Good morning, dear reader,
There are dates that normally hardly attract any attention: Chancellor Olaf Scholz is currently visiting the South American continent, was in Argentina yesterday, and today in Brazil and Chile.
The countries are far away and if we look 10,000 kilometers across the Atlantic, then only if something very big happens. For example, when a right-wing populist ex-military man is elected president in Brazil or when his supporters storm government buildings after the election defeat. Maybe even if the deforestation of the Amazon jeopardizes global climate targets. Otherwise, however, the following applies: too far away, not relevant enough for our everyday life – especially in times when a brutal war is raging in Europe.
But the impression is deceptive. Because the war in Ukraine in particular has far more to do with Scholz’s visit than one might initially assume.
The significance of Scholz’s journey can be seen in a larger context: The world rearranges itself. In an interview with South American newspapers, the Chancellor spoke of a “multipolar world order”. In the future there will no longer be two blocs as in the days of the Cold War, instead there will be a whole series of influential states in Asia, South America and Africa. And the big power blocs China, the West and also Russia are now vying for their favor. It’s about raw materials, political allies and, to some extent, military influence.
This became particularly evident last week in Africa. China has been active there for years anyway. Russia also wants more influence – and sent Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on a charm offensive. For the second time since the invasion of Ukraine, Putin’s chief diplomat has now been to the continent, campaigning for the Russian world view. There were some memorable scenes:
- At a press conference with Lavrov, South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor called it “too easy and childish” urge Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. She also defended a planned military exercise with Russia and China. “All countries conduct military exercises with friends.” The South African government officially describes its position in the Ukraine war as neutral, but it now seems to be leaning towards the Russian position – much to the annoyance of its own opposition in the country.
- Eritrea’s foreign minister found clear words after his meeting with Lavrov: Decades of “ruthless hegemony and containment policy” by the USA are responsible for the war in Ukraine. “The sad fact is that Ukraine is both a pretext and a victim of this policy.” Russia’s efforts to portray itself as a victim of an imperialist America had a particularly strong impact here.
- The Russian media presented a scene from Lavrov’s visit to Angola in a strikingly powerful way: Two schoolgirls stand in front of the Foreign Minister and sing the Russian folk song Katyusha. You can see a video of it here. Together with President João Lourenço, Lavrov also outlined steps to intensify the strategic partnership – for example in nuclear energy.
Such appointments are a diplomatic victory for Lavrov. The fact that South Africa, one of Africa’s most important political and economic players, is positioning itself so clearly is likely to cause headaches in Western countries. The visit to Angola, on the other hand, showed the limits: the state media could not exploit much more than the video of the singing schoolgirls for propaganda purposes. Because Angola shows no interest in deep relations with Russia: As recently as December, the president announced that he wanted to use American weapons instead of Russian ones in the future. Bad for the Kremlin. And when you look at the continent as a whole, Russia’s economic influence remains low – especially compared to the EU and China.
But that doesn’t mean that Russia’s efforts should be underestimated—on the contrary. Because the country is particularly strong in one niche: security cooperation, one hardly likes to call it that. Almost half of all weapons imported into Africa come from Russia, and the Russian army trains soldiers from many African countries. And the notorious mercenary group “Wagner” of Putin confidante Yevgeny Prigozhin is also heavily involved. Apparently she is currently focusing particularly on the Sahel zone, which is so important in terms of security policy. And what is happening there at the moment is more than disturbing.
But back to today, to Scholz’ trip to South America. Here, too, the focus is on who the states will intensify their relations with in the future – with China or Russia? Or with the US and the EU? A trade agreement between the EU and the Mercosur countries, namely Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, is already on the table. This has been negotiated since 1999, for a long time rather unambitious. But now time is running out, Scholz wants to reach a conclusion quickly.
Because South America should become an important building block in the strategy of Germany and the EU to become more independent from Russia and China. Nothing on Scholz’ South America trip shows that better than dealing with the topic of lithium. The white metal is considered the crude oil of the 21st century, it is in batteries for electric cars and in smartphone batteries. And South America is where most of the world’s known deposits are located. So far, Germany has shied away from participating in mining – the human rights situation and the environmental problems surrounding these mines are considered too sensitive, as the AFP news agency reports with reference to government circles. China did not have these scruples: it has already bought into several companies.
But the German line seems to be changing now. “We can no longer afford the luxury of today if we really want to stand on our own two feet and if we really want to have our own sources of supply,” quoted the AFP from government circles.