Russia’s presence in Africa has returned to the fore. The first-ever Russia-Africa summit, held in Sochi on 23-24 October 2019, sparked international attention, raising questions about Russia’s new Africa strategy. Titles as diverse as “The new scramble for Africa” and “Russia-Africa summit a great opportunity for Africa” started to pop up in the international press, highlighting different dimensions and, above all, assessments of Moscow’s initiative. As the international media attention fades and the outcomes of the summit emerge, it is time to cool-headedly reflect on Russia’s Africa strategy – or lack thereof. What does it mean to have Russia back? What interests does Russia have on the continent, and what are its tools to pursue them?
The frequent reference to a ‘return’ of Russia to Africa means there must have been a departure. During the 1990s, Moscow was struggling with enormous domestic issues as it transited from a Soviet political and economic system to a multi-party capitalist one. If Africa had occupied an important position in Soviet times, it was no longer considered a foreign policy priority after the end of the Cold War, as stressed by Shubin. Only in the early 2000s, with the election of Vladimir Putin, did Russia begin its discreet ‘return’ to the continent, and has gained more traction in recent years, in line with the increasing geostrategic re-positioning of global players in Africa.
Russia-Africa relations branch out in several directions. Moscow’s growing influence over the continent has been conveyed mainly through economic and security cooperation with narratives leveraging on a non-colonial past and the promotion of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs. Procopio points out that, despite the efforts to portray itself as a great power, Russia’s footprint in Africa is still relatively light, hard to compare to China’s or the likes.
According to Neethling , military cooperation and the sale of arms represent the most important types of engagement between Moscow and African governments. Since 2015, several military cooperation agreements have been signed. Regular armed forces training missions, civil experts’ consultations and the deployment of troops in contexts of crisis were coupled with increasing arms sales to African governments, a pillar of bilateral relations. Moreover, Russia’s contribution to the fight against violent extremism – i.e. in Nigeria and Mozambique – sent an important signal about Russia’s willingness to strengthen its military footprint on the continent. The Central African Republic (CAR) represents an interesting case to explain Moscow’s growing attention to the continent through a combination of military assistance and political support. Moscow obtained the go-ahead from the United Nations’ Security Council to deliver weapons to CAR, under arms embargo since December 2013, helping Faustin Archange Touadéra’s regime to address the need for the political and military stabilization of the country.
Next to security, natural resources also undoubtedly became a driver for the consolidation of Russia-Africa relations, Mpungose states that. Russia’s energy policies and the need to find new supply markets for its national nuclear industry led to the conclusion of numerous contracts for mining and natural resource exploitation between the main Russian companies and African governments. Russia’s energy diplomacy negotiated oil exploration deals with Ghana and Madagascar, for instance, and obtained concessions to build power plants in countries such as Egypt and Ethiopia.
In terms of economic relations, the aim of increasing the total volume of trade between Russia and African states is high up among the priorities of Russian political and diplomatic initiatives. Russia-Africa trade levels have indeed remained relatively low so far if compared to the main competitors’ performances. President Putin explicitly mentioned the recent increase in trade volume exchange, thus emphasizing a dimension all too often underestimated when interpreting the reasons for Russia’s ‘comeback’ to Africa.
Russian political activism towards Africa has been developed not only in the field of bilateral relations, as Ramani underlines. Multilateral institutions provided Moscow with an important way to strengthen political influence on the continent’s balances of power, through mediation initiatives aiming to resolve regional crises. In CAR, Putin’s intervention – together with that of the late Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s – facilitated the dialogue between the government and 14 armed militias, laying the foundations for a partial normalization of the national political and security situation. Furthermore, taking advantage of the presence of both the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Sochi, the Kremlin encouraged the restart of negotiations between Egypt and Ethiopia regarding rights to exploit Nile river waters, which is the subject of a dispute regarding the Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD) project.
Putin’s Russia is gaining room for manoeuvre in Africa, leveraging what it has to offer the continent in terms of political, economic and military support. However, Moscow’s return to the continent actually remains on a modest scale. The diplomatic weight of the initiative in Sochi is uncontested, yet it remains to be seen if the political achievements of the summit will truly boost Russia-Africa relations. African states did respond to the call to Sochi, but they are not passive subjects of great powers’ strategies. As Couch argues, Western pundits should rethink the way they talk about Russia in Africa: “The lens of geopolitics and great power competition should be supplemented by one that spotlights the agency of individual African countries, local populations, and indeed racial politics within Russia itself”. Their agency is an increasingly crucial factor in shaping the continent’s internal as well as external dynamics.