Ukraine struggles with message in pro-Moscow southern Africa

Many fighters went to the old Soviet Union for education and combat training, developing ties of friendship which resonate to this day.

FILE: This handout picture taken and released by the Russian Defence Ministry on 14 January 2022 shows Russian troops disembarking from a military cargo plane upon landing in Ivanovo after completing their mission in Kazakhstan. Picture: Handout/Russian Defence Ministry/AFP

PRETORIA – Ukraine is finding it hard to get its message across in southern Africa, where there remains affection for Moscow dating from the apartheid era, the Ukrainian ambassador in Pretoria said.

Like Ukrainian envoys around the world, Ambassador Liubov Abravitova is striving to rally support for her invaded country.

But local recognition of Ukraine’s plight is often weak and criticism of the Kremlin can be muted, Abravitova told AFP.

“There is a strong sentiment here about Russia,” rooted in Moscow’s support during the Cold War for anti-apartheid and anti-colonial movements, she said in an interview on Tuesday.

Many fighters went to the old Soviet Union for education and combat training, developing ties of friendship which resonate to this day.

Ukraine, then one of the 15 states of the USSR, helped in the Soviet campaign.
But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, “Russia took all that legacy,” Abravitova said in an interview.

After gaining independence, Ukraine focused on building its economy and Africa was not a priority, she admitted.

But Kyiv paid the price for lacking clout when, in 2014, Russia seized and then annexed the Crimean peninsula.

“South Africa was already a member of BRICS,” said Abravitova, referring to the club of emerging economies which gathers Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

“We didn’t receive a very strong message from them.”

The envoy, elegantly dressed in high heels and a traditional embroided Ukrainian blouse, said she was getting little sleep these days.

She said she was spending her time putting forward her country’s message and trying to counter Russian misinformation.

Her other tasks have been to try to help Ukrainian citizens fleeing the country join family members in South Africa — as well as the estimated 16,000 African students stranded in Ukraine.

The ambassador said she was touched by the shows of sympathy for Ukraine in southern Africa, reflected by the bouquets of flowers and messages of support that have been left at the embassy.

She spoke of a European diplomat in Botswana who had asked his tailor to sew a Ukrainian flag.

Back in Ukraine, “to the people in shelters, in basements, it tells them the world is not indifferent, the world stands with them,” Abravitova said.

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