The costs of Russia’s war in Ukraine — from Kharkiv to Khartoum

Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, on April 7, 2022.

Africa faces an “unprecedented” crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, warned Africa’s chief economist at the United Nations, Dr. Raymond Gilpin, last week as soaring food and fuel prices compound the difficulties Africa has suffered from the coronavirus pandemic.

I have known Dr. Gilpin for years, when he served as the Dean of the Africa Center at the U.S. Department of Defense and prior to that, at the United States Institute of Peace. Born in Sierra Leone and running the research division of the country’s central bank before moving to the United States, Gilpin studies the relationship between economic deprivation and peace. And he is not known for hyperbole.

At a press conference in Geneva, Gilpin listed several worrying economic indicators, including reductions in GDP, surges in inflation, and shortages of basic food stocks and commodities that are spiking the cost of living for Africa’s poor. And with supply chains already strained and import substitution all but impossible, there are no short-term fixes.

Gilpin fears that the economic difficulties will worsen social tensions, particularly in the coup-prone parts of the continent such as the Sahel and parts of central Africa and the Horn. He is also concerned about violent demonstrations in Africa’s over-crowded, over-stressed urban centers.

Gilpin is not the first to sound an alarm. In March, the World Food Program’s chief, David Beasley, cautioned that “the bullets and bombs in Ukraine could take the global hunger crisis to levels beyond anything we’ve seen before.”

We are now entering a new phase of the conflict in Ukraine, with Russia’s offensive in the Donbas; the fighting is expected to be protracted, with the United States getting increasingly drawn into a direct confrontation with Russia.

A majority of Americans back aid to Ukraine and believe that helping Ukraine fight its invaders is the right thing to do. This is in addition to our Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle who have declared — with other Western leaders — the stakes in Ukraine as a ‘global fight for democracy.’

However, before we celebrate this rare moment of political consensus, we need to calculate the full costs of our Ukraine policy — including increased suffering of the world’s poor, the risk of unprecedented starvation and malnutrition, and the possibility that we could open the front door for authoritarian actors to consolidate their power — and for the jihadists to further destabilize.

Let’s remember, this is exactly what Vladimir Putin wants. Not to mention the geographic diversification in alliances he has been working towards since 2014 when faced with the first wave of Western sanctions after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

In just eight years, the Kremlin has extended its influence in Africa through weapons sales, the dispatching of mercenaries to prop up authoritarian leaders, preferential trade agreements in commodities like wheat, and corrupted investments in hydrocarbons, energy, and minerals.

With these ties that bind, it’s no wonder that nearly a third of African countries abstained on the March 2 vote condemning the invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations General Assembly. And no surprise that in the middle of the offensive in Ukraine, Russia and Cameroon signed a military agreement on April 12 for the exchange of information and training of troops.

America needs to anticipate the worldwide consequences of Russia’s war in Ukraine, in the short and long term, and address these challenges as consequentially as it is the military balance of power in Eastern Europe.

I recognize this is a tall order, with the daily reporting of Ukrainian victims and its selfless heroes and heroines. It can make it feel that some struggles are worthy, and others are not, that some are in our national self-interest, and others disconnected. But they are worthy. And we can’t ignore them.

Having the privilege of this column to add my voice to that of Dr. Gilpin and Mr. Beasley’s, here are my pleas:

To the U.S. Congress: Lead a war-time mobilization to address the food insecurity caused by the war in Ukraine. This is in addition to tackling the lingering impacts of the coronavirus. Unfortunately, last month, the Senate zeroed out global health funding in its pandemic response bill. Congress needs to get its act together on global health, and then show bi-partisan, bi-cameral support for an urgent supplemental appropriation for global food insecurity. Tuesday’s inclusion of $5 billion to address global food shortages in the $40 billion Ukraine aid package is a start.

To the Biden administration: Fully execute the Global Fragility Act passed by Congress with broad bipartisan support, the first-ever comprehensive U.S. government strategy to tackle and prevent spiraling global conflict. Last month, the Biden administration announced the first dedication of funds under the Act, by giving support to several West Africa states that are threatened by the instability in the Sahel. This type of farsighted, long-term, consensus-based thinking is what’s required. But small, small will not move the needle.

To the youth of Africa: Do not let your leaders get away with claims of nostalgia for the days of the Soviet Union’s support for liberation movements in Africa. This vacuous solidarity belongs in the dustbin of history.  Those 17 votes of silent acquiescence at the United Nations don’t represent you, a generation empowered through education and new technologies; 80,000 of you ventured to Ukraine in search of an education not afforded to you at home. Your leaders’ fealty to Russia is not yours. Let your voices be heard.

To the EU and our UK partners: Largely forgotten among the 4.7 million refugees who have fled Ukraine, charities estimate up to 10,000 African students from countries like Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana and Mali may still be in the European Union — desperate to finish their education. Give them a visa and a full ride.  

We are in a fight for the future of democracy around the world. The battlefields are not just in Kyiv, Mariupol, Kharkiv, Odessa, and Dnipro — they are also in Ouagadougou, Timbuktu, Yaoundé, Khartoum, and Bangui.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct the chronology of Dr. Gilpin’s employment history.

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President” (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson

Tags Africa Authoritarianism David Beasley Food insecurity Food shortages Jihadism Putin's foreign policy Russian foreign policy Russian influence Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian war in Ukraine Sahel

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