What does Russia really want from Africa?

A visitor examines a Russian rocket-propelled grenade launcher RPG-29 during the Russia-Africa Economic Forum Exhibition on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum in the Black sea resort of Sochi, Russia, October 24, 2019. Sergei Chirikov/Pool via REUTERS - RC1A50BA75C0

Last month’s Russia-Africa summit—the first of its kind—ended with the usual optics and photo-ops, but also spawned $12.5 billion in business deals, largely in arms and grains. Beyond the splashy show of unity and camaraderie, the summit also raised a number of questions—namely, what does Russia really want from Africa? How will Africa’s traditional allies, especially the United States, respond to Russia’s newfound love for the continent? And, does Russia have what it takes to compete with China in Africa?

Russia’s interest in Africa

It will be simplistic to frame the just-concluded Russia-Africa summit as a copy-cat jamboree organized by Russia to latch on the bandwagon of the increasingly fashionable trend of organizing and institutionalizing Africa summits by countries like China, India, Japan, France, and the United States. The truth is that, since the 2000s, there has been a noticeable re-awakening of Russia’s interest in Africa. Indeed, between 2005 and 2015, Africa’s trade with Russia grew by 185 percent, and Russia has several reasons to engage Africa more intensely.

Goal 1: Projecting power on the global stage

In supporting African countries—who, notably, constitute the largest voting bloc in the United Nations—Russia is cultivating allies in its challenge to the current United States and Euro-Atlantic-dominated security order. This strategy is not going unnoticed: Indeed, in 2018 former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton accused Russia of selling arms to African countries in exchange for votes at the United Nations, among other nefarious motivations.

Goal 2: Accessing raw materials and natural resources

Russia—just like other major world powers—also covets many of Africa’s raw materials and is creating joint projects and investments in order to access them. From the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the Central African Republic, Russian companies are scaling up their activities in the mining of resources such as coltan, cobalt, gold, and diamonds. In Zimbabwe, for instance, a joint venture between Russia’s JSC Afromet and Zimbabwe’s Pen East Ltd is developing one of the world’s largest deposits of platinum group metal. In Angola, Russian mining company Alroser recently increased its stake in local producer Catoca to 41 percent, in a deal that provides the diamond giant with a production base outside Russia. Despite joint ownership with Angola, Catoca operates under Russian management. Remarkably, about one-third of Russia’s African imports are agricultural, including fruit, cocoa, coffee, and potatoes.

Goal 3: Arms exports and security

In recent years, Russia had become the largest supplier of arms to Africa, accounting for 35 percent of arms exports to the region, followed by China (17 percent), United States (9.6 percent), and France (6.9 percent). Since 2015, Russia has signed over 20 bilateral military cooperation agreements with African states. A Russian citizen, Valeriy Zakharov, has even been appointed to be a national security advisor to the president of the Central African Republic (CAR), Faustin-Archange Touadéra.

Russian arms are attractive to African leaders because, besides being relatively cheap, deals with Russia are not often held up by human rights concerns cited by other countries like France and the U.S. For instance, when the U.S. was dilly-dallying on selling arms to Nigeria to fight Boko Haram in 2014 upon allegations of human rights abuses by Nigerian soldiers, Nigeria turned to Russia and was able to place an order for 12 attack helicopters.

Goal 4: Supporting energy and power development in Africa through Russian companies

Lack of affordable, reliable electricity in Africa makes the region a prime and lucrative location for Russia’s energy and power industry. Several state-owned Russian companies such as Gazprom, Lukoil, Rostec and Rosatom are active in Africa, with activities largely concentrated in Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Nigeria, and Uganda. So far, Rosatom has signed memorandums and agreements to develop nuclear energy with 18 African countries, including Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Zambia, Rwanda, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. In 2018 alone, Rosatom agreed to build four 1200 MW VVER-type nuclear reactors in Egypt—with construction and maintenance valued at $60 billion—with a Russian loan of up to $25 billion at an annual interest rate of 3 percent.

Russia also wants to use its mostly state-owned oil and gas companies to create new streams of energy supply. In 2018, for instance, Nigerian oil and gas exploration company Oranto Petroleum announced that it would be cooperating with Russia’s largest oil producer, Rosneft, to develop 21 oil assets across 17 African countries. Several Russian companies have also made significant investments in Algeria’s oil and gas industries and in Libya, Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and Egypt.

How is the U.S. responding to Russia and Africa’s newfound love?

Given Russia’s pivot towards Africa, many observers are wondering whether the U.S., in a knee-jerk reaction, will look to reactivate the Truman Doctrine of the late 1940s—in which the U.S. offered immediate economic and military aid to Greece and Turkey, both under pressure from communist insurrection and Soviet expansion, respectively. The Truman Doctrine makes containment of aggressive Soviet expansionism anywhere a priority for the United States. 

The U.S. is already critical of Russia in Africa. In fact, former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton even suggested in a 2018 speech, that “predatory practices pursued by China and Russia stunt economic growth in Africa, threaten the financial independence of African nations, inhibit opportunities for U.S. investment, interfere with U.S. military operations, and pose a significant threat to US national security interests.” In critical reference to the “votes-for arms deals” in the U.N., Bolton stated that such moves “keep strong men in power, undermine peace and security and run counter to the best interest of the African people.”

Already, U.S. and Russian interests have been at odds in Africa: For example, in Mozambique, Exxon Mobil has large investments in natural gas but where Russian mercenaries are also deployed, creating the potential for tensions.

Sino-Russo competition in Africa

The U.S. isn’t the only power threatened by Russia’s influence in Africa—it seems Russia is looking to muscle in on some of China’s influence on the continent as well. Given China’s economic advantages—its GDP is about seven times that of Russia and its 2017 trade with Africa was $56 billion, compared to Russia’s meek $3 billion (for context, U.S.-Africa trade over that time was $27 billion), Russia is particularly looking to win the hearts and minds of African leaders instead.

Like China, Russia likes to create a sense of comradeship with Africans by reminding them that they never colonized any part of Africa and that they emphasize collaboration over aid, and by implication, respects them more than  the continent’s traditional allies, who are often criticized for being patronizing or condescending towards Africans and the continent. At the recent Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, Vladimir Putin announced the writing off of $20 billion in debt owed by African countries and unveiled plans to double trade with African countries to $40 billion per annum.

Implications of Russia’s deepening involvement in Africa

If Russia’s renewed interest in Africa awakens America’s waning interest in the continent, it could offer both threats and opportunities to the continent. There is, for instance, the possibility that Africa’s traditional allies may try to undermine initiatives by Russia in the continent (and vice versa) as part of their geopolitical competition. Similarly re-awakening the interest of Africa’s traditional allies in the continent presents an opportunity for African countries to play the two powers against each other for their own benefit—as they did during the Cold War.  However, how far Russia succeeds with what it wants from Africa will also largely depend on the responses of Africa’s traditional allies, especially the United States, to its deepening interest in the continent.

For more on this issue, please see Landry Signé’s recent piece, “Vladimir Putin is resetting Russia’s Africa agenda to counter the US and China.”