The Russia-Africa summit hosted at the Black Sea retreat of Sochi, with the participation of 43 African heads of state, marked the culminating point of the Kremlin’s renewed interest in the African continent and its political and economic assets. Russia’s trade with Africa doubled in the past five years to total more than $20bn, a small economic presence in comparison with China’s almost $200-billion worth of trade with Africa. To reduce the gap quickly with major competitors like the European Union, China and the United States, during the two-day summit Russian president Vladimir Putin played the non-colonization card wisely, claiming that Russia has no desire to interfere with the internal affairs of African countries.
Contrary to the EU and US aid policies, Putin promises to provide financial assistance without political pre-conditions. This is a policy approach particularly appreciated by some African heads of state, not keen to exchange human rights compliance for economic aid, and very similar to the rhetoric of non-interference that Chinese officials have long espoused in Africa, with positive results. In return, Moscow will have access to crucial natural resources to boost national economic growth, which is remaining frustratingly slow.
The Kremlin claimed that it racked up $12.5 bn in deals over the two-day Russia-Africa summit, but many agreements are not legally binding and it remains to be seen whether they will materialise as real investments.
Military cooperation is the quickest and most easily implemented sector. As the second weapons producer in the world, Russia is a major supplier of arms to Africa: according to think tank SIPRI, 13% of Russian arms are sold to African countries. The weaponry sold is mainly second-hand equipment, such as combat helicopters, aircraft and surface-to-air missile systems. For example, in recent months, Russian foreign affairs minister, Sergey Lavrov, began negotiations with the Rwandan government to sell a missile defence system and with the Eritrean government, in order to establish a logistic centre in the strategic Horn of Africa region. During the two-day summit in Sochi, the Nigerian government signed a contract with Russia for supply of twelve Mi-35 Hind E attack helicopters, likely to be used in the fight against the jihadist movement Boko Haram in the north-east of the country.
African leaders seem to take a special interest in weapons. Plenty of pictures taken during the Sochi summit show African delegates enthusiastically holding in their hands the latest kalashnikov version. An indicator that the Russian model – “arms first, business later” – continues to have a tight grip on African governments and facilitates access to strategic economic sectors, as shown in the case of Angola and Mozambique: the Russian state energy company, Rosneft, gained access to natural gas resources in Mozambique, benefiting cooperation in the military area between the two countries.
Besides weaponry, Moscow’s contribution to conflict management through sending troops on the ground – mainly mercenary companies – is increasing. According to several analysts, in the Central African Republic, for instance, private military contractors played a crucial role in supporting Bangui’s regime, in exchange gaining exploration rights to search for diamonds and gold.
Russia’s other leverage for earning credit is the energy sector, crucial for the development of many African countries that are still suffering from inadequate infrastructure and continuous blackouts or load shedding. Russia’s national nuclear corporation, Rosatom, was one of the major actors in Sochi, signing agreements to build nuclear advanced reactors in Ethiopia for 12,000 MW and a center for nuclear technology in Rwanda by 2024. “There are almost no nuclear reactors on the continent, so it’s very important who is going to be first, because they will dominate and lead the way” said Alexey Likhachev, head of Russia’s state nuclear company Rosatom.
The International Agency of Sovereign Development (IASD), launched early this year and promoted during the summit, will facilitate deals in many African countries. Made up of “consultants” with close ties to Putin, it pledges more favourable financing conditions to African governments than the Western powers. At this stage, the head of the agency, Konstantin Malofeev – under US and EU sanctions for having financed separatist militants in eastern Ukraine – refused to disclose funding sources, but claimed the goal of “supporting economic reforms in countries which are trying to get out of economic and financial dependency on the Western countries”.
At the end of his opening speech (too long for some African heads of state caught by cameras taking a nap), Putin listed the soft-power initiatives Russia wants offer to Africa: the establishment of a medical research centre to fight dangerous infectious disease, like Ebola, in Guinea; the setting up of regional centres offering Russian language courses to students in the SADC region; the easing of the debt burden, writing off US$20bn of debt accumulated by African countries during Soviet times. Behind the narrative of “offering African solutions to African problems”, Putin’s plan for Africa seems related to the will to regain the leverage Russia once had on the continent as a non-colonial power. Yet it is too early to say whether these proposals and proclaimations will convert into actual influence in the near future.