldiers who fought for the empire in WW II or even Mau Mau?

Some of these soldiers became veterans of two wars - the world wars and the Mau Mau uprising. It’s possible a few could have fought in both world wars. It’s paradoxical that by saving the empire from defeat by the Germans, Africans realised they could fight against their rulers.

Excited by Uhuru and modernity, we have paid scant attention to the heroes who died or got maimed so that we can enjoy our freedom.

Today, our kids know more about Superman, but don’t know the first Kenyan recruited to fight for the Empire. Our historians have let these soldiers die with their story, invaluable primary sources.

The British have the war museum. Do we have one in Kenya? Americans have Arlington War Cemetery. Do we have one?  How many WWI or Mau Mau veterans have epitaphs that show they fought for the Empire and their country? It does not matter if they were porters, gun bearers or went to the front line. Where can I get a list of all Kenyans who fought in WW I and II or even Mau Mau?

Why do we have street names like Njugu, Mbitini or Jogoo Road? Why not honour the heroes who fought in Burma, Libya, Madagascar and other fronts? Do not get me wrong, I am not romanticising war, just its realities.

Let’s get back to Ukraine. Beyond tanks, Ukraine has become a lab for weapons. We are hearing of hypersonic weapons, faster than supersonic and hard to detect. Supersonic speed is more that of sound, about 343 metres per second.

Iran and Turkey

Drones have come out of science fiction to the battlefield. The leaders in designing and manufacturing drones are Iran and Turkey.

Why? I recall  Iranians intercepting an American drone one time.

Did they reverse-engineer it? More like South Africa during the apartheid era, Iran learnt to be self-sufficient in military technology following its isolation after the revolution in 1979.

For Turkey, the inability to buy USA or Israeli drones led to a thriving home industry of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones. Let’s not forget, weapons are very profitable.

Beyond new weapons, another age-old weapon is in use. The weather.

By destroying the power generation and transmission lines, Russia intends to freeze Ukrainians to death or call for a truce.

The war in Ukraine has been a stalemate, frozen by weather and unexpected determination by Ukrainians to resist the Russian invasion. We still can’t understand why a 70-year-old man is waging war. 

At that age, one should be enjoying the sunset years surrounded by the laughter of his grandchildren.

The Ukraine war’s end game is still foggy and getting foggier.

The presence of Russians in South Africa, ostensibly for military exercises has raised the stakes.

And shows the war on another front, diplomacy and in Africa.

Could Russia be playing the long game in Ukraine? As we are focused on Ukraine, Russia is making inroads in Africa, making new allies.

Looping in South Africa was a stroke of genius. She is Africa’s second-largest economy and most influential. Russia is active in the Sahel region and could quickly fill the vacuum left by departing French soldiers. It’s another question if Russians will pacify this restive region or make it more unstable.

Three decades after the end of the Cold War, Russia seems to have returned to Africa to fight for influence with the Chinese and Americans. It’s also filling a vacuum left by former colonial masters whose influence has waned.  

The former colonies are coming of age or seeking alternatives after years of economic stagnation and no tangible benefits of association with former masters.

China has offered such benefits with roads and rail, seaports and more. Never mind the narrative on debt diplomacy and the spectre of Chinese colonialism. Want to know the source?

Soft issues

The West has lost influence after decades of too much focus on soft issues like democracy. An injection of some tangibles would have made a difference. Remember the Marshall Plan and the rebuilding of Europe after WWII? Is Russian still offering scholarships to Kenyans?

Could the Ukraine war be a distraction so that as the West is focused there, Russia is entrenching itself elsewhere? We have argued that the war in Ukraine is part of Russia’s long game to remake the world order.

But until South Africa got sucked into it, we did not think Africa was part of the game. Did the freedom struggle in Southern Africa create a soft spot for Russia for its support?

One of the big questions is where other powers like China stand in the Ukraine war. That would make a big difference in the emerging world order if China and Russia were on one side.

Who will be next after South Africa? Who is already in Russian orbit directly or indirectly? What is Russia offering African countries?

When will the Ukraine war end? How will it end? How will Kenya be affected by this faraway war beyond higher oil prices? When will the fog of this war finally clear?