DAKAR, Senegal — As Ukraine’s top diplomat began a 10-day tour across Africa this week, he said he would attempt to “better explain Ukraine” to his African counterparts, and why Ukraine needs them against Russia’s aggression.
There seems to be much work ahead, based on his first stop, in the West African nation of Senegal.
“I arrived here and I hear, ‘This isn’t our war, the West is fighting against Russia’; ‘Russia and Ukraine are one people’; and ‘Russia attacked you because you were going to become a NATO member,’” said Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, describing conversations with Senegalese officials.
“Russian narrative has been very present here,” he said on Tuesday in a 30-minute conversation with a group of journalists in Dakar, Senegal’s capital. “Now it’s time for Ukrainian truths.”
Whether African leaders and their populations are ready to hear the Ukrainian arguments remains to be seen.
One reason is Russia remains Africa’s largest supplier of weapons and wheat. Allegiance to Moscow among some African leaders harks back decades, when the Soviet Union supported independence movements from Algeria in northwestern Africa, to Guinea, Angola and Mozambique, in the continent’s southeast.
Ousmane Sène, the director of the Dakar-based West Africa Research Center, said many on the continent had not heard of the independent country of Ukraine until a few months ago.
“The country called Ukraine is on African television screens because of the Russian invasion,” Mr. Sène said. “The only ties that many see between Ukraine and Africa, are the consequences of the food crisis in the shopping basket of Senegalese consumers,” he added. “And many think that both Russia and Ukraine are to blame for that.”
None of Mr. Kuleba’s predecessors had done a tour of Africa, Mr. Kuleba said on Tuesday, acknowledging that Ukraine had long neglected the continent.
Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, African countries have been urged to take sides, irking many leaders on the continent who have opted for nonalignment.
“This is viewed in the West as Africa supporting Russia, which is not exactly correct,” said Murithi Mutiga, the Africa program director at the International Crisis Group.
Instead, Africa “does not want to be the breeding ground of a new Cold War,” the head of the African Union, President Macky Sall of Senegal, said at the United Nations General Assembly last week.
Mr. Kuleba said he had “a long and honest conversation” with Mr. Sall on Monday.
The Senegalese presidency did not release a statement about the conversation and declined requests for comment.
Mr. Kuleba’s trip to Africa comes more than two months after a similar tour by his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, in which he blamed the food crisis affecting African countries on Western sanctions on Russia.
Even though those sanctions don’t target food products, that narrative has sunk in across Africa and was repeated by Mr. Sall when he met President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in June.
Public views on the war in Ukraine varies widely across Africa’s 54 countries and 1.4 billion people. But it is in West Africa, where Mr. Kuleba started his tour, that Russia has enjoyed the largest rate of public approval.
Mr. Kuleba said he would warn African countries of Russia’s nefarious influence on their societies, reminding them that Russian investments on the continent are dwarfed by those of other countries, including United States, China and European nations.
What Russia has mostly spread in Africa, he argued, was propaganda and conflict. He cited the examples of Mali and the Central African Republic, where Russian mercenaries have killed scores of civilians, and Burkina Faso, where a close associate of Mr. Putin’s praised the latest military coup and Russian flags fluttered when military officers seized power over the weekend.
“If the only investment that Russia does in Africa is to brainwash and to destroy, and this is the kind of influence that African nations want to see,” Mr. Kuleba said, “they’re destroying themselves.”