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Proxy war, racism, and not your business: 7 lies about Ukraine that Russian propaganda spreads in African countries

Russia has had a massive propaganda machine operating both within the country and abroad for years. After the invasion of Georgia in 2008, the state-owned media were turned into another weapon in Russia’s arsenal. With massive funding, RT and Sputnik were able to reach millions of people in Africa, spreading misinformation and pro-Russian narratives.

Today, amidst the full-scale war that Russia has unleashed against Ukraine, the harmful impact of this influence has become increasingly evident. Сountries have stepped up their fight against Russian propaganda. However, many misconceptions about Ukraine – from the country’s history to the values Ukrainians share – are still out there.

Therefore, let’s examine seven fakes Russia has targeted at African countries and explain why the Ukrainian reality is rather different.

1. Ukrainians and Russians are the same nation

The notion of one nation has been vastly included in Putin’s articles and speeches in preparation for the full-scale invasion. The narrative is not new: created in the Russian Empire, it has been used for centuries to deny Ukrainians their own language, culture, history, the right to independence, and even existence. 

Read more: Why should you not consider Ukrainians and Russians as “one nation”?

Just like any other nation in the world, Ukrainians have a right to self-determination. And this nation firmly states: we are not one. Similar to modern African states, Ukraine has experienced periods of colonial rule, fought for its independence, and achieved the restoration of statehood. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, 90.32% of people in Ukraine voted for the country’s independence.

Today, Ukraine is a sovereign state that can choose its path, politics, and partners. The refusal to respect that is just the apex of imperial colonial thinking on the Russian side.

2. That is a proxy war between Russia and the West

In 2014, when Russia first attacked Ukraine, propaganda efforts were focused on denying this in every possible way. There was no “invasion” or “occupation” in the Russian media, only  “civil war” or “internal conflict”. However, any attempts to rename this aggression were only meant to absolve Russia of responsibility for its crimes.

In 2022, when Russia gathered up to 200,000 troops at the Ukrainian borders and launched an unprovoked full-scale invasion, there was no way to deny it further. And thus, other narratives came into play: the conflict was allegedly provoked by NATO expansion, and now it is a proxy war between Russia and the West.

But Russia is not at war with the United States or NATO – it is conducting an illegal invasion of sovereign Ukraine. And Ukrainians are standing on the battlefield against it. Ukrainians decided to stay, defend their country, and fight till the last bits of our land are liberated.

People in liberated Kherson stop Ukrainian soldiers to give them a hug and ask to sign the Ukrainian flag. November 12, 2022.
Photo: Taras Ibrahimov / Suspilne

And many countries supported Ukraine’s fight for freedom – not only the USA and the EU, but countries from Asia, Africa, and South America. Some with political statements, some with humanitarian aid, and some with financial assistance and arms. Unlike Russia, many Ukrainian partners are actually committed to security guarantees under the Budapest Memorandum. 

But that does not make it a proxy war, just as receiving huge amounts of Western aid under the Lend-Lease program did not make the USSR “a proxy” in World War II.

As for the NATO part, the facts say quite the opposite: Russian aggression pushed more countries to seek NATO participation. Ukraine officially established its strategic course for EU and NATO membership in 2019, when parts of the country were already occupied. In addition, Sweden and Finland, which had previously professed a course of neutrality, applied for NATO membership in May 2022. 

The work of the MLRS HIMARS in the Donetsk region.
By Serhii Mykhalchuk

3. Ukraine is under the Nazi government

Nazi in Ukraine is one of the favorite topics of Russian propaganda: it has been used for over a decade now and even included in “justification” for their full-scale invasion. 

This Russian narrative is critically flawed: Ukraine is a democratic country with no state ideology. Its government is formed through competitive elections, operating within a party system based on pluralism of opinions. Ukraine has numerous political parties and ideologies, and the ultra-right forces did not gain significant support in recent parliamentary elections.

In July 2022, nearly 50 UN member states issued a statement condemning Russia’s attempt to justify its military invasion of Ukraine by labeling it as “neo-fascist” and “neo-Nazis”.

In contrast, the Russian regime has been increasing its resemblance to the dictatorships of the past: from shutting down the freedom of speech to invading sovereign states and inflicting genocide. It was Russian missiles that hit the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv in March 2022. The center is dedicated to the memory of hundreds of thousands of Jews killed by Nazis in 1941-1943. 

Moreover, in February 2022, Ukraine filed a case against the Russian Federation in the UN International Court of Justice (ICJ) under the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The goal was to refute the Russian false narrative accusing Ukraine and its officials of committing genocide against Russian-speaking people in Ukraine. In March, the ICJ issued a provisional order for Russia to halt its invasion of Ukraine, saying the court had not seen any evidence to support its claimed justification for the war. As of August 2023, the case is still pending, and 33 countries and the EU have joined in, siding with Ukraine.

4. There is systemic racism In Ukraine

In the spring of 2022, Russian media had been spreading numerous manipulative materials claiming that Ukraine was “massively discriminating” against foreigners and subjecting citizens of African countries to “segregation”. Allegedly, all black people were artificially prevented from leaving Ukraine after the start of the full-scale Russian invasion “due to racism.”

The United Nations did recognize individual cases of discrimination against non-European refugees at the borders of Ukraine that occurred in the early days of the full-scale Russian invasion. The largest human rights organizations in Ukraine stated that in the conditions of military evacuation and a difficult humanitarian situation, individual conflict situations may arise, but this is in no way related to Ukraine’s “racism” towards foreigners. In many cases, priority in crossing the border was given to children, women, and the elderly according to the principles of international humanitarian law. 

People at the at the Uzhhorod border checkpoint. February 26, 2022.
Photo: Maria Lukei / Suspilne Uzhhorod

Ukraine managed to stabilize an extremely difficult humanitarian situation at the border checkpoints in the first week. Later, special evacuation corridors were created for foreigners.

Just as in other cases, there is a huge difference between fabricated Russian accusations and the actual situation on the ground. It is essential to address and eradicate any real instances of discrimination when they occur, while also rejecting manipulative narratives that aim to distort reality and fuel conflict. 

5. Ukraine is developing nuclear weapons

It is really not. Ukraine is one of the few countries in the world that voluntarily gave up its nuclear arsenal. The country joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1994, and in 1996, the last stocks of nuclear weapons were removed from Ukraine. 

The fake about Ukraine getting the nukes was mainly useful to Russia as a way to relieve itself from the obligations of the Budapest Memorandum. The agreement, signed by Ukraine, the United States, Russia, and The United Kingdom in 1994, included security guarantees for Ukraine. Namely, this document provided that Russia would respect Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and existing borders, and no Russian weapons would ever be used against Ukraine except for self-defense or otherwise under the UN Charter.

Signing of the Budapest Memorandum.

At the time of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine did not possess nuclear materials, technologies for creating nuclear weapons, or means of delivery. Therefore, Ukraine could not pose such a threat to Russia.

What does bring the risk of nuclear catastrophe higher, though, is Russia’s aggression against Ukraine: capturing nuclear power plants by force, shelling their territory, and systematic destruction of energy facilities in addition to constant nuclear blackmail of the world.

Read more: What should be the international response to Russia’s nuclear terrorism?

6. Ukrainian grain is exported to Western countries rather than to African ones that need it the most

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupted supply chains around the globe and put millions of people at risk of food shortage – but Russia still tries to find ways to blame Ukraine. 

Ukrainian wheat fields in fire after the Russian shelling. July 2022.
Photo Ihor Lutsenko

Vladimir Putin, Ministry of Foreign Affairs representatives, and Russian media claimed that Ukraine and the West had been deceiving the world within the Black Sea Grain Initiative. According to the Russian statements, Africa received just a fraction – 3% – of the Ukrainian grain, while the Initiative was created foremost to mitigate the impact of the global food crisis on those countries.

Read more: One (and only?) year into the Black Sea Grain Initiative, Russia continues to blackmail the world using food

In reality, the situation is more complex, but it does not make it deceiving. For almost a year under the Initiative, Ukrainian food was delivered to ports in Asia, Africa, and Europe. 12,2% or 4 mln tons were shipped directly to African countries. Moreover, some shipments from European ports were later redirected to meet the needs of Asian and African countries.

The UN believes that commercial trade plays a significant role in stabilizing the market, even if food does not go directly to countries facing a shortage. For one, by lowering the price: in June 2023, grain prices were 23.4% lower than in March 2022, when Russia blocked all Ukrainian seaports.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative also made important humanitarian programs possible. By July 2023, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) procured 80% of this year’s purchases of wheat grain from Ukraine so far. In addition, Ukraine launched the “Grain from Ukraine” program and shipped 170,000 tons of wheat to Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, and Kenya.

While not all Ukrainian grain went directly to Africa, it does not mean that African countries have not benefited from the Initiative, as Russia claims. In fact, the African Union called for an “urgent” restoration of the Black Sea Grain Initiative. “The problem of grains and fertilizers concerns everyone,” stated Azali Assoumani, the current president of the 55-nation African Union, on July 27 at a summit with Russia in St. Petersburg.

7. This war is far away and should not be a concern for African countries 

Even apart from Ukrainian grain that many African countries rely on, Ukrainian universities that provided studying opportunities for thousands of African students, and other mutually beneficial partnerships that have been established or could be in the future, this notion is false.

By invading Ukraine and occupying Ukrainian territories, Russia violated numerous norms of international law and the core principles of international relations. In particular, the UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples states that any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Peaceful Ukrainian demonstation in South Africa. March 2022.
Photo: Phill Magakoe / AFP / africanews

Russia invaded Ukraine in an attempt to restore the empire, raising a question about the effectiveness of institutions the world currently has to prevent such actions. And it is an issue no country in the world should take lightly: if Russia is to succeed in its crimes or even remain unpunished, it will not be a peaceful future waiting for everyone around the globe.