Russia-Africa relations have made notable progress since Dmitry Medvedev visited the continent in 2009. Although bilateral diplomacy, Soviet-era historical legacies and outreach efforts by leading Russian companies, like oil giant Rosneft and state nuclear energy company Rosatom, laid the foundations for the Sochi summit’s success, Russia’s engagement with multilateral institutions has also helped expand its influence in Africa. Russia’s involvement in BRICS (Brasil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), permanent membership in the UN Security Council and growing engagement with the African Union (AU) have played an especially important role in the expansion of its influence in Africa.
Russia’s active role in BRICS helped strengthen its partnership with South Africa, which remains a cornerstone of Moscow’s African strategy. In order to promote South Africa’s BRICS accession ambitions, then-president Jacob Zuma travelled to Moscow in August 2010, and negotiated deals with Russia in the mining and nuclear energy spheres. Russia’s proposal that each BRICS member invest up to $10 billion in the BRICS development bank at the 2013 summit in Durban resonated strongly with South African officials, as Zuma argued that the creation of a BRICS bank would ameliorate South Africa’s structural unemployment and socioeconomic inequality.
More recently, Russia has used the BRICS summit as a public forum to present itself as a valuable partner for African countries. At the 2018 BRICS summit in Johannesburg, Russian president Vladimir Putin emphasized the “decades-old traditions of friendship and mutual aid” that bind Russia with Africa. Putin’s speech was positively received by Angola’s president João Lourenço, who met with Putin on the sidelines of the BRICS summit and publicly praised Moscow for loyally supporting Angola against the apartheid regime in South Africa. This meeting also conveyed the limits of Russia’s partnerships in Africa, as Lourenço noted that Russia’s involvement in the Angolan economy was confined to the “extractive” mining industry. Through exchanges with African leaders at BRICS summits, Russia has obtained more knowledge about the development goals of individual countries and used these exchanges to finetune its message on economic diversification at the Sochi summit.
Russia’s consistent support for non-interference in the internal affairs of African states in the UN Security Council has helped expand its array of partnerships on the continent. The decision to veto UN sanctions against Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s government in 2008 was a milestone in its support for non-interference in African affairs. By taking this position, Russia backed South Africa and Libya’s argument that Zimbabwe was not a threat to world peace and that intra-Zimbabwean dialogue should not be disrupted by economic coercion. Russia similarly opposed France’s military intervention in Cote d’Ivoire in 2011, and Moscow’s position was favorably received by some African leaders, like Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni.
Authoritarian leaders, like Sudan’s former president Omar al-Bashir, who visited Moscow in November 2017 requesting protection from the United States, and Guinea’s president Alpha Condé, who received support from Russia after the shooting of nine pro-democracy protesters earlier this month, welcome Russia’s defense of African leaders against Western censure. In exchange for this loyalty, Russia has courted the support of African countries in UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolutions that place its own conduct under scrutiny, and the majority of African countries routinely abstain or vote in Russia’s favor on motions about the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
These voting patterns and Russia’s retention of positive relations with post-transition governments in Gambia and Sudan suggest that Moscow’s support for non-interference in the UN is not equated with an unconditional defense of autocracy, even in countries with more pluralistic institutions. Russia’s deployment of peacekeepers to UN missions in areas like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Western Sahara, Côte d’Ivoire, South Sudan and Libya help buttress its continent-wide image and counter autocracy-promotion allegations, but consistently low personnel numbers could ensure these deployments remain symbolic, instead of substantive displays of support.
While BRICS and the UN are the primary forums for Russia’s outreach efforts to African countries, Moscow has also deepened its engagement with the African Union. Along with its partnership-building efforts with South Africa, the AU facilitated Russia’s re-engagement with the continent during the mid-2000s, as Moscow believed that empowering the AU would further its ambitions to construct a multipolar world order. More recently, Russia has actively engaged with the AU commissioner for Peace and Security on conflict resolution in Libya and the Central African Republic (CAR), and the AU has announced plans to open a diplomatic office in Moscow. Russia’s training of African peacekeepers and emphasis on “African-led solutions” to regional crises has also strengthened the bonds of cohesion between Moscow and the AU. This spirit of cooperation could allow Russia to participate in further arbitration ventures that build on its participations in CAR reconciliation initiatives and the recent Egypt-Ethiopia Nile River talks.
Although media commentaries after the Sochi summit focused on the impact of bilateral negotiations on Russia’s outreach to Africa, multilateral institutions have played a critical role in expanding Moscow’s presence in Africa. Deeper multilateral engagement between Russia and African countries will help Russia align its exports more closely to the continent’s economic goals and allow Russia to frame itself as a constructive actor in Africa, at a time when Moscow is facing intense criticism for its private military contractor (PMC) deployments on the continent. As the Russia-Africa Economic Forum in Sochi is set to become a triennial event, last week’s negotiations could add further institutional depth to Russia-Africa relations in the years to come.