Europe’s relations with Africa and Asia are on the brink of collapse, and Russia is benefiting
More than one year since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the world remains caught in the middle. Against a backdrop of high energy and food prices, ravaging inflation, social unrest and fears of another global recession, Western and Russian blocs are once again vying for support from nations of the developing world.
Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz, Sergei Lavrov, Qin Gang, and Anthony Blinken are just some of the names that have made high-profile visits to Africa in the last 12 months. All have largely focused on cooperation and trade, yet each has done so with a discourse reflecting a kind of Cold War reboot, with Ukraine as one of its most prominent symptoms.
Each in their own way, armed with their respective propaganda, these superpowers wish for nations of Africa and Asia to pick a side. Yet, unlike the previous century, those nations cannot so easily be made to choose, nor should they have to. Russia understands this. The West does not.
It’s no secret that Africa has been reluctant to overtly condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine, or to participate in Western efforts to sanction and isolate the warring country. Instead, African and Asian nations have continued to welcome these longstanding partners with open arms – widely condemning the war, but not Russia.
In Malawi, for instance, Russia’s deliveries of tens of thousands of tonnes of fertiliser amidst global shortages are seen as a gift from heaven by struggling farmers. Malawi’s minister of agriculture shook hands with the Russian ambassador, describing Russia gratefully as “a true friend”. Russia’s announced plans to send 260,000 tonnes of fertiliser to countries across Africa, is certain to spread similar sentiments.
In my country Congo-Brazzaville, the government signed five major cooperation agreements with Russia in the midst of its war with Ukraine, including for the construction of a new oil pipeline and to enhance military cooperation.
This charm offensive, prominently led by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who has visited South Africa, Eswatini, Angola, Eritrea, Mali, Sudan and Mauritania just since January, is already nourishing pro-Russian sentiment throughout the continent, and stands in sharp contrast to the damp squib that was President Emmanuel Macron’s recent African adventure.
In his press conference with Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President, Felix Tshisekedi, in what was perhaps the most deaf-tone faux pas of his entire trip, President Macron was repeatedly asked to condemn Rwanda’s support for M23 rebels causing havoc in eastern DRC – a situation that closely resembles Russia’s covert support for Donbass separatists in recent years. For all intents and purposes, he failed to do so.
Instead, when a French journalist quizzed him on former Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s disparaging mention of an “African-style compromise” in relation to President Tshisekedi election in 2019, Macron proceeded to lecture the Congolese President on freedom of the press – much to the disbelief of those witnessing the scene.
Despite President Macron’s effusive rhetoric about ‘new relationships’ and ‘new starts’, his outburst was yet another bitter reminder of Europe’s longstanding paternalistic and dissonant attitude towards the continent. This is the same attitude whereby decades of European political and military influence on the continent have failed to generate meaningful progress when they did not actively undermine those efforts. Africans are wise to this and refuse to take it anymore, as evidenced by the growth in anti-French sentiment in West Africa. Russia, China and others, though far from being without reproach, are merely seizing the presented opportunities.
Just as the share of EU aid going to Africa has declined significantly, similar problems are afoot with Europe’s relations in Asia. Its share of Southeast Asian merchandise trade, excluding China, fell by over a third over the last two decades. Western Europe was the destination for less than a tenth of Malaysian, Singaporean, South Korean and Taiwanese exports in 2021. Russia is again moving fast to fill the gap, adopting China as its main trading partner, and consistently exporting oil and gas to eager Asian buyers, rather than to the West. When Russia suspended its double taxation treaties with “unfriendly” countries around the world in mid-March, most Southeast Asian countries were exempted from this measure.
Moreover, Russia has over the last decade become the largest arms supplier to the region, recently running joint naval exercises with the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia have all rejected imposing sanctions on Moscow, whilst Malaysia signed a memorandum of understanding with Russia to improve agricultural trade earlier this year.
One cannot fault these nations for engaging in partnerships and cooperation with international partners, in the interest of addressing their most urgent societal priorities. Nor can one fault African and Asian countries for taking with a pinch of salt a discourse on international values and change, when this supposed change stems not from recognition of current flaws, but from the impositions of emergent global trends.
What lessons can be given about territorial integrity and justice, when the events of 2011 in Libya, as well as their enduring consequences, remain traumatically fresh in African minds, or when the posture of African countries relative to the war in Ukraine is almost identical to that of Europe relative to the conflict in the eastern provinces of the DRC?
What lessons should be drawn from European courts proceeding to the seizure of Malaysian assets and properties worth $15 billion – including lucrative oil and gas assets – based on a questionable arbitration authorised by a Spanish arbitrator facing criminal prosecution from the Spanish authorities? And who will really benefit, given that this claim on sovereign territories, derived from a mid-nineteenth agreement between a long-vanished Sultanate and a colonial-era British company, is funded by unknown third-party investors?
The willingness of European courts to confiscate the resources and assets of a sovereign Asian nation on such flimsy grounds is not lost on observers in Africa and across the developing world.
Whatever the answer to these questions may be, it is evident that relations between the old and new worlds will continue to strain as long as underlying assumptions and beliefs do not evolve. Specifically, change is needed in those attitudes that continue to consider developing nations as oblivious to the many contradictions of rhetoric and practice that characterise the world as we know it – whether in terms of: a system of aid and trade that nourishes the imbalances and ills it purports to address; a discourse on international law and values that crumbles in the face of past transgressions and current drives for reforms; or even negotiations on climate finance in which urgency stops when economic interests begin.
The Western world can only reverse this trajectory by seeking out a genuinely new footing in its relations with the countries of Africa and Asia – challenging its own assumptions and understandings about what a respectful partnership between equally legitimate nations truly means. This is not about paying lip-service to ideals struggling to remain convincing, nor is it about entirely conceding these ideals on the altar of economic pragmatism.
Rather this means accepting a due share of responsibility for the current state of affairs, understanding expectations for the future, being willing to make real concessions, and aligning discourse with dollars and deeds. In doing so, the Western world will reassure those of us that continue to believe in the promises of the UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that these were not merely pretences to maintain hegemony in the face of existential threats, but rather an enduring vision for a better world that remains worth fighting for today.
Sweden’s NATO Predicament and the Nations whose Destinies Connected
Exploring the Historical Bonds of Sweden, Poland, and Turkey
The Swedish monarch, Charles XII, exuded pride and arrogance as he led his formidable army towards Moscow, still in his twenties. He believed his forces to be invincible, drawing comparisons between himself and his soldiers to the legendary Leonidas and his valiant 300 Spartans. Several factors contributed to the young king’s unwavering confidence on the path to Moscow.
A mere few years prior, in 1700, a powerful coalition comprising Denmark-Norway, Saxony-Poland-Lithuania, and Russia had launched a coordinated assault on the Swedish protectorate of Holstein-Gottorp, as well as the provinces of Livonia and Ingria. Undeterred by the overwhelming presence of enemy armies, Charles XII triumphed in successive sieges, vanquishing his adversaries one by one. Following the Battle of Narva, even the formidable Tsar Peter the Great of Russia sought terms of agreement, but Charles XII disregarded these pleas. By the time they arrived at the gates of Moscow, the Swedish army had emerged victorious against foes two or even three times their own size, bolstering the commander’s sense of invincibility, akin to the great conquerors of the past like Leonidas or Alexander the Great. However, the seemingly indomitable Charles XII committed the same error as dreamy conquerors such as Napoleon and Hitler before him: underestimating the challenges posed by the vast Russian steppes. The army of Charles XII suffered a devastating defeat, compelling the young monarch to seek refuge in Ottoman territories, accompanied by a mere thousand men.
The Swedish king and his men remained guests in the Ottoman Empire, which is today Ukrainian territory, for more than 5 years. The Ottomans treated Charles like a king and cherished him, and he and his Polish and Ukrainian entourage were generously borne. Turkish Sultan Ahmed III was aware of the importance of Sweden for Ottoman security. The King, who could not return to his country, hoped to defeat Russia through an alliance with Poland and Ottoman Turks. The presence of the Swedish King in the Ottoman Empire also strained Turkish-Russian relations and eventually brought them to the brink of war. The most important reason for the Ottoman-Russian Prut War (1710-11) was the Turks’ refusal to surrender Charles XII to the Russians.
Nations whose Destinies Connected
If one were to ask residents of Istanbul about the location of Sweden or Poland today, they might draw a blank. In the minds of modern Turks, these countries no longer hold strong alliances or close ties. Similar sentiments can be found on the streets of Stockholm or Warsaw. Relations between Turkey, Sweden, and Poland have weakened and even become uncertain since the days of the Ottoman Empire. However, during the Ottoman era, particularly in the 16th-18th centuries, the sultans in Istanbul viewed Sweden and Poland as crucial counterbalances against Russia in Eastern Europe, and they prioritized these relationships.
For the Ottomans, it was advantageous that Russia was engaged in a conflict with Sweden in the north, as it alleviated pressure on the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman wars with Russia also presented an opportunity for the Swedish Kingdom to launch attacks against Russia. In line with Ottoman foreign policy, the corridor spanning from the Ottoman Empire to the Baltic Sea, encompassing Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic states, and the Kingdom of Sweden, was considered a unified entity and treated as such. Presently, the prevailing method of interpreting maps primarily revolves around an east-west orientation, neglecting the various other facets of geography. Restricting the analysis of Russia’s perception of Eastern Europe solely to the East-West dimension would be highly deceptive. When examining the map from the vantage points of influential decision makers or political scientists situated in Istanbul or Stockholm, it is crucial for them to perceive a comprehensive geographical corridor extending harmoniously from Sweden to Anatolia. This broader perspective is essential in formulating appropriate policies aligned with the geographical realities at hand. While it can be acknowledged that Ottoman efforts were insufficient, their approach to map interpretation holds validity, and a comparable perspective remains relevant in contemporary times.
Growing Russia Shrinking Nations
The Russian threat necessitated cooperation and coordination among Sweden, Poland, and the Ottoman Empire. Since the time of Peter the Great, Russia’s objective had been to expand its reach to the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea, which inevitably led to westward and southward offensives by Russian armies. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine draws its origins from these historical objectives as well: Russia seeks to establish a lasting and greater presence in the Black Sea region and gain access to war seas.
Over the centuries, Moscow (Russia), a relatively insignificant principality in the 15th century, rapidly expanded at the expense of three states: the Ottomans, the Kingdom of Sweden, and Poland. As Russia grew stronger, these three states gradually declined. By the end of the 18th century, Poland lost its independence and disintegrated, while the Swedish Empire diminished to the status of an ordinary state. Although the Ottoman Empire persisted until the 20th century, numerous Russian attacks eventually contributed to its collapse.
History, known for its repetition, serves as the best teacher of world politics. Hence, learning from the past is a paramount virtue for adept statesmen. Following the Ukrainian War, “old history” resurfaced in Eastern Europe, prompting regional states to seek reliable havens in anticipation of a potential Russian assault. Even Finland and Sweden, traditionally regarded as the world’s most pacifist states, found themselves lining up for NATO membership during the Cold War years. Countries under the NATO security umbrella, such as Poland and Turkey, experienced some degree of reassurance.
NATO members, particularly the United States, warmly embraced the applications of Sweden and Finland to join the alliance. However, Ankara surprisingly vetoed both applications, citing national interest. The Turkish government argued that these two states harbored anti-Turkey sentiments and terrorist groups within their borders. At least, these were the explicit reasons given. Finland managed to persuade Turkey within a year and became the fastest member state after applying to NATO. However, Turkey’s veto on Sweden’s membership still remains in effect. Sweden even made constitutional amendments in an effort to sway Turkey. While Sweden’s desire to join NATO can be understood from various perspectives, Turkey’s expectations from Sweden, as well as the key NATO member, the United States, appear more intricate.
The timing of Sweden’s accession as the 32nd NATO member remains uncertain, but statesmen should draw lessons from history. The realities faced by Poland, Sweden, and the Ottoman Empire still hold relevance in today’s international relations. Setting aside current crises, the relationships between Poland, Sweden, and Turkey fall short of their potential. These countries must strive for closer and more coordinated cooperation to maintain peace and stability in Eastern Europe while safeguarding their vital and existential interests. Furthermore, this cooperation should not solely be based on hostility towards any specific state, but rather on deterring hostilities altogether. (*)
(*) For Turkish-Polish relations also see: Laçiner, Sedat, et al., Turkish-Polish Relations: Past, Present and Future, (Ankara: ÇOMÜ Press, 2015).
Sino-European Relations Souring as Russia-Ukrainian War Intensifies
Since the establishment of Sino–European relations in 1975, there have been significant changes toward building a China-driven agenda in the past 15 months. These changes are intrinsically related to China’s rise, which diverted the EU-American international protagonism.
While there is no common ground among EU members on how to counterbalance the dependence on trading with the second-largest economy in the world, the G7 Summit imparted to the collective endeavors of the largest economies to ‘de-risk’ from China. The EUA, Canada, the UK, and Japan have joined the club.
The Russo-Ukrainian War Context
In March 2019, the European Union adopted a two-folded stance on its relationship with China, defining it as competition cooperation. This dualism underlines the need to understand how to play politics the Chinese way. Since then, the EU has sought to adopt a more assertive tactic, and the ‘systemic rival’ approach has thus prevailed. Besides, the recent Russia-Ukrainian war has contributed much to this decision. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently stated, “How China continues to interact with Putin’s war will be a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward.”
China’s close ties with Russia have been around for a while. Their connections in the global arena intensified to counterbalance the American world leadership. Sino-Russian relations were built through symmetric ideological concepts, where the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is still rooted in the Marxism-Lenist ideology.
China’s foreign affairs are based on non-interventionism principles, but its alignment with Putin has been questioned instead as support to the current war that possibly includes military intelligence and economic aid to Russia. China’s abstention from voting on the resolution that condemned Russia’s latest actions in Ukraine in October 2002 and the recent visit of Xi Jinping to Moscow days after the international criminal court issued an arrest warrant for President Putin contributed to the EU to build the narrative that China does support Russia’s point of view and justifications to the war.
The EU strongly condemned Xi’s trip, voicing worries about China’s role in the war and power balance in its relations with Russia, which now favors China. In late March, Von der Leyen delivered a speech on EU-China relations to the Mercator Institute for China Studies and the European Policy Centre, stating, “President Xi is maintaining his ‘no-limits friendship’ with Putin.”
As Xi voiced “peace talks” and “responsible dialogue” over the war, a joint statement with his Russian counterpart raised the flag of a possible siding with Russia. The joint statement contained criticisms of sanctions and the contributions of NATO in expanding the conflict.
China’s possible role in a peaceful negotiation is unlike the one adopted to break a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which ended decades of elusive diplomatic relations. The reason is simple: its close ties with Russia.
The Economic Context
In the G7 summit in Hiroshima last week, the largest global economies voiced ‘de-risking’ China against possible economic coercion in various areas involving trade, technologies and intellectual property, and supply chain.
Apart from the Sino-American trade war and the reliance on trading in China – the EU recorded a trade deficit of more than 365 billion euros with China in 2022 – at least two other concerns have debuted on the discussion agenda: the country’s rare earth metals control and responsibility in cyberspace.
To counterbalance China’s new status quo on the global stage, the G7 announced the launch of the Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment. The total of $600 billion in financing for quality infrastructure is a clear threat to the Belt and Road initiative, but it is unlike that it will pose any danger to China-led investment activities.
The Taiwan Context
The expansion of Chinese influence in the South China Sea has also become a prominent topic at the G7 summit. The G7 Foreign Ministers released a joint statement against China’s latest military activities near Taiwan, condemning economic coercion and urging peaceful talks.
Taiwan is perhaps China’s most irrevocable negotiation topic in foreign relations as the “One China” policy emphasizes the recognition of the island as an integral part of its territory instead of a separate sovereign state. This policy is the central pillar of bilateral diplomatic relations with China.
The complex dynamics shaping countries’ perceptions and interactions with China have shifted Europe’s future standpoint, leaning towards a more assertive approach. As Europe redefines its relationship with China, the balance between reciprocity and market access, and strategic cooperation in climate change will shape the continent’s strategy moving forward. In any event, Europe’s future relations on China promises to be more stick, less carrot.
Expulsion of Diplomats further Cripples Russian-German bilateral ties
Russia and Germany have cross-haired relations as both disagreed on many policy issues, the latest on Russia-Ukraine crisis. The bilateral relations has dived down to its lowest level, especially with imposition of sanctions and expulsion of diplomats.
Reports said hundreds working for Germany in Russia had to quit employment and leave the country. Hundreds of civil servants and local employees working for German institutions in Russia would need to leave the country or lose their jobs in the coming days following an order by Moscow, Germany’s foreign ministry said May 27.
Those affected include teachers, as well as other employees of schools and the Goethe Institute, and is necessary to maintain the right balance for Germany’s diplomatic presence, said the person, who described the number affected as at least 100.
Starting from June, Russia will slash the number of people that Germany can employ in its embassies or institutions in Russia in the education and cultural sectors, the ministry said.
Several hundred people are affected, including officials from the embassy and consulate, but mostly employees of the Goethe cultural institute in the country, German schools, nurseries and teachers working in Russian schools, it added.
Both German and local Russian employees are affected, the ministry said, without giving precise figures on each category of staff. German employees will have to quit the country by June 1.
Russian employees should not be required to leave the country, but will lose their jobs since German institutions will no longer be able to employ them, the ministry said – clarifying initial indications the locals would have to leave too.
The news was first revealed in the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, which spoke of a “diplomatic declaration of war by Moscow” against Berlin. “This is a unilateral, unjustified and incomprehensible decision,” the German foreign ministry said in a statement.
A close economic partner with Russia before Moscow invaded Ukraine, Germany has since moved away from Moscow, financially and militarily supporting Kyiv in the conflict. Since the onset of the conflict in Ukraine, Russian espionage in Germany has grown at a rate rarely equalled in recent years, according to German security services.
In mid-April, Germany expelled a number of Russian diplomats “to reduce the presence of intelligence services” which prompted a tit-for-tat response from Moscow which booted out some 20 German embassy staff.
The Russian foreign ministry in April set a ceiling for the number of German diplomats and representatives of public organisations allowed to stay in Russia or be employed by German institutions, the German foreign ministry said.
“This limit set by Russia from the beginning of June implies major cuts in all areas of (Germany’s) presence in Russia,” the ministry said. German authorities have tried in recent weeks to get the Russian ministry to reverse its decision, but without success, Sueddeutsche Zeitung said.
Berlin will aim to ensure “a real balance” in its response, the foreign ministry said. In spring 2022, Germany already expelled some 40 Russian diplomats which Berlin believed to represent a threat to its security.
Before Moscow invaded Ukraine, Russia was Germany’s main supplier of gas and a major supplier of oil. However Germany stopped supplies and has since become one of the biggest providers of arms and financial support to Ukraine in its war against Russia, souring relations which had been warming over decades.
Last October, the head of Germany’s cybersecurity agency, Arne Schoenbohm, was fired after news reports revealed his proximity to a cybersecurity consultancy believed to have contacts with Russian intelligence services. A month later, a German reserve officer was handed a suspended prison sentence of a year and nine months for spying for Russia.
Relations between Russia and Germany, which used to be the biggest buyer of Russian oil and gas, have broken down since Moscow launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the West responded with sanctions and weapons supplies.
Earlier on May 26, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it had summoned the ambassadors of Germany, Sweden and Denmark to protest over what it said was the “complete lack of results” in an investigation to identify who blew up the Nord Stream gas pipelines last year.
Several unexplained underwater explosions ruptured the Nord Stream 1 and newly built Nord Stream 2 pipelines that link Russia and Germany across the Baltic Sea in September 2022. The blasts occurred in the economic zones of Sweden and Denmark. Both countries say the explosions were deliberate, but have yet to determine who was responsible. The two countries as well as Germany are investigating the incident.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry in a statement accused all three of deliberately dragging their feet and trying to conceal who was behind the blasts. It said it was unhappy about what it called the opaque nature of the investigation and its refusal to engage with Russia.
“It has been noted that these countries are not interested in establishing the true circumstances of this sabotage. On the contrary, they are delaying their efforts and trying to conceal the tracks and the true perpetrators of the crime behind which we believe are well-known countries,” it said.
“It is no coincidence that ‘leaked’ improbable versions (of what happened) are dumped in the media to try to muddy the waters,” it said. The Danish foreign ministry confirmed that its ambassador had been summoned, and said authorities in Denmark, Germany, and Sweden were continuing their investigations.
“Denmark has been providing ongoing updates to Russia regarding the investigation’s progress and responding to their inquiries. We will continue to do so,” the ministry said. The United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have called the incident “an act of sabotage.” Moscow has blamed the West. Neither side has provided evidence.
Several reports show that Kremlin’s leadership is taking hysterical actions to secure it sovereignty and territorial integrity. Its actions aim at protecting the statehood. Germany, Denmark and Sweden are not the only countries with locked-horns with Russia. It has policy differences with entire European Union and and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
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