In the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, there has been much discussion about the impact this conflict keeps having on the global economic and political order. While it is sometimes left under the radar or taken into consideration mainly because of legitimate concerns about the impact of the food crisis triggered by grain shortages, Africa should not be excluded from these political considerations. Indeed, Africa’s international dynamics eloquently portray a scenario in which global tensions interact with ambitions within the continent. It is then essential to assess how this conflict has affected relations between African countries and the Kremlin.
Everybody Wants an African Friend
In 2019, the first Russia-Africa summit in Sochi sparked talks about a "return of Russia to Africa", with Moscow’s new African strategy, after years of disengagement south of the Sahara. A second summit, which was to be held in late 2022 in Africa, has been postponed, however, it is now expected in St. Petersburg in the spring of 2023.
Although this delay was not officially motivated by reasons related to the ongoing conflict, but rather financial and logistical issues, it is safe to assume that Russia, engaged in a conflict that is expending significant time, financial, political, and diplomatic resources, is pulling the brakes on the African territory. While in some respects a slowdown in Russia’s economic engagement may be looming, this is not reflected on the diplomatic level. On the contrary, isolated internationally by Ukraine’s Western allies, the Kremlin is looking to Africa for political alliances.
It is no surprise then that the continent's agenda was, in the second half of 2022, particularly dense. Back in July, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Egypt, the Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Ethiopia. This was echoed by French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Cameroon, Benin, Guinea Bissau, and Algeria, and then by U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who travelled to South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda.
In mid-December, close to when the Russian summit was to be held, the United States hosted the U.S.-Africa Leaders summit in Washington. The second after the long hiatus following the 2014 edition, this event marked the political climax in an acceleration ofWashington’s engagement in the continent, which makes promoting democracy one of its priorities in opposition to the Russian model, which relies on the collaboration with authoritarian states.
Meanwhile, a surge of authoritarian power grabs raises concern as it indicates a shift in the political balance toward Moscow in crucial parts of the continent like the Sahel.
Security, Communication, Trade: All Roads Lead to Africa
Over the past months, political and securitarian fault lines are being exacerbated, thus calling for an understanding of where the priorities and ambitions of the Kremlin and its African counterparts lie. This is even more important since a war in Europe has forced a rethink of the global order. This dossier seeks to answer these questions by analysing various axes-political, economic, cultural, and military – on which Russia-Africa collaboration develops.
Gustavo de Carvalho highlights the risks that the conflict in Ukraine bears for African countries. These are mainly linked to food security, but there are also political risks concerning Russia's presence on the continent and, more broadly, the great power competition, which has been taking place for years and intensified after February 2022. While Africa is a theatre for disputes between the West, China and Russia and Africans' positions vis-à-vis the war remain diverse, de Carvalho argues that a degree of unity can increase the continent's ability to avoid getting involved in global disputes as a proxy and survive a Cold War-style ideological battleground.
Speaking about geopolitical competition, Tatiana Smirnova sheds light on the rivalry between Russia and France in Paris' former "background", the Sahel. Russia's growing presence in the Sahel started to attract international attention in 2014 and gained impetus with the escalation of the war in Ukraine. Russia's security cooperation and communication campaigns are becoming more and more successful also because they take place in a context of political instability and a "power vacuum" provoked by the withdrawal of French and European security forces from Mali. While Russia's attractiveness in the countries of Francophone West Africa may jeopardise the future of the European, and particularly French, military presence and strategy, Smirnova claims that countering Russian influence in the Sahel is a challenging task for both Europe and North America. This is also because the latter often fail to understand the nature of Western African countries' controversial relations with Moscow, which does not "patronise" these countries on democracy and relies on Soviet-era nostalgia for an "alternative" path.
Maxim Matusevich also analyses Moscow's use of history and narratives about its anti-imperialist past. The Kremlin's strategy is proving successful in shaping the controversial African responses to Russia's aggression on Ukraine: many African countries indeed shy away from unequivocally condemning Moscow's war. What factors can explain hesitancy? While African nation-states have unique historical paths and are motivated by different political imperatives, Matusevich argues that history is a common issue at the core of some African states' positions vis-à-vis Russia. As a result, the "skilful conflation of anti-imperialist sentiments, anti-Western grievances, and economic and security frustrations by African states seems to have delivered some tangible benefits for Russian diplomacy on the continent".
While history is a key component of Russia-Africa relations today, two critical factors should also be taken into account: security and trade. Catrina Doxsee focuses on the cornerstone of Russia's security strategy in Africa, the Wagner Group—Russia's most prolific and infamous private military company (PMC). It is no secret that in recent years, Russia has increasingly used PMCs to spread geopolitical influence and expand its military and intelligence footprint, including in sub-Saharan Africa. After Russia's latest invasion of Ukraine, Doxsee claims that the PMC model is also evolving in Africa because Wagner has increasingly behaved like an integrated arm of the Russian military in Ukraine.
Joseph Siegle, on the other hand, looks at how Russia is seeking to evade international isolation following its invasion of Ukraine also by expanding economic engagements in Africa. Russia is heavily promoting economic opportunities in Africa—from commodity sectors like agriculture and hydrocarbons to technology fields such as energy, transport, and digitisation; yet at a closer look, most of these economic opportunities are relevant only on paper, as structural and war-related problems increasingly challenge Moscow's economy. Nonetheless, Siegle maintains that while Russia's economic promises in Africa ring hollow, political incentives for engagement explain the growing ties between Russia and some African governments.