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Russia’s Great-Power Moment in Africa

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Image courtesy of REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Ethiopian counterpart Demeke Mekonnen arrive at Russian Embassy for tree planting ceremony during Lavrov’s visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, July 27, 2022.

Not even a decade ago, Africa was the last foreign policy priority of Russia. Now, in the face of growing isolation, Russia is once again bidding for the continent’s support. The West looks at such efforts with concern, which could lead to a growing great-power competition and securitization on the continent.

In Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept dating back to 2016, Africa found itself at the very bottom of the list of Russia’s objectives. The continent was mentioned only as the last objective of the roughly 50 regional foreign policy priorities. Despite this late and brief reference, Russia’s expansion of military, economic, and political cooperation with Africa has grown in recent years. For example, Russia signed more than 20 bilateral defense agreements with African countries, increased its trade volume with the continent, and also expanded its media presence. Particularly after being sanctioned by various Western countries following its annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia needed to find new business and geopolitical opportunities. Furthermore, Russia capitalized on frustrations with Western policies and skillfully played the anti-colonialism card on the African continent.

Russia’s growing influence led to the convening of the first Russia-Africa summit in 2019, a “key milestone” in Russian-African relations. During the summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that “the development and consolidation of mutually beneficial ties with African nations and their integration associations is now one of Russia’s foreign policy priorities.” The second Russia-Africa summit was to be held in autumn 2022 but was recently postponed until mid-2023.

Why did the Russian Foreign Minister Visit Africa?

As the war in Ukraine entered its sixth month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov paid a visit to the African continent. During his four-day visit in July, Lavrov made stops in Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda, and the Republic of Congo. Prior to his arrival, local newspapers published an article by Lavrov titled “Russia and Africa: A future-bound partnership.” In this article, Lavrov expressed his gratitude to the African countries that did not support the UN General Assembly resolution in March condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In total, 24 out of the 54 African states abstained or were absent from the vote.

On the one hand, Lavrov’s trip to Africa was intended to show that Russia is not an isolated country and still has partners. On the other hand, the Russian foreign minister wanted to make sure that Moscow was not to be blamed for the food crisis, an argument that he also stressed in his newspaper article. According to the UN, “acute food insecurity is at record high,” amplified by the war in Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine are among the most important agricultural commodities producers and exporters in the world. In total, 50 countries are dependent on both Russia and Ukraine for over 30 per cent of their wheat imports. In this respect, the Russian-Ukrainian grain deal that the Russian foreign minister touted during his visit to Africa managed to calm concerns about grain delivery at least temporarily.

Growing Western Concern

For some time now, the West has been paying close attention to Russia’s actions in Africa, as Russia’s recent involvement in countries like Mali, Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic (CAR) increasingly worried them. For example, Russia and the CAR signed a security cooperation agreement in 2018, and the adviser for national security to the president of the CAR is a former FSB agent. Additionally, the Wagner Group, a Russia-based military contractor, supports the CAR government’s fight against various rebel groups. Moreover, Russia also promotes its cultural influence in the country, including with a Russian cultural center in Bangui and the production of pro-Russian movies like “Touriste.” Furthermore, potential cooperation between China and Russia on the continent is seen as a growing threat by the West. This is reflected in the new Sub-Saharan Africa Strategy of the United States that was released during a recent visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to three African countries. It highlights the desire for further engagement “with African partners to expose and highlight the risks of negative Chinese and Russian activities in Africa.” Some European countries are also worried. An internal report of the EU stated the EU’s fear of “losing the battle for hearts and minds in Africa over the conflict [in Ukraine].” Even though many African countries are not interested in taking sides in the conflict in Ukraine, wishing instead to keep their doors open for various partnerships, the current situation increasingly pushes them to do so.

Diplomatic Milestone

Political symbolism in the form of summits between African states and their partners, such as China, Turkey, the US, and the EU, is nothing new. The Russia-Africa summit is one example. It was first held in October 2019 in the Black Sea city of Sochi. The format is intended to foster political, economic, and social cooperation between Russia and Africa and is intended to be held every three years. According to the official website, the summit in 2019 was attended by representatives of all 54 African states, of which 45 were represented by their heads of state. Additionally, various Russian and African ministers as well as representatives of regional organizations and of various companies attended the venue on the Black Sea.

At the summit, Putin announced the intention to double the trade volume between Russia and Africa to $40 bn by 2024. Considering that the trade volume decreased to $14.5 bn in 2020 and taking into account the ongoing war in Ukraine, however, it remains highly questionable whether this goal can be fulfilled in the next two years. When it comes to military cooperation, however, Russia is the largest supplier of arms to Africa, accounting for 44 per cent of the imports to the region between 2017 and 2021. The Russia-Africa summit further advanced these military ties. Multiple military deals, for example between Russia and Algeria and Nigeria, were concluded at the summit. Furthermore, Rosatom, Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation, signed two new agreements with Ethiopia and Rwanda at the venue.

The Kremlin reported that in total, trade deals worth $12 bn were reached at the first Russia-Africa summit. However, many of those agreements were in the form of memoranda of understanding. As they do not have a legally binding character, some of them may not lead to actual investment. Therefore, certain media outlets questioned the importance of the diplomatic event, and the Financial Times added that it has been a “summit low on concrete trade and investment deals but high on congeniality.”

After the first Russia-Africa summit, Russia’s lack of a comprehensive Africa policy was a point of criticism. Russian presidential adviser Anton Kobyakov announced that in this regard, an action plan on cooperation between Russia and the African Union for the period up to 2025 is currently being prepared for adoption.

Russia-Africa Summit 2023

Until recently, the next Russia-Africa summit was scheduled to take place in October or November 2022 in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. However, as a result of a presidential order announced during Lavrov’s Africa tour, the event has been postponed until mid-2023. The war in Ukraine, which is likely to be the elephant in the room at the second Russia-Africa summit, was most likely the reason for its postponement.

In a press conference in Cairo, Lavrov stated that the agenda for the next summit will include trade, development of natural resources, energy, and security, among other issues. Unsurprisingly, Oleg Ozerov, the Head of the Secretariat of the Russian-Africa Partnership Forum, said that the topic of food security will be among the top priorities of the second summit. The topic of arms exports and security cooperation is also likely to be the subject of intense debate, as weapons intended for export are said to be used by Russia itself on the battlefield in Ukraine.

So far, Russian influence in Africa is focused on niche strengths  in arenas such as arms trade and security cooperation, energy and mining, as well as cultural influence. And for now, concrete Sino-Russian cooperation in Africa mainly comes down to taking similar positions in UN voting concerning the region and joint naval exercises with South Africa in 2019. It remains to be seen whether this cooperation will lead to stronger policy partnerships in the future. What is already clear is the West’s increasing concern over Russian and Chinese influence in Africa, or worse, their combined influence on the continent. The ultimate concern is that rising great-power competition could spread to Africa, leading to the continent’s securitization.

About the Author

Charlotte Hirsbrunner is an intern in the Global Security Team at the Center for Security Studies.

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