"Keynote Speech By Professor Peter Kagwanja, President And Chief Executive At The Africa Policy Institute, During The Conference: “Russia-Kenya Cooperation For Sustainable Development,” Riara University."

I feel greatly honored and delighted to deliver today’s keynote speech during this conference on “Russia-Kenya Cooperation for Sustainable Development” at Riara University. It is worth noting that the conference unfolds against the backdrop of the rising wave of the New Cold War characterized by heightened geopolitical tensions between the United States and China and the United States and Russia in the 21st century.

The benchmarks of the new Cold War are set by President Joe Biden’s National Security Strategy (October 2022). “The PRC (People’s Republic of China) and Russia are increasingly aligned with each other but the challenges they pose are, in important ways, distinct. We will prioritize maintaining an enduring competitive edge over the PRC while constraining a still profoundly dangerous Russia,” the strategy states (p23). Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine from February 2022 has intensified Moscow’s geopolitical tensions with the United States and its European allies. Both the American-led West and Russia have moved to win hearts and minds in Africa. America’s strategy is to zero in on the major regional powers. “We will continue to invest in the region’s largest states, such as Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa,” Washington’s National Security Strategy states (p.43).

It is in this context that Kenya has become a new frontier in the global geopolitics. Russia is cashing in on its long history of political, cultural and economic cooperation with Nairobi going back to the colonial times. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kenya’s foreign policy towards Russia has swung like a roller-coaster from a strong pro-American stance to “strategic ambiguity” as Nairobi seeks to balance between its economic interests and the reality of Russo-American geopolitics. Nairobi’s economic interests have become the main driver of its relations with Russia.

There are reasons galore why Russia attracts Kenya. Nairobi relations with Russia since independence have been correctly characterized as “cordial.” Russia’s ambassador to Kenya, Dmitry Maksimychev attributes this to “natural mutual attraction.” Beyond this, Russia has consciously positioned itself on the right side of history. The Soviet Union supported the principle of self-determination of the oppressed people in the world. African nationalists like Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga were intellectually fascinated with the Russian Revolution of 1917. In the 1929-1933 period, Kenyatta and others went to Moscow to study the Russian experience for their own struggle against colonialism at home. Russia supported anti-colonial liberation movements worldwide. In 1962, Moscow championed the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of “the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples”, making decolonization part of modern international law even as colonial powers (the UK, US, France, Belgium and some others) abstained. The declaration accelerated the achievement of independence by Kenya. Russia became the second country to recognize the sovereignty and independence of Kenya, establishing diplomatic relations with the East African country on December 14, 1963, just two days after independence. Kenya reciprocated by opening an embassy in Moscow. East Africa power house was a must-win country for the West in the Cold War contest. On their part, Kenyan nationalists took a pragmatic approach, joining the Non-Aligned Movement to maintain good relations with the Soviet Union. From the outset, Russia considered Kenya a leader and an engine of economic growth and development on the continent. Moscow offered scholarships to young Kenyans to study in the Soviet Union. It also funded infrastructure development including financing the construction of the former Nyanza Provincial Hospital (now, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital). More recently, Nairobi has received highly ranked Russian State Officials while it has sent high level delegations to Moscow.

Following the historic victory of Kenya’s opposition in the 2002 elections, the country crafted its first-ever written foreign policy with its hallmark as a new ‘Look-East- policy”, which was later adjusted to include Eastern Europe and Latin America—or the global South. Driven by national interests, the Look-East Policy’ was an attempt to take advantage of a resurgent Russia and new economic powerhouses in Asia and Latin America, particularly China, India and Brazil. The change enabled Russia to revitalize its diplomatic relations with Kenya. In November 2010, Moscow’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov became the first Russian Foreign Affairs minister to visit Kenya. He met President Mwai Kibaki and held talks with Acting Foreign Minister George Saitoti.

In the 21st century, Russo-Kenya diplomacy rests on three key planks. The first is transport. As early as November 2009, a Kenyan delegation led by Transport Minister, Chirau Ali Mwakwere, attended the First Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety in Moscow. Kenya and Russia signed a commercial agreement in 2010, which involved joint operation of Aeroflot - Russian Airlines and Kenya Airways on the Moscow - Dubai - Nairobi route, but this operation has been terminated.

Russia and Kenya have deepened cooperation in education and capacity development. As of 2008, the Russian government and private companies have trained approximately 200 Kenyans. In addition, Russia has annually granted Kenya 30 scholarships from the federal budget. The number dropped to 26 in 2010, because of organizational difficulties with the Kenyan side.

Third, Kenya’s ‘Look East Policy’ emphatically transformed Russo-Kenya cooperation in trade and investment. Bilateral trade between the two countries reached a total of US$340 million. According to the Russian Export Centre, Russia exported goods worth US$216 million to Kenya in 2018. Kenya, in turn, exported goods worth US$124 million. The main goods Russia has exported to Kenya are cereals, iron and steel, fertilizers and paper while Nairobi has exported cut flowers, coffee, tea, fruits and vegetables to Moscow. Furthermore, an estimated 10,000 Russian tourists visit Kenya annually. In March 2011, Kenyan Tourism Minister, Najib Balala visited Moscow to participate in the International Tourism Exhibition, contributing to strengthening Russo-Kenyan cooperation agreement in the field of tourism.

The Russia-Africa Summit is Moscow’s biggest diplomatic charm offensive into Africa since the collapse of Soviet Union. President Uhuru Kenyatta attended the first summit that took place in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on 23–24 October 2019. Bilateral talks between Presidents Kenyatta and Putin on the sidelines of the summit underlined trade, investment, tourism, science and technology, training and education, security and defence, tourism and people to people interactions as key areas to enhance shared development and modernization. Nairobi and Moscow agreed to establish the Russian-Kenya Commission on Economic, Scientific and Technological Cooperation to entrench bilateral and multilateral partnership, a Russian-Kenya Business Council to oversee the implementation of joint trade and investment programmes and signed a Bilateral Air Services Agreement to establish direct cargo flights between the two countries.

Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine tested Russo-Kenya relations in a public and visible way. In a rare bout of megaphone-diplomacy, in February 2022 Kenya’s envoy to the United Nations, Martin Kimani, invoked Africa’s colonial past to accuse Russia of disrespecting Ukraine’s borders and stoking the “embers of dead empires”. Because of its sharp tone, Kimani’s was widely covered by the international media and attracted praise by Western leaders. On March 2, 2022, Kenya voted in favour of a United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, stating that “the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine stand breached”. Kenya became the only country in the East Africa Community trade bloc to openly criticize Russia. Moreover, 22 of the African Union's 55 member states abstained or did not vote-with Eritrea and Mali voting against the resolution. Kenya did not attend the second Russia-Africa summit held in Saint Petersburg from July 26-29, 2023.

As President Kenyatta exited power and President William Ruto entered, megaphone-diplomacy in Kenya’s response to Russia’s war in Ukraine gave way to “strategic ambiguity.” This policy of pleasing the two warring parties was a response to the economic impact of the conflict and Nairobi’s attempt to benefited from both sides. In November 2022, Ruto hosted Russia’s ambassador to Kenya, Dmitry Maksimychev, at State House. In April 2023, the Kenyan leader hosted Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Aleinik of Belarus, one of Russia’s staunchest allies under Western sanctions mainly for supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “We [cannot] follow the anti-Russia-China-Belarus stance being propagated by some Western countries,” Ruto twitted. Kenya, the President said, would import farm equipment from Belarus to help increase food production. Again, Dr. Ruto hosted Lavrov at State House, Nairobi on May 29, 2023. The aim of the visit by Lavrov, who was en route to South Africa to attend a summit of the BRICS), was to “deepen its relations with Russia and to increase trade volumes.”

In the run up to the August 2022 general election, Kenya’s 5th President ran a blistering campaign that portrayed him as a “darling of the West” who was ready to stand up to China and Russia. At one point, the candidate warned that if he assumed power, he would deport Chinese citizens “for taking over jobs meant for Kenyans”. His campaign team accused Russia of failing to respect international borders and the sovereignty of Ukraine. Expectedly, when Ruto was declared the winner of the 2022 presidential election, envoys representing powerful Western countries were quick to congratulate him. They also defended his win when his new administration faced street demonstrations organized by opposition leader Raila Odinga.

Why was this shift? Kenya’s dilemma under Ruto brings to mind the now famous Clinton-era phrase: ‘It's the economy, stupid’. Battered by the COVID-19 pandemic, a four-year drought and debts, Kenya’s economy was in dire straits. Russia is among the major players in the global agriculture, fertilizer and fossil fuel markets. Similarly, Ukraine is an important exporter of cereals and oilseeds. In addition to the global disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic and reduced harvest in Africa as a result of prolonged droughts, the Russian-Ukraine war disrupted the global supply chains. The macroeconomic impacts of the conflict in Ukraine were largely driven by increases in global fertilizer and fossil fuel prices. Kenya suffered the ripple-effects of rising global fuel and commodity markets. Nairobi has been a net importer of cereals, vegetable oils, fertilizers and petroleum products from Eastern European countries. These high commodity prices affected low-income groups more than any other social category, shrinking the middle class and pushing many Kenyan’s, down to extreme poverty. The cost of the war may have been 2.8% of Kenya’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2022. Not surprisingly, the combination of the war in Ukraine and export restrictions and sanctions imposed by the West on Russia deepened Kenya’s food, fuel and cost of living crisis, sparking fierce protests in Nairobi after January 2023.

This economic reality forced Kenya to rethink its relations with Russia. “If we completely follow the anti-Russia-China-Belarus stance being propagated by some Western countries it will be us who will suffer in the long run,” said an official in the Ministry of trade. “We must go out there and build partnerships,” he added. True to this economic imperative, in May 2023, Ruto dispatched Cabinet Secretaries Moses Kuria (trade) and Mithika Linturi (agriculture) to Belarus to explore avenues of trade and investment, cooperation in agricultural production and industrialization. It was also reported that the government was organizing a visit to Belarus for all 47 Governors of Kenyan counties to learn how to establish county aggregation and industrial parks. Kenya’s foreign policy had radically changed to “focus more on trade and partnerships”, according to the Diaspora and Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary, Alfred Mutua. To the surprise of many, on September 19, 2023 at the sidelines of the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, US., President Ruto met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy where Dr Ruto pledged to support Ukraine during the war crisis following its invasion by Russia. “We know it has been difficult for the people of Ukraine, stay strong and you have our support. We believe in world order,” Ruto said. This was, undoubtedly, a radical diplomatic shift of Ruto’s approach to Russia – Ukraine war.

On their part, Russia and Ukraine went for the soul of Kenya. Moscow donated a shipment of 34,000 tons of fertilizer. Ukraine followed suit, donating 25,000 metric tons of wheat in February 2023. Kenya’s intervention through fossil fuel subsidies contributed to easing the cost-of-living crisis by reducing prices. Fertilizer subsidies enhanced food security, boosted agricultural output and raised government revenues. But Kenya’s economy is still in the woods.

Despite this, Nairobi’s foreign policy has recently become more erratic and less predictable. Kenya is seemingly not putting its money where its mouth is. In the emerging multi-polar world order, global power is slowly but surely titling towards the BRICS bloc—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. After January 2024, when it absorbed Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates, the BRICS has become the world’s newest and strongest intergovernmental organization. With Egypt, Ethiopia and South Africa now as BRICS members, Kenya and Nigeria are the only regional powers in Africa out of the bloc. As of 2024, BRICS has 18 percent of global trade, 25 percent of foreign direct investment (FDI), approximately 40 percent of the world's population (around 3 billion people) and projected to grow at 4.5 percent in 2024.

Kenya is dithering to join the BRICS. Ahead of the BRICS summit in South Africa, Algeria, Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Egypt, Ethiopia and Gabon had applied to be members of the bloc. Kenya did not. President Ruto skipped the 2023 Summit, attended by over 50 heads of state and government. Apart from its economic benefits, the BRICS embodies the shift of global power from the North to the Global South. Kenya shares the principles on which bloc is based: international law, sovereign equality and decisions through consensus.

Kenya cannot ignore the BRICs. Research on the future of economic power in the world shows that with the exception of the United States, almost all the world’s current powerhouse economies like Japan, Germany, United Kingdom and France will have slipped down global rankings. Only the U.S. will remain in the world’s top 7 (G7) economies with a $34.102 trillion economy-behind China ($58.499 trillion) and India ($44.128 trillion). Indonesia ($10.502 trillion), Brazil ($7.540 trillion), Russia ($7.131 trillion) and Mexico ($6.863 trillion) will join the ranks of the G7 economies. Deepening Russo-Kenya cooperation for sustainable development and gaining membership in the BRICS will enable Nairobi to successful implementation its vision 2030, Agenda 2063: The Africa we Want and the 2030 Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Possibly, a more strategic Kenya has high chances of rising to the G20 status.