Ukraine’s Next Big Diplomatic Offensive Is in the Global South

Ukraine plans to massively scale up its diplomatic presence in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia as it works with Western allies to blunt Russia’s political clout and economic ties across the world.

Ukraine plans to tap a new wave of ambassadors, or open entirely new embassies, in nearly two dozen countries, from Ghana to Malaysia, as it tries to marshal more global support for its struggle against Russia’s invasion beyond Europe and North America. The plan would see Ukraine open 10 new embassies in Africa, as well as one in Guatemala.

The initiative, first announced by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in March, is picking up pace in the coming months and showcases Kyiv’s plans to counter Russian claims that much of the world outside of NATO either supports or is indifferent to Russia’s bloody land grabs in Ukraine—even after Moscow faced a stinging rebuke in a U.N. General Assembly vote that condemned its invasion earlier this year.

Kuleba, who traveled to Africa last October in an attempt to curb Russian influence, said in an emailed statement that the effort is designed to be pro-Ukrainian, not anti-Russian, even more than a year into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“We are not reaching out to African partners to make friends against anyone,” Kuleba wrote, a message he said echoed his diplomatic exchanges from the October tour that was interrupted by a Russian missile barrage back home. “Our ambition is a Ukrainian-African renaissance, a new quality of bilateral relations based on mutual respect, mutual interests, and mutual benefits.”

The Kremlin is the biggest supplier of weapons, wheat, and likely mercenaries to Africa, through the Wagner Group, a shadowy paramilitary outfit that has a presence in Mali, Libya, and the Central African Republic, among other countries. Top European and U.S. leaders have backed the broad approach of expanding engagement with the so-called global south, saying it’s key to defeating Russia when it comes to soft power and hard money.

“It’s really important that this is not just a Western response to this Russian invasion, to show we have partners all over this planet,” Margrethe Vestager, the EU commissioner for competition, said at a major security conference in Tallinn, Estonia, last week.

“We are speaking about a nuclear country that as a [permanent member of the U.N. Security Council] is supposed to guarantee security to all of us, to my country, to [the] global south, to the globe,” Emine Dzhaparova, Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister, told Foreign Policy on Wednesday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has visited 14 countries in Africa and Latin America this year so far to buoy Russia’s claims that it is not, in fact, a pariah. He visited Brazil, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba in April before making a bruising speech at the United Nations Security Council, where he lashed out at Western countries for “aiming for the destruction of globalization.”

“Russia is trying to show that it isn’t all that isolated on the world stage,” said one senior Eastern European diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Ukraine is hard at work to show that it’s a complete fantasy.”

The Ukrainian government is also hoping that more countries are receptive: Kuleba was the first Ukrainian foreign minister since the country’s 1991 independence referendum to set foot on African soil for a diplomatic visit. Meanwhile, Kyiv is working to prepare a Ukraine-Africa conference this summer, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has only left the country a handful of times since Russia’s invasion, said in February that he was willing to travel to meet leaders of Latin American countries at an in-person summit. The Ukrainian leader first pledged to start opening embassies in African countries in late 2022.

Kuleba is approaching Ukraine’s diplomatic push much as Zelensky’s fictional TV character did: They’re opening the job to anyone. When Ukraine began sketching plans to build Kyiv’s diplomatic presence in the global south, after decades of the war-torn country struggling to find diplomats for top postings, he said he realized that the choice of ambassadors for African countries was “critically limited.”

“I didn’t want to choose the best of the rest from inside of the diplomatic system,” Kuleba said. “This moment made me realize that the time for a revolution has come.” Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it has received 1,038 applications for 21 ambassador jobs that are posted publicly online.

The process helped Ukraine find ambassadors to China and India outside of the diplomatic system. The vacancies include relatively cushy posts such as the Czech Republic and Norway, but also less-silver-platter postings such as Rwanda, Mozambique, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Angola.

And when Ukrainian diplomats show up, officials believe they will be armed with a powerful narrative. “I think the most important narrative is for us to show that this is a colonial war, that Russia is acting as a colonial empire. That’s something which African countries should understand,” said Oleksiy Goncharenko, a Ukrainian lawmaker from the opposition European Solidarity bloc, who represents Odesa. “Ukraine is fighting for its independence and sovereignty.”

With a Turkish-brokered deal allowing safe Black Sea passage of Ukrainian grain to Africa and the Middle East set to expire later this week, the case for Kyiv’s engagement is only growing. Africa and the Middle East rely on Ukrainian grains. “Part of them are really dependent on our crops,” Goncharenko added.

Kuleba said Ukrainian officials have already identified 40 “very strong candidates” for ambassador posts that are going through tests and being invited for interviews, and about a hundred more applicants who aren’t qualified to become ambassadors but will receive job offers to become lower-ranking diplomats.

“If I eventually find 100 motivated diplomats out of 1,000 applications, I will consider the whole effort a great success,” Kuleba added.

But Zelensky’s political rivals say they’ve seen this movie before: Political amateurs like wedding photographers and restaurateurs rode the former comedian’s coattails into Ukraine’s parliament in a landslide election in 2019. “I don’t know why we are looking this way, by some kind of advertisement,” Goncharenko said. (The United States may not have room to judge; both Republican and Democratic administrations have made a practice of doling out plum ambassador posts to wealthy campaign donors without prior diplomatic experience.)

Ukraine’s trouble selling itself in the global south has mirrored a larger messaging problem in the West. After Russia’s invasion last year, at the United Nations, 141 countries voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in a resolution, compared to only five countries (including Russia) that voted against it and 35 that abstained, in what was considered a significant diplomatic blow to Moscow. But beyond these setbacks at the United Nations, the campaign to isolate Russia has hit speed bumps outside of Europe, North America, and a handful of key Western allies in Asia and the Pacific—namely, Japan, Australia, and South Korea.

And like in Africa, much to the chagrin of Ukrainian officials, many Latin American countries have adopted a nonaligned stance toward the war in Ukraine. Most nations have strategic partnerships with both Ukraine and Russia, importing grain, fuel, and fertilizer, as well as fuel from each.

“Some of these countries, especially in Africa, depend on Russia,” said Cecilia Tornaghi, senior director of policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas. “They have a very close relationship, and for them it’s like shooting themselves in the foot to sanction.”

Most countries worldwide have declined to join Western sanctions regimes, and some major economic powers such as India and Turkey continue to import Russian oil and gas, a key revenue stream for Moscow. In the Middle East, Iran is supplying Russia with sorely needed weapons and drones, and countries nominally aligned with the United States, including the United Arab Emirates, have become a major new hub for Russian trade and evading Western sanctions.

The United States this month also accused South Africa of secretly sending arms and ammunition to Russia, highlighting that Moscow’s efforts to maintain its political and economic ties beyond the West are paying off in some form.

Foreign Policy intern Rocio Fabbro contributed reporting for this article.

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