Welcome back to Foreign Policy‘s SitRep! Happy Thursday, everyone! Here’s what’s on tap for the day: The United States and Russia play dueling diplomatic banjos in Africathe Pentagon takes baby steps toward reestablishing its Somalia troop presence, and Ukraine’s counteroffensive on Russian-occupied turf gains momentum.
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US Follows Russia in Dueling Trips to Africa
The Biden administration is dispatching two of its top officials to Africa in the coming weeks in a bid to revive US engagement on the continent and compete with its geopolitical rivals, Russia and China, for influence.
Suits on the ground. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to travel to the continent in early August, including likely stops in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Africa, as several current and former US officials confirmed to SitRep. Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden’s ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, is heading to Ghana and Uganda next week, following a trip by US Agency for International Development chief Samantha Power to Somalia and Kenya last week.
Against the backdrop of it all is geopolitical competition, punctuated by how Washington and Moscow are vying for support from African countries over the war in Ukraine. African countries are reeling from the economic shockwaves of the war, including food supply crunches after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine derailed important exports of food and other agricultural staples from both countries.
Who’s your true friend? Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Uganda, the Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Egypt this week on a charm offensive to showcase that Russia isn’t as internationally isolated as the West hoped. He also painted Russia as a true friend of African countries that won’t give the continent short shift—backing proposals to offer African powers greater influence at the United Nations and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council—and blamed the West for shocks in the food market.
“I am sure the overwhelming majority of world countries do not want to live as if the colonial times [have] come back,” Lavrov said during his stop in Ethiopia.
Your friendly neighborhood mercenary. Lavrov’s trip comes as Russia is expanding its military and not-quite-military footprint in Africa, maintaining a presence of Kremlin-linked mercenaries from the Wagner Group in politically unstable African countries to keep its influence on the continent. Jack and our colleague Amy Mackinnon reported this week that after Wagner solidified its presence in Mali, it may be headed to Burkina Faso next, at least according to US intelligence sources.
All steak, no sizzle? Still, it’s easy for Lavrov to talk a big game, but his country’s economy is in tatters, the war in Ukraine has turned into a quagmire, and most of the world’s major economies are on board with devastating international sanctions. Outside of some fancy diplomatic wrangling and mercenaries who have a charm for committing atrocities, Russia’s olive branch to African countries comes with a lot of thorns.
“[T]his is a dangerous game for these African leaders,” Joseph Siegle of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies wrote in the Conversation. “Russia has an economy the size of Spain’s, does not provide significant investment or trade to the continent (other than grains and arms), and is increasing disconnected from the international financial system.”
A tough road ahead. Blinken, henceforth, has his work cut out for him during his second visit to the continent as secretary of state. South Africa has faced pressure to take a tougher line on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, and US-led efforts to rally countries across the continent to isolate Russia diplomatically and economically have so far fallen short.
During his upcoming visit to Congo, which the Africa Report first reported, Blinken is expected to try to mediate tensions between Congo and Rwanda over Rwanda’s alleged support of the M23 rebel group engaged in ongoing clashes with the Congolese military.
You’ve been warned. A top US lawmaker and an important ally of Biden in Congress has also put the administration on notice. Sen. Bob Menendez, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to Blinken saying he would place a hold on US security assistance to Rwanda, beginning with several million dollars of support for Rwandan peacekeepers. The letter, a copy of which was obtained by Foreign Policywas sent to Blinken on July 20.
Menendez, who has repeatedly demonstrated that he has no hesitation in calling out a president from his own party on upholding human rights globally, urged Blinken to undertake a “comprehensive review” of US policy toward Rwanda in light of what he called the Rwandan government’s “ continuing disregard for democratic and human rights.”
Biden will announce Lt. Gene. B. Chance Saltzman to be the next US chief of space operations, as Politico reported.
Google executive Camille Stewart Gloster is joining the White House as deputy national cyber director, as Axios reported.
Ireland’s ambassador to the United Nations, Geraldine Byrne Nasonis leaving her post and heading south to Washington to become the next Irish ambassador to the United States.
Dan Baer has joined the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as senior vice president for policy research.
Biden has tapped Hugo Yue-Ho Yonoa career foreign service officer, to be the next US ambassador to the Maldives.
What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.
Baby steps. The United States is still in the “initial stages” of reestablishing a troop presence in Somalia after Biden ordered US forces back into the country this year, Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top US military commander in Africa, told reporters Thursday.
US forces were commuting in and out of the country—at greater risk of attack from al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab—limiting the Defense Department’s ability to engage with the Somalis to just a handful of military forces. The Pentagon is hoping that will change under newly elected Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. “Their larger security forces have been distracted by the last two years of political dysfunction,” said Townsend, who departs his post next month.
Hostage politics. The Biden administration has sent an offer to Moscow for a prisoner swap to release two US citizens detained in Russia on what it calls spurious and politically motivated charges. Washington has offered to exchange a notorious Russian arms trafficker currently imprisoned in the United States for Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, as CNN first reported.
Blinken is expected to bring up the proposal to Lavrov in a phone call this week. (This will be the first phone call between the two top diplomats since Russia first launched its invasion of Ukraine in February.) This is a new strategy in Biden’s approach to international hostage negotiation, but so far, it’s unclear whether Russia will play ball.
All unquiet on the eastern front. Western officials believe that Ukraine is gaining momentum in its counteroffensive in the Russian-occupied Kherson region after artillery strikes rendered the Antonivsky Bridge inoperable, forcing Russian troops to rely more heavily on pontoon floats.
The British Defense Ministry’s intelligence wing reported Thursday morning that Ukrainian forces have also likely established a bridgehead south of the Inhulets River along Kherson’s northernmost boundary, potentially giving the counterattack a key foothold that will complement rocket artillery strikes.
Monday, Aug. 1: The United States, Japan, and South Korea are set to begin nearly two weeks of anti-missile drills amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Thursday, Aug. 4: The two-year anniversary of the Beirut port explosion that killed 218 people.
The enemy within. Reuters has published a new must-read investigation on how Russia spreads a secret network of agents across Ukraine long before it launched its invasion.
The perfect storm. FP columnist Lynne O’Donnell writes a worrying new piece on how Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is once again blossoming into a hotbed of international terrorism.
“This is, of course, bad.”
—Sergey Lazarev, the president of the Moscow Chess Federation, after a chess-playing robot broke the finger of a 7-year-old boy it was competing against during a chess tournament.
Sweet ride. Yes, Ukraine’s military now has a war limousine, according to Twitter. You know, in case you’re looking to ride in style on your way to the battlefield.