Russia’s growing engagement with Africa

Russia’s inter-active presence in Syria, Turkey and Iran has drawn attention to its growing role in internationall affairs. This dynamics has also been manifest in Latin America- particularly in Venezuela and Cuba. Its support for China and its One Belt One Road initiative and evolving relations with India, Pakistan and Central Asia has also drawn attention to its re-emergence as an important ball player.

The next stage in Kremlin’s charm offensive was taken forward on 23-24 October when over 40 African leaders and some 3,000 businessmen gathered in Sochi, Russia for the inaugural Russia-Africa Summit. It came on the heels of Russia’s concentrated effort in recent years to boost its political, economic and security clout on this continent. In this regard they are attempting to replicate what has already been achieved by China.

It formally established Moscow’s diplomatic efforts on a pan-African scale and needs to be viewed in the wider context of President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reassert Russia as a global player.

Political analysts have made some significant observations. They have pointed out that Russia cannot be considered a major economic actor in Africa at this point of time. This is so when compared with the EU, China or the US. However, Moscow’s growing footprint, primarily forged with arms and energy deals will definitely further complicate Africa’s geopolitical landscape.

Consequently, this is being monitored carefully by the other stake-holders. This is particularly warranting more attention from the West, in particular the EU and the US. They are doing so in the context of their own respective agendas and are doing so to enhance their own paradigm in an increasingly competitive environment.

This latest situation has to be understood against the past engagement that the Soviet Union had with Africa. After 1993 and the break-up of the USSR, Russia had to pay more attention in developing its own socio-economic horizon.

The priorities of Russia have slowly changed, especially over the last five years. 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 it largely left that continent to focus more on Europe. Africa has only come back on Moscow’s radar during President Putin’s second term.

We need to remember that since Western sanctions were placed on Russia in 2014 following its annexation of Crimea, multi-polar foreign relations have gained importance in Moscow. This has included attaching greater importance to Africa and its socio-economic-political potential.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has made numerous trips to Africa over the past few years. Russia’s desire to boost ties has been made clear through this effort. Moscow has however not been alone in this regard. Several other external players have also been scrambling to expand their foothold in Africa, including China, Japan, India, the Gulf States and Turkey. This is not surprising. All these countries realize that Africa is a major source of commodities and possess huge economic potential.

Russia’s approach has also been described by some strategic analysts as a trailblazer search for influence, in part driven by economic interests rather than a grand strategy. From this perspective, Moscow has revitalised relations with Soviet-era clients and forged new ties with others, including the Central African Republic and Zimbabwe. They have been doing so by offering support to embattled strongmen.

This effort has also seen old personal networks – many forged during the Cold War when young activists and leaders of African decolonisation movements studied in Moscow – being reactivated. Russia is also exploiting the dissatisfaction felt by some African states towards their former colonial masters by posturing as an opposition to Western capitalism.

Russia in this context, as part of its soft power outreach, has expanded its offer of scholarships targeting African students. According to the Russian Statistical Yearbook, the number of African students studying in Russia has grown from about 7,000 in 2010 to nearly 16,000 in 2018.

The Kremlin is also leveraging its economic and military connections to expand its influence. They are beginning to be actively engaged in two particular sectors- mining and energy fields. Both Russia and some African countries believe that Russian expertise through bilateral agreements can be a mutually profitable platform. Russian energy giants Gazprom, Lukoil, Rostec and ROSATOM are already present in several African countries, including Uganda, Nigeria and Angola. Russia is also in the process of reaching a final agreement with regard to Egypt building its first nuclear plant. This evolving matrix is being watched very carefully by the Gulf countries and other Members of the Arab League.

Modern armaments, for all the branches of the Armed Forces- Army, Navy and the Air Force- are also being focused upon by Russia in some African countries. This is being done to underline the need to improve the security aspect in these countries. It needs to be understood here that stabilityand security are both in high demand in Africa, and Russia is posturing itself as a willing supplier. It is expanding its military footprint, security agreements and training programmes throughout the continent.

This strategic security effort on the part of Russia is being undertaken by not only Russia’s official security institutions but also by private security companies that have over the recent past supported local leaders in the Central African Republic, Mozambique and Sudan.

Several countries, including Mali and Mauritania, have also asked Russia for help in combatting terrorist groups, including the Islamic State (ISIS). It needs to be noted here that in the recent past there has been such an attack in Mali that has resulted in many casualties- all allegedly perpetrated by the IS. Russia has also undertaken a dialog 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. This surpassed China (17%) and the US (11%). Defence analysts are now saying that Moscow is hoping 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 has been the latest in a series of events meant to enhance ties with the continent. One can recall here that recently, the Russia-Africa Economic Conference took place in June 2019 This was in parallel to the 26th African Export-Import Bank’s (Afreximbank) Annual General Shareholders’ meeting in Moscow. It may be mentioned that 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. This was a classical example of inter-active engagement.

There has been another significant stride forward –achieved through a flexible approach. Russia’s trade with Africa has increased from US Dollar 5.7 billion in 2009 to over US Dollar 20 billion in 2018. This is a good growth rate. However, the Kremlin still remains a relatively minor economic player in the continent.

Comparably, in 2018, Africa and China’s bilateral trade figure exceeded US Dollar 200 billion, while Africa and the EU traded over Euro 300 billion in goods. Nevertheless, while Russia does not still possess the same economic leverage as its Western and Eastern competitors, its flexible approach, according to economists can prove attractive to African partners in the future. This is so because 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 itself from the region, losing ground to geopolitical competitors.

Russia, in a subtle manner is also carefully using its United Nations Security Council (UNSC) seat to strike transactional deals with African partners. Moscow is helping advance the agenda of African nations in the Security Council. This is being done on a quid pro quo basis- whereby Russia expects that their support in the United Nations will be reflected, in turn, by support for Russia in the UN or other international fora by African States as they constitute a sizeable voting bloc. This has already been seen with regard to African nations aligning themselves with Russia’s support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and seeking Russia backing for a permanent seat in the UNSC for Africa.

Russia’s increasing engagement in Africa is now being interpreted as an example of growing geopolitical competition in that continent.  This osmotic growth in Russia’s presence is being viewed with some anxiety particularly by the European Union. It continues to be Africa’s biggest trading partner, source of foreign direct investment and development aid. However, it realizes that it has to step up its efforts to renew its partnership in the economic, political and security fields. 

Today, both China and the EU understand that the cumulative efforts being undertaken by the Kremlin must not be underestimated.  Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance