In a rare diplomatic intervention, a delegation of African leaders embarked on a peace mission to Kyiv today, greeted by the sound of sirens as the Ukrainian capital came under missile attack once again.

The delegation – led by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and including senior representatives from Egypt, Senegal, Comoros, Uganda, Zambia and the Republic of the Congo – met with President Volodymyr Zelensky before heading to Russia tomorrow to hold talks with Vladimir Putin.

Yet even their imminent trip to Moscow didn’t stop the Russian president from pausing his aerial bombardment of Kyiv. This morning’s missiles “are a message to Africa: Russia wants more war, not peace,” declared Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba. 

The peace mission, facilitated by independent non-profit peace organisation the Brazzaville Foundation, is carving out an interesting new role for African nations.   

The delegation is aiming to facilitate a resumption of dialogue between the two sides. It may also attempt to negotiate a prisoner swap and, tomorrow, will almost certainly seek to persuade Moscow to extend the fragile agreement enabling Kyiv to ship grain through the Black Sea – following Putin’s recent threats to withdraw from the deal, brokered last July. 

African countries rely heavily on Russia and Ukraine for grain and fertiliser, meaning war-induced import disruptions have taken a big toll on the continent, causing food insecurity to soar. 

Yet despite feeling the impact of Putin’s invasion, many African nations have maintained a neutral stance on the war. 

During a UN vote on the anniversary of the invasion demanding that Moscow withdraw its troops from Ukraine, 32 member states abstained, almost half of which were African countries – including South Africa, Uganda, the Republic of Congo and Ethiopia. Several others – such as Egypt, Kenya and Nigeria – voted in favour of the resolution while Eritrea and Mali opposed the motion.

Russian influence in a country such as Mali is unsurprising. After all, the Russian Wagner Group has mercenaries there helping the government to fight an Islamist insurgency. It’s also worth remembering that the Soviet Union actively supported many pro-independence movements in Africa – offering military training, for instance, to anti-apartheid groups in South Africa. 

Yet since Putin’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, Kyiv and its allies have made a concerted effort to counter Russian diplomatic influence in the region. In May, Ukraine’s foreign minister embarked on a second wartime tour of the African continent, seeking to shore up support. 

Neutrality is a fundamental quality for any viable peace negotiator. Yet Cyril Ramaphosa’s role in leading today’s peace mission could hinder the delegation’s efforts. As columnist Tim Marshall told Reaction, “while Zelensky will be welcoming and polite, the Ukrainians are aware of the recent allegations about South Africa arming Russia and sceptical at the subsequent protestations of innocence.”

More generally, the African delegation “has a steep road to travel if it is to make a difference,” adds Marshall. While any mediation efforts are welcome, “the countries involved have little leverage in either Kyiv or Moscow.”

Indeed, the fact that Putin welcomed the delegation to Kyiv with a bunch of missiles hardly bodes well for productive peace talks tomorrow. 

Even so, the fact that such talks are taking place at all must be a hopeful step forward. The delegation’s goal to resume dialogue between the two sides is a vital one.

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