Vladimir Putin is resetting Russia’s Africa agenda to counter the US and China

Posters of Russian President Vladimir Putin hang on the streets of Egypt's capital ahead of his meeting with his Egyptian counterpart President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo, Egypt December 11, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany - RC119911E330
Editor's note:

The full version of this op-ed is available on Quartz Africa.

The first ever Russia-Africa summit will be held from Oct. 23-24 in Sochi, Russia, marking the culminating point of the return of Russia to Africa, with more than 50 African leaders and 3,000 delegates invited. This convening is only another illustration of the recent increase in  economic, security, and political-diplomatic engagements to foster Russia-Africa relations.

Over the last decade there has been a proliferation of Russia-Africa bilateral committees, economic forums, and conferences for economic coordination. In 2011, the Russian Agency on Insurance of Export Credit Investments (EXIAR) was created in order to facilitate Russian companies’ activities and the protection of investments.

More recently, the three-day June 2018 Saint Petersburg Economic Forum reunited Russia and Africa and gave African countries the chance to meet with Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. The Russia-SADC business forum that was held in February in Moscow is another example of the strengthening of ties between Russia and Africa in a broad range of economic fields.

The upcoming Russia-Africa Economic Forum, which will be chaired by Russian president Vladimir Putin and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, will gather Russian and African officials along with business leaders to discuss and sign trade, economic, and investment agreements.

Economic pragmatism

This renewed relationship is going to be centered around pragmatic economic cooperation, military-technical partnerships, and Russia’s quiet soft-power push. These are all set out in the competitive context with the United States, the European Union, and China, among others, as the backdrop.

Trade between Russia and sub-Saharan Africa started at low levels but increased rapidly to $4.8 billion last year from $1.8 billion in 2010. Russia-Africa trading relations are characterized by Russia’s main role as an exporter. In 2018, Russia’s exports to sub-Saharan Africa totaled $3 billion, while imports from sub-Saharan Africa came in at $1.7 billion. In 2015, Algeria together with Egypt, Morocco, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and South Africa accounted for 80 percent of Africa’s exports to Russia. Cote d’Ivoire saw a strong increase in mutual trade with Russia in 2018, particularly with agricultural products and energy. During last year’s BRICS meeting in Johannesburg, president Putin emphasized Russia’s trade with Africa grew by more than 25 percent in 2017, and that trade saw particular growth in the food supplies, metals, and machinery and equipment sectors.

Energy has become the main sector for Russian investments and the concept of energy diplomacy has emerged with investments made in gas, oil, and nuclear power. Namely, Russian geologists are active in countries including Ghana, Madagascar, and Libya and large oil companies such as Rosneft and Lukoil are fighting to dominate the market of oil investments through the creation of oil and gas fields in countries including Egypt and Mozambique.

Talks are also underway to establish a nuclear technology center and Russia announced its will to build an African Center of Excellence and nuclear power in Ethiopia.

Military-technical relations

Russia is the second largest supplier of arms in the world and a major supplier of arms to African countries. The number of arms supplied by Russia keeps increasing and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) found that Russia’s sales of weaponry to African countries in 2017 had doubled compared to 2012. China and the U.S. are also crucial weapons suppliers but in Africa they fall behind Russia, which supplied 39 percent of Africa’s imported arms between 2017 and 2013.

SIPRI’s data on major weapons transfers show that the main arms transferred by Russia in 2016-2017 were principally second-hand equipment such as combat and transport helicopters, aircrafts, and surface to air missile systems.

In addition to weapons, Russia contributes troops to Africa. Private mercenary effort is a very common form of involvement by Russia in African countries, as demonstrated by large-scale mercenary efforts in the Central African Republic (CAR), but military contractors have also been active in other African countries.

U.N. peacekeeping efforts are another example of Russia’s involvement in Africa through the sending of troops. China and Russia together have sent more contributing troops in U.N. missions than the rest of the U.N. Security Council Permanent members.

Moscow is particularly known for its very specific model of arms first, business concessions later in many African countries and for its use of military assistance to get access to strategic economic sectors. In fact, military assistance gives Russia access to the energy and mining sectors of African countries, as demonstrated by the case of Mozambique or Angola.

For example, Russia donated its own weapons to the CAR in 2018 in order to surpass France’s offer and achieve a monopoly on strategic access in the country. Foreign minister Lavrov is planning on establishing logistic centers in Eritrea in order to similar strategic access to resources.

Recently, Russia has been using military assistance to gain influence in local politics. Documents were leaked in June which show Russia had been assisting Sudanese military efforts to defeat former president Omar al-Bashir along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Moscow has been deploying military instructors to train presidential guards and assisted autocrats with election strategies in various countries such as Madagascar and the CAR. The aim of these techniques is to build strong relations with rulers or candidates for election so that when they come to power, they partner with Russia, ensuring Russia’s influence inside African countries.

Soft power diplomacy

Russia offers a non-Western-centric option for diplomacy and support. In 2015, Russia created an alternative credit rating agency to counterbalance the influence that Western agencies had in deciding on the access to finance of the developing world. Russia uses techniques such as visa-free access to South Africans in order to differentiate itself from Western practices.

And in a return to the peak of its Soviet influence days in the 1960s, education is becoming a key influence vehicle for Russia in African countries with everything from research support and scholarships to language schools and academic partnerships.

For example, last November, the Russian Namibian Cultural and Education Centre (RusNam) was launched in Windhoek to promote higher education. That same month, an agreement was signed between Zambia’s Copperbelt University and the People’s Friendship University of Russia (RUDN University), to set up a regional center offering Russian language courses to students in Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Angola.

Similarly, Russia builds language centers of education called “Ryusskiy cabinets” in African countries and uses them to promote Russian culture and language.

Scholarships are being facilitated by Russia to African students. According to foreign minister Lavrov, in 2017 over 1,800 Africans studied at Russian universities and benefitted from governmental scholarships and a total of 15,000 young Africans are studying in Russia. These students mainly come from Nigeria, Angola, Morocco, Namibia and Tunisia.

Read more about the Vladimir Putin’s Africa agenda here.