Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s recent visit to Nairobi is sure to have turned heads in the international geopolitical space.
This is especially because it was unannounced and came hot on the heels of a similar one by his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba.
Mr Kuleba was keen to get African diplomatic support. He wanted more of the 22 nations that abstained from condemning, at the UN, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to vocally do so.
Mr Lavrov has visited other African nations to shore up support for Russia or at least ensure most of them abstained and didn’t isolate Moscow further.
The strength of the African vote in the UN General Assembly is powerful as are its three rotating non-permanent members on the Security Council. Both Russia and Ukraine are keen to get this diplomatic support.
Lavrov’s trip asserts a convergence of national interests and highlights the pragmatic view with which the Ruto administration views Moscow.
While in 2022 Kenya’s Ambassador to the UN Martin Kimani condemned the invasion and Kenya voted to condemn it, Nairobi declined a previous effort of Ukraine’s Ambassador Andrii Pravednyk to address Parliament—showing there are limits on how far Kenya is willing to go to antagonise Russia.
Lavrov’s visit shows Russia wants to avoid its West- fuelled diplomatic isolation. It is banking on pragmatic responses from African nations like Kenya that face more existentialist threats like pressing food insecurity, economic slowdown and political uncertainty.
Lavrov also played the idealistic card of historical memory. Writing in the Daily Nation, on Africa Day, Russia’s Ambassador to Kenya Dmitry Maksimychev reminded Africans of Moscow’s support to the African liberation movements.
Russia is also keen on the de-dollarisation of international trade—which President William Ruto spoke about at the 3rd Kenya International Investment Conference (KIICO 2023—as it faces economic sanctions, expulsion from the Swift payment system and freezing of the assets of Russian oligarchs close to the Putin administration.
Dr Ruto is also trying to diversify Kenya’s friends and not rely too much on the West in his ‘Looking West’ foreign policy. Lavrov’s visit asserts the autonomy of Kenya’s foreign policy with Nairobi not wanting to be too reliant on the West for economic, political and diplomatic support.
The visit is also a forebearer to the anticipated bilateral trade deal between Moscow and Nairobi in readiness for the 2nd Russia-Africa Summit in July.
It will be interesting to see exactly how far Kenya goes in asserting its independent foreign policy. Its economy is still anchored to the West and it risks alienation if it appears to be moving too close to Russia. But Russia has several diplomatic options in its engagement with Washington.
It could attempt diplomatic entanglement, diplomatic entrapment or soft balancing to frustrate the US and its allies in international affairs. This is likely to place Kenya in the unenviable spot of having to pick between the two on multilateral forums. It is worth observing.
Prof Monda teaches political science, international relations and foreign policy at the City University of New York. @dmonda1