On May 17, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the creation of “an African leaders’ peace mission” to end the war in Ukraine. This mission, which also consists of Zambia, Senegal, the Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Egypt, is set to visit Kyiv and Moscow in mid-to-late June. French negotiator Jean-Yves Ollivier, who helped create the mission through six months of talks, claims that the US, the European Union (EU), the United Nations (UN), the African Union, and China have expressed support for an African-led peace process.  

Despite Ollivier’s successful facilitation of negotiations to end apartheid in the late 1980s, this peace mission has long odds for success. Ollivier acknowledged this uphill struggle by declaring that, “We are not dreamers” and that, “unless something happens, I don’t think we are going to finish this mission with a ceasefire.” His response reflects the difficulties faced by African countries in striking a middle ground between Russia and Ukraine’s divergent perspectives and concerns about the impartiality of the African peace mission.  

According to French media outlet Jeune Afrique, African diplomats initially viewed a temporary ceasefire and a second referendum in Donbas and other illegally annexed territories as a precondition for visiting Kyiv and Moscow. The Russian Foreign Ministry indirectly rebuffed these terms by attacking Jeune Afrique’s trustworthiness.  

Igor Girkin — the nationalist extremist convicted of murdering 298 people on Flight MH-17 — expressed his derision for the initiative by sharing a Telegram post that called for the “relocation of all employees of the African Peace Mission in Ukraine to one of the abandoned Soviet Antarctic stations.” Ukraine is also unlikely to accede to these terms, as it has repeatedly insisted that a ceasefire is incompatible with Russian territorial occupation. While the US is open to third-party mediation efforts, it refuses to support initiatives that are unacceptable to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.  

The ambiguous positions of the mission’s African participants could also cause concern in Kyiv and to a lesser extent, Moscow. Even though Egypt’s exports to Russia expanded by 21% in 2022, it has routinely voted against Russia in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and supplied ammunition to Ukraine under US pressure. Zambia’s self-professed neutrality on the war was tested by the September death of Moscow prisoner Lemekhani Nyirenda in Ukraine following his recruitment by the Wagner Group. It created significant diplomatic friction between the two countries.  

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Although the remaining four participating countries abstained from a March 2022 UNGA resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, their official neutrality masks pro-Russian sympathies. Senegalese President Macky Sall has uncritically repeated Kremlin narratives that Western sanctions are exacerbating food insecurity in Africa. Sergei Lavrov became the first Soviet or Russian foreign minister to visit the Republic of Congo in July 2022, as Brazzaville courted closer ties. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, son of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and a potential successor, recently claimed that Uganda would send soldiers to Moscow if it was ever threatened by “imperialists.” South Africa is also facing US criticisms for allegedly allowing arms transfers to Russia from Simon’s Town naval base.  

While an African-led diplomatic solution is unlikely, the peace mission might nonetheless provide Russia and Ukraine with opportunities to strengthen partnerships in Africa. Since Yevgeny Primakov’s tenure as Foreign Minister from 1996-98, Russia has presented itself as a supporter of an expanded role for Africa in international relations.  

In July 2011, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev brokered talks between South African President Jacob Zuma, who spearheaded the African Union’s peace plan in Libya, and NATO. Russia will likely leverage its superficial openness to an African solution to its Ukraine war to bolster its soft power on the continent. Lavrov’s May 29 visit to Kenya, which resulted in a new trade pact and 30,000 tons of free fertilizer, and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s arrival in Moscow on May 30 underscore the Kremlin’s ambitions.   

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba’s recent African tour, which included a direct request for African Union support for Zelenskyy’s peace plan, underscores Kyiv’s desire to use this peace mission to win support from African leaders.  

Zelenskyy’s December 2022 plan to open 10 new Ukrainian embassies in Africa and establish trade representative offices in strategic locations reveals a growing attention to the continent. Given these trends, the African leaders’ peace mission might serve as a gateway to a sharpened war of Russia-Ukraine narratives in Africa, rather than as an enabler of a potential ceasefire.  

Dr. Samuel Ramani is a tutor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford, where he received his doctorate in March 2021. He is also a geopolitical analyst and commentator, and an Associate Fellow at RUSI. 

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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