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The Russia-Africa Summit: The next stage in the Kremlin’s Africa charm offensive

Middle East & North Africa / COMMENTARY
Amanda Paul , Ivano di Carlo

Date: 17/10/2019
On 23-24 October, over 40 African leaders and some 3,000 businessmen will gather in Sochi, Russia for the inaugural Russia-Africa Summit. It comes on the heels of Russia’s concentrated effort in recent years to boost its political, economic and security clout on the continent. It will formally establish Moscow’s diplomatic efforts on a pan-African scale and should be viewed in the wider context of President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reassert Russia as a global player. While Russia cannot be considered a major economic actor in Africa when compared with the EU, China or the US, Moscow’s growing footprint, primarily forged with arms and energy deals, further complicates Africa’s geopolitical landscape. This warrants more attention from the West, in particular the EU and the US, so that they may enhance their own respective agendas in an increasingly competitive environment.

Russia’s re-engagement with Africa

Russia is no stranger to Africa. However, its presence there has fluctuated throughout the decades. Russia had a strong foothold in Africa during the Cold War but largely left the continent following the Soviet Union’s collapse. Africa only properly came back on Moscow’s radar during Putin’s second term.

Since Western sanctions were placed on Russia in 2014 following its annexation of Crimea, foreign relations have gained importance in Moscow, including with Africa. With Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov making numerous trips to the continent over the past few years, Russia’s desire to boost ties is clear. And Moscow is not alone: several other external players are scrambling to expand their foothold in Africa, including China, Japan, India, the Gulf states and Turkey. This is not surprising, given that Africa is a major source of commodities with huge economic potential.

Russia’s approach is an opportunist search for influence, in part driven by economic interests rather than a grand strategy. The Kremlin has revitalised relations with Soviet-era clients and forged new ties with others, including the Central African Republic and Zimbabwe, readily offering support to embattled strongmen. Old personal networks – many forged during the Cold War when young activists and leaders of African decolonisation movements studied in Moscow – have been reactivated. Russia is also capitalising on the dissatisfaction felt by many African states towards their former colonial masters by posturing as an opposition to Western imperialism. Additionally, as part of its soft power outreach, Russia has expanded its offer of scholarships targeting African students. According to the Russian Statistical Yearbook, the number of African students in Russia grew from 6,700 in 2010 to 15,000 in 2017.[1]

Furthermore, Moscow is leveraging economic and military connections to expand its influence. The mining and energy fields are sectors where Russia can provide expertise, and bilateral agreements can be mutually profitable. Russian energy giants Gazprom, Lukoil, Rostec and ROSATOM are present in several African countries, including Uganda, Nigeria and Angola. Russia is expected to build Egypt’s first nuclear plant.

Firearms and security are in high demand in Africa, and Russia is a willing supplier: it is expanding its military footprint, security agreements and training programmes to the continent. Russia’s security apparatus and private security companies have supported local leaders in the Central African Republic, Mozambique and Sudan. Several countries, including Mali and Mauritania, have asked Russia for help in combatting terrorist groups, including the Islamic State (ISIS). Russia is also in talks with Eritrea to construct a logistics base, which would consequently grant Moscow access to the Red Sea. Russia is a top arms supplier in Africa, accounting for 39% of sales in 2017 and thus surpassing China (17%) and the US (11%).[2] Moscow hopes that the recent sales of S-400 and S-300 missile systems to Turkey and Iran respectively and use of Russian military hardware in Syria will boost sales further.

The Russia-Africa Summit is the latest in a series of events meant to solidify and boost ties with the continent. Most recently, the Russia-Africa Economic Conference took place in June 2019, in parallel to the 26th African Export-Import Bank’s (Afreximbank) Annual General Shareholders’ meeting in Moscow. Russia, through the Russian Export Centre, is one of the three non-African shareholders of the bank since 2017 (the others being the Exim Bank of China and the British Standard Chartered). This was only the second time that Afreximbank, headquartered in Cairo, convened its Annual Meeting outside of Africa, the first time being in Beijing in 2011.

A flexible approach

Despite Russia’s trade with Africa increasing from $5.7 billion in 2009 to $20 billion in 2018,[3] the Kremlin remains a relatively minor economic player in the continent. For example, in 2018, Africa and China traded $200 billion,[4] while Africa and the EU traded over €300 billion in goods.[5] While Russia does not possess the same economic leverage as its Western and Eastern competitors, its flexible approach can prove attractive to African partners as it avoids both Western conditionality and Chinese debt-trap concerns. Russia can also fill the vacuum left by other states; not least the US which, under President Donald Trump, has increasingly disengaged from the region, losing ground to geopolitical competitors.[6]

Politically, Russia can use its United Nations Security Council (UNSC) seat to strike transactional deals with African partners. Moscow can help advance the agenda of African nations in the Security Council if they, in turn, support Russia in the UN or other international fora as they constitute a sizeable voting bloc. African nations aligning with Russia’s support of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, or Russia backing a permanent seat in the UNSC for Africa, are cases in point.

While competition among major powers may be positive for African countries given that this creates more baskets for them to put their eggs in, it can also trigger a race to the bottom in terms of quality of infrastructure and projects, human rights and democratic governance.

Never underestimate the Kremlin

Russia’s increasing engagement in Africa is symptomatic of growing geopolitical competition in the continent.  While the EU remains Africa’s biggest trading partner, source of foreign direct investment and development aid, and has stepped up its efforts to renew its partnership in the economic, political and security fields, it must remain alert and proactive. Russia’s footprint and influence in Africa may as yet be rather limited compared to for example China – which is broadly viewed by the West as one of the main challenges in Africa –, but neither should the Kremlin be underestimated.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

[1] Russian Federal State Statistics Service (2018), “Russian Statistical Yearbook”, Moscow, p.201.
[2] Wezeman, Pieter D.; Aude Fleurant; Alexandra Kuimova; Nan Tian and Siemon T. Wezeman (2018), “Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2017”, Solna: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, p.7.
[3] Russia Briefing, “Russian Trade Turnover With African Countries Up 17% To US$20 Billion”, 30 August 2019.
[4] People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of Commerce, “Statistics on China-Africa Trade in 2018”, 26 January 2019. Pham, J. Peter; Abdoul Salam Bello and Boubacar-Sid Barry, “Chinese Aid and Investment Are Good for Africa”, Foreign Policy, 31 August 2018.
[5] Eurostat, “Africa-EU – international trade in goods statistics” (accessed 17 October 2019).
[6] Runde, Daniel F. and Romina Bandura (2019), “U.S. Economic Engagement in Africa: Making Prosper Africa a Reality”, Washington D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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