Africa serves as a viable means for Russia to obtain economic revenue while demonstrating its effectiveness as a global power.
Over the past decade, Russian foreign policy has witnessed a shift across several domains. While these changes centre the promotion of closer relations between Russia and its global peers, arguably such changes may be fundamentally seen as means to achieve Russian domestic and foreign goals. For one, despite being suspended in 2014, Russia was accepted as the eighth member of the then-G8, which allowed it significant status among the most powerful countries in the world.
Although limited to convenience rather than underscored by strong cooperation and given China’s ongoing trade war with the United States, Russia’s presence in the Far East include close ties with China, specifically in energy and defence acquisition. In the Middle East, Russia has forged diplomatic ties with the likes of Syria, Iran and even Hamas. Russia has expressed its commitment to strengthening relations with Latin American and Caribbean states, notably working within international and regional forums, multilateral associations and more tangibly, increasing weapon sales, tourism and technology transfer.
More so, cross-continental relations demonstrate how much Russian foreign policymakers take seriously the strategic importance of each region of the globe to varying Russian interests. It seems only fitting that Russia includes the African continent in its efforts to expand its interest and influence across the globe. Africa serves as a viable means for Russia to obtain economic revenue and demonstrate its effectiveness as a global power. Although Africa’s main import and export trading partners are to a large degree China and India, currently the United States and United Kingdom far outweigh Russia’s economic presence on the continent.
The Soviet Union’s diplomatic ties with African countries notwithstanding, Russia’s relations with Africa have gone through periods of regression and stagnation as the country has embraced consecutive administrations. Despite this, Russia has recently demonstrated much effort toward rebuilding and strengthening its relationship with Africa.
The Soviet Union in Africa
The Soviet Union was a crucial actor in Africa throughout much of the Cold War. To gain the upper hand in its ideological confrontation with the West, the Soviet Union supported many post-colonial independence movements in Africa. Through this, it drew attention to and exploited the colonial legacy of Western influence in Africa and the developing world. The Soviet Union sponsored large-scale military, social and educational programmes across Africa to foster beneficial relationships with political, economic and academic elites on the continent. More so, the Soviet government provided economic assistance to emerging African states, offering means toward infrastructural and agricultural development, security and health sector cooperation. Soviet provision of security assistance to post-colonial militaries across Africa, specifically weaponry and expertise, created a long-term legacy of Soviet hardware and military operational culture across Africa. This legacy has, in some countries, stood the test of time.
The Soviet Union attempted to spread Marxist-Leninist ideology across the African continent, not only because it was favourable to exerting its influence across the continent but also because this ideology countered the West’s colonial and imperial presence across African countries. Many African national liberation movements, including the African National Congress and South West Africa People’s Organization, supported this ideological turn to an extent; however, some rejected both Soviet and Western ideologies, as a pragmatic effort to consolidate post-colonial states and governance systems. As such, the Soviet Union’s ideological favour and outright support for these national liberation movements afforded it much reputational advantage throughout its relations on the continent. In June 2020, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, stated that:
The close nature of friendly ties with African countries, the significant experience of mutually beneficial cooperation dates back to the early 1960s, when the Soviet Union unconditionally supposed the desire of Africans to free themselves from colonial oppression. It provided them with substantial practical assistance in shaping the foundations of statehood, establishing national economies and preparing civilian military personnel.
Contemporary literature has largely argued that this advantage has benefitted present-day Russia’s dealings with African countries with whom the Soviet Union once maintained close ties. As such, the revival of Russia’s interest in Africa throughout the 2000s has allowed Russian officials to prioritize offering African countries political and diplomatic support, economic assistance, educational and vocational training as well as humanitarian relief. Alongside these offerings, Russian officials notably maintain that the West’s promotion of democracy and development assistance in Africa are in line with neo-colonialism and work off foundations of imperialism. As such, the West’s presence in Africa is framed as both a negative and stark contrast to Russia’s presumed wholesome investment, activities and interest in African countries. This rhetoric holds ground among authoritarian-style politicians and regimes in some African countries.
Despite the economic, political, social, educational and military-security ties created by the Soviet Union with African countries, it has taken Russia the better part of the last decade to gain influence on the continent. In 2019, Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, stated that, ‘As we regained our statehood and control over the country, and the economy and the social sphere began to develop, Russian businesses began to look at promising projects abroad, and began to return to Africa.’
Despite the Soviet Union’s legacy, Russia’s outreach to Africa has been minimal as a result of its own domestic challenges, including a failing economy and international sanctions imposed by the US and Europe. The Russian economy is struggling, and this has diminished opportunities to develop ties in Africa, primarily on natural-resource extraction and energy opportunities that are already being exploited by other global powers. Thus, while diplomatic, social and cultural ties are present and prioritized, they are limited.
Russia’s Current Interest in Africa
The 2000s saw Russia revive its interest in Africa, beginning with the development of a new foreign policy in the late 1990s. After experiencing close and mutually beneficial relations between the Soviet Union and African countries, especially during the 1960s, Russia-Africa relations regressed into stagnation and remained as such after the collapse of the Soviet Union. While being characterized in history and literature as a defunct former superpower, the early 1990s saw Russia attempt to establish relations with the West and moving away from African countries. However, after failing to achieve success, Russia developed a large-scale and multi-dimensional foreign policy that would encompass Russian relations with former Soviet ties, notably including China, Africa and Latin America. The consolidation and enactment of this policy gained momentum during President Putin’s first term in the early 2000s and has continued to develop with the rise of globalization, oil prices, Russia’s growing economy, increasing foreign trade opportunities and changing geopolitical priorities.
The last two decades have seen Russia maintain close ties with the Far and Middle East (more notably in China and Syria), become the eighth member of the G8 between 1997 and 2014, and achieve observer status in the Organiz. ation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) as well as the African Union (AU). These efforts, arguably, show Russia stepping up in the international arena, presenting itself as a global actor willing to engage with other countries and extend its influence globally. Russian diplomats, scholars and politicians have, therefore, been on a quest to re-establish old and create new strategic ties around the globe.
In terms of Russia-Africa relations specifically, Russia’s attempts to stabilize its domestic, political and economic climate have allowed the Kremlin to constantly review Russian foreign policy and relations. This review has seen Russia extend its hand to Africa in hopes that Russia-Africa relations may help achieve its domestic and international objectives. Africa is seen as providing a low-cost, high-profile opportunity for Russian advancement. Under President Putin’s directive, Russia expanded its activities on the continent to include involvement in and support of African peacekeeping operations, participation in international anti-piracy task forces, defence and security assistance, humanitarian relief, government-led commercial-economic partnerships, education opportunities as well as political partnerships and establishing diplomatic ties. These activities have sought to recover and strengthen relations formerly established by the Soviet Union.
Russia’s ‘road map’ for Africa is underscored by three fundamental principles: economism, pragmatism and universalism. Russia-Africa relations are based on economized diplomatic relations, shaped by strategic pragmatism and maintained opportunities by both Russia and Africa for these strategies to extend beyond Russia-Africa relations. Russia-Africa cooperation has been rooted in a number of shared values including decolonization, afro-optimism and afro-intellectualism—all of which echo the aforementioned principles. Russia’s foothold in many African countries centres mutually beneficial and empowering relations—thereby creating a sense of comradeship, respect and collaboration with African nations.
While decolonization is not officially stated in Russian policy, Russia’s intended promotion of mutual respect underscores a sense of agency of African countries in their relations with Russia—one that was absent during the continent’s numerous experiences of colonialism. Russia further adopts an afro-optimistic approach to relations with African countries, defined by supporting and promoting many African countries’ efforts toward independence and self-sufficiency.
Finally, afro-intellectualism underscores Russia’s vision of Africa as entirely and historically capable, rather than disadvantaged in any way. Russian relations on the continent, from business to educational opportunities, are therefore intended to show a willingness to engage with the continent’s intellectual, technological and policy potential. These principles and their implementation point to the emergence of a notably pragmatic framework with which present-day Russia interacts with African countries. While this has not reaped relations akin to those between the Soviet Union and Africa, it goes a long way to show Russia’s expanding interest in the continent and, in turn, African countries’ willingness to engage.
Russia-Africa Relations Today
A key component of Russia-Africa relations is military and technical relations. Rooted in the Soviet Union’s ties with African countries, Russia has benefitted from Africa’s purchase of military equipment and weaponry for decades. Examples can be seen in the militaries of Algeria, Angola and Ethiopia being nearly entirely equipped with weaponry and military instruments made in Russia.
As African countries have grown accustomed to Russian weaponry and technical supplies, a level of dependency has formed where Russia has become the only country able to satisfy Africa’s increasing demand for modernized weaponry, technical staff and military experts. In return, African countries transfer shares of their own companies to Russian firms as a means of payment, or authorize Russian personnel to administer national, modern and valuable mine reserves. Russia benefits from this dependency while Africa provides an extensive market for Russian trade and repair across a range of industries, from machinery to weaponry, at a comparatively cheap and reliable price.
Russia has a critical shortage of certain raw materials, including aluminium, chrome, manganese, mercury and titanium, and it faces depletion of its reserves of others including copper, nickel, tin and zinc. The looming prospects of shrinking national natural resource reserves have extended into threatening the country’s nuclear sector, with uranium reserves in shortage. Uranium extracted from African countries, such as Egypt, South Africa and Namibia, has become a significant raw material for Russian nuclear companies, specifically Rosatom, which globally competes for nuclear power. This has gradually pushed Russia to become an importer of many raw minerals.
Africa is important to Russia because of its rich and reliable source of natural resources—all of which provide ample opportunity for expansion into resource-related industries, beyond satisfying domestic resource demands. Russian firms have taken up this opportunity and have set up large-scale natural resource firms on the continent, working alongside locals and governments within African countries to open up the Russian market to African goods and vice versa. In this sense, African countries do not only gain access to the Russian market; local industries are also empowered by Russian business and development. This is notable in the diamond industry, whereby Russian firm, Alrosa, extracts diamonds from South Africa, Sierra Leone, Namibia and Angola. More so, one-third of Russia’s African imports are agricultural, including cocoa, coffee, tea and potatoes.
Russia’s Foreign Policy Today
Contemporary Russia looks to Africa as an opportunity to project its power and influence. President Putin hosted the first Russia-Africa Summit in October 2019, a clear indication to African countries and the world of Russia’s willingness to engage with the continent and Africa’s symbolic importance to the Kremlin. As per the Summit’s joint declaration, states in attendance committed themselves to making progress strides toward cooperation on a number of fronts—including trade, scientific, political, legal, security, environmental protection and humanitarian assistance.
Notably, this declaration acknowledged and reaffirmed the African Union’s (AU) Agenda 2063 and the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Post-Summit, Russian officials visited the continent leaving with multiple signed military, economic and security cooperation agreements with several African states. In turn, a parade of African leaders visited Moscow and heeded Putin’s courtesy call. The Duma charmed African delegations with an international parliamentary forum held in July 2019, with a full-day of the programme devoted to Russia-Africa relations. These diplomatic events included attempts by Russia to push anti-colonial narratives, referencing the West’s exploitative influence on the continent and willingness to breed domestic chaos.
Russian officials place Russia’s interest and activity on the continent as strongly contrasting this narrative, positioning Russia as willing to assist African countries in both developing and protecting their sovereignty through mutually beneficial and sustainable Russia-Africa relations. The West’s declining interest in African countries over the last decade has left open opportunities for Russia and other foreign powers to gain influence with the continent’s population and elites. Russia’s low-cost and low-risk strategies in Africa may be beneficial for Russia-Africa relations and unnerve rival powers. In a meeting held with the ambassadors of African countries in Russia, the chairman of the Russian Duma, Viacheslav Volodin, stated that, ‘We propose to move from intentions to concrete steps.’
Following the Russia-Africa Summit, Russia declared four strategic goals guiding its relations with Africa. First, to use Africa to project its power on the global stage. African countries constitute the single largest voting bloc in the UN, providing Russia with a pool of allies against ongoing dominance by the United States and other Western powers. This has not gone unnoticed by the US who have been alarmed by Russia’s growing influence, noting it as a ‘great power competition’. Secondly, Russia aims to access raw materials and natural resources of African countries. This can be seen in Russia creating joint projects and investments to prompt African state and private actors to open access to Africa’s resource reserves. Examples include Russia’s joint venture with Zimbabwe’s Pen East Ltd in developing one of the world’s largest deposits of platinum metals. More so, nearly a third of Russia’s African imports are agricultural, including coffee, potatoes, fruits and cocoa.
Third, Russia aims to extend its dominance as a supplier of Africa’s arms exports and security. Recently Russia became Africa’s largest supplier of arms, accounting for 35 per cent of arms exported to the continent. Since 2015, Russia has signed over 20 bilateral military cooperation agreements with several African states. Russian arms remain attractive to African states as they are cheaper than American weapons, and do not entail human rights concerns. Finally, Russia aims to support energy and power development in Africa through Russian companies and Russian-led strategic partnerships. Africa faces key energy and power supply challenges; affordability and reliability of electricity are key issues affecting the regions’ industrial productivity. Africa, moreover, is an ideal and lucrative location for Russian energy and power companies. The presence of companies such as Gazprom, Lukoil, Rostec and Rosatom on the continent provides options for reliable electricity and power supply alongside the development of nuclear energy on the continent.
The Russia-Africa Summit further resulted in the formation of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum, which aims to be a mechanism of partnership and cooperation between Russia and African countries—its remit includes planning the second Russia-Africa Summit scheduled for 2022. As such, Russia’s road map to Africa requires organized and mutually beneficial relations with all African countries. To do this, Russia may have to learn lessons from the Soviet Union’s relations with the continent, which showed the potential of Russia-Africa relations to contribute to achieving Russia’s domestic and foreign interests. Strengthening ties with African countries could bolster Russia’s ability to influence world politics. The optimism behind this vision can be seen in the convergence of Russian and African interest in a multipolar global order.
What Does This Mean for the West?
The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, approved in November 2016, stated that, ‘Global power and development potential is becoming decentralized, and is shifting toward the Asia-Pacific Region, eroding the global economic and political dominance of the traditional western powers.’ More so, it mentions that, ‘The attempts made by Western powers to maintain their positions in the world, including by imposing their point of view on global processes and conducting a policy to contain alternative centres of power, leads to a greater instability in international relations and growing turbulence on the global and regional levels.’
Russia’s attention and commitment of resources to Africa has a clear strategic and geo-economic rationale. The 54 African states consist of the largest geographic bloc in any international organization which African countries are members of, representing an unprecedented potential to serve as a ‘political reserve’ for Russian foreign policy interests, political, economic and social objectives. African countries are shown to be at the forefront of supporting Russia’s unpopular positions in the international arena or in instances where the West shows resistance and antagonism towards Russia.
Africa plays a significant role in Russia’s long-standing pursuit of a multipolar world order, as opposed to the unipolar system under the United States’ hegemony. This is most evident in Russian diplomats reaching out to potential partners to dilute the influence of the United States and its allies in international and multilateral bodies. Russian attempts to establish close relations with a host of countries including Germany, Iran, Syria, India, China and Venezuela serves as evidence of this. Regarding Africa, Russia’s leading energy company, Rosatom, has signed memorandums and agreements to develop nuclear energy with 18 African countries, including Ghana, Zambia, Rwanda and Nigeria.
Russia’s interest in developing Africa’s oil and gas industries has extended into collaborations with existing African companies on mutually beneficial commercial partnerships, such as Nigeria’s Oranto Petroleum announcing its collaboration with Rosneft to develop 21 oil assets across 17 African countries in 2018. Russian officials were further involved in the founding of the Russia-African Business Council in 2002, along with the participation of 60 businessmen from Russia and Africa involved in oil, gas, finance and tourism sectors. As such, Russia has made clear pragmatic moves toward establishing mutually beneficial partnerships in key industries across the African continent.
Africa continues to use regionalism to collectively tackle challenges plaguing the continent whilst fostering a spirit of pan-Africanism. At the forefront of this is the AU as the continent’s collective decision-making body. The AU’s various policy frameworks and institutional mechanisms show promise as member states acknowledge its presence and influence over continental affairs and broader development. More recently, the Russia-Africa Summit in 2019 saw H.E. Dr Amani Abou-Zeid, commissioner for infrastructure and energy for the AU Commission, promote the AU’s recent work on the African Continental Free Trade Agreement as a great investment opportunity for Russia at national, regional and continental levels. She went on to say that, ‘We believe that the creation of sizeable regional markets in Africa and Eurasia opens the way for entry into mutually beneficial cooperative arrangements with strategic partners such as Russia and more generally for successful integration of our economies into the global market.’
It becomes clear that the AU not only has a strong development agenda for the continent but also acknowledges Russia has a worthy contributor to this development. Alongside this, Russia’s accredited status in the AU coupled with regular engagements between Russian officials and AU commissioners shows Russia’s consistent and pragmatic efforts to pursue long-term influence on the African continent. Further evidence of such efforts include ongoing meetings between Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and various African regional economic communities throughout 2020—including the Southern African Development Community (SADC) as well as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)—and Russia’s notable remarks on strengthening peace and security in Africa at UN fora.
It may be presumptuous to speculate over how Russia’s interest in Africa may have manifested if Russian relations with the West were more favourable. While some have argued that Russia-Africa relations would have remained stagnant if this were so, others argue that the pressure of globalisation would have made Russia-Africa relations unavoidable. While Russian foreign policy objectives are not dependent nor dictated by the West, several events have severely damaged the relationship between Russia and the West—to the point where Russia has crafted its foreign policy around gaining international influence and support from other countries. These events include, but are not limited to, NATO’s continuous and near threatening eastward expansion; the West’s criticism of Russia during the 1999 Chechnya war; the US-Russia competitive and confrontational relations over nuclear advancements, the West’s support of Kosovo’s independence as well as, more recently, criticism against Russia’s controversial interference in domestic electoral politics in the West.
The United Nations is arguably the most important arena for Russia’s diplomatic efforts towards a multipolar world order. Africa accounts for one-quarter of UN member states, giving them considerable sway in decision-making of the UN. This impetus explains frequent diplomatic visits by Russian officials to the continent, promoting ‘strategic partnership agreements’ signed by Russia and African countries as well as the provision of debt relief.
After the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit, President Putin wrote off US$20 billion in debt owed by African countries to Russia, coupled with plans to double Russia’s trade with Africa to US$40 billion per year. It becomes clear then that Russia has made itself a valuable partner to African countries, not only for its own gain but for African countries’ benefit as well. While debt relief has been a useful tool in gaining Russia positive influence amongst African countries, arguably it is such positive attention coupled with ongoing diplomatic efforts by Russian officials on the continent that have yielded Russia tangible support by African countries in international decision-making bodies like the UN. For one, Russia relied on African countries’ support of the militarization of the Crimea and surrounding region—as opposed to supporting the UN’s condemnation thereof. Perhaps the support received by African countries in this instance and others, including African countries’ support of Russia’s position on UN resolutions concerning Syria, prove Russian efforts on the continent as yielding favourable outcomes for Russian diplomatic interests and beyond.
Africa has three rotating seats on the UN Security Council, the ‘A3’, currently held by South Africa, Equatorial Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire. Russia has deliberately courted members of the A3 for support, resulting in informal alignments of interests which manifest more formally on Africa-related issues and where Russian interests are at stake. A key example is Russia’s partnership with the A3 in January 2019 to hinder UN efforts to examine the recent electoral process and outcome in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This was despite calls for the UN’s involvement by Congolese political opposition figures and pressure from the international community. Russia’s promotion of the principle of non-intervention in sovereign matters of any state was framed as strengthening African countries’ sovereignty and ability to internally resolve domestic affairs. Implications of this have been growing synergy between Russia and the A3.
Russia’s promotion of non-intervention in the UN has positively manifested in its advocacy for African peace-keeping solutions to conflicts on the continent. Russia’s advocacy of state sovereignty directly criticizes the United States for violating the sovereignty of countries across the developing world. Russia has actively participated in African peacekeeping missions and training, facilitating the development of African militaries, arms sales, offering security personnel scholarships and training programs at Russian military facilities. These relationships grant Russia’s political relations and commercial access to Africa’s natural resources.
South Africa has long been a target of Russia’s relations in Africa. The Soviet Union played a significant role in South Africa’s fight against the Apartheid regime and its transition to multiracial democracy under the African National Congress (ANC). After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, South Africa became the first African country to recognize the independence of the Russian Federation, with full diplomatic relations established between the Federation and South Africa in 1992. Putin has endeavoured to maintain close ties with South Africa, visiting South African Presidents while noting South Africa’s near regional hegemonic status and strong economy.
South Africa’s ascendency to the BRICS has also strengthened Russia’s interest and investment in South Africa. This includes scaling up Russia’s offering to the country, from educational opportunities to investing in South African industry. By 2007, 4,500 African students were being educated in Russian institutions of higher education with 50 per cent of those students funded by the Russian federal budget. More so, 800 state-funded fellowships were reserved for African students in Russia’s 2007-2008 federal budget.
Analysts must remain cautious of reactions by the US to Russia’s interest in Africa and, more specifically, critically move away from citing the aggressive attitude of the Truman Doctrine toward former Soviet Union expansionism. The US is already critical towards Russian relations in Africa; in 2018 former US national security advisor, John Bolton, stated that ‘predatory practices’ pursued by China and Russia stunt economic growth in Africa, threaten the financial independence of African nations, inhibit opportunities for US investment, interfere with US military operations and pose a significant threat to US national security interests. More than this, Bolton accused Russia of engaging in commercial activities, such as the sale of arms, with African countries in exchange for votes at the UN.
If Russia’s interests and involvement in Africa awakens America’s increasingly waning interest in the continent, the political, economic and social environment could offer threats and opportunities for all parties involved. For one, Africa’s conventional allies and trading partners, such as China, India, the United States and the United Kingdom, may undermine Russian initiatives on the continent as part of their geopolitical competition—and vice versa. If conventional allies are reawakened to African opportunities, African countries themselves may play world powers against one another for their own benefit—for one, African countries may allow world powers to compete for natural resources which may present more beneficial trade relationships for African countries and companies. Presently, the extent to which Russia succeeds in forging closer ties with African countries depends on the responses of African countries themselves as well as their traditional allies, such as the United States, to its interest in the continent.
Imperatives For a Russia-Africa Future
Although the Soviet Union’s historical ties have served as the foundation on which present-day Russia has become extensively involved with African countries, there remain a number of challenges to Russia’s strategy for Africa going forward. For one, Africa serves as a viable means for Russia to obtain economic revenue while demonstrating its effectiveness as a global power but, for this to continue, Africa must visibly benefit. Russian companies invested in commercial activity in African countries must ensure they act in the spirit of corporate responsibility and so, stay clear of one-sided economic relationships and neo-colonialism. As such, Russian commercial entities must incorporate capacity building and opportunities for local African businesses into existing investments in raw material extraction, local industries and debt relief. Alongside this, Russia must remain aware of the presence of and mixed results rendered from development assistance and aid programmes across Africa, such as in Egypt, South Sudan and Kenya. While their presence is limited, development assistance and aid programmes serve as a shaping factor of African economies, public and private sectors. Russia, thus, needs to develop a functional synergy between these programmes and its economic investments in Africa. The ability to create and sustain this synergy may contribute to public and political opinion on whether Russia’s presence on the continent is beneficial or not.
It may be worth mentioning that Russian officials are challenged by negative stereotypes of Russian involvement in Africa. Such stereotypes often define Russia’s involvement by dictators, outcasts and anti-Western narratives as well as are coupled with fears held by African countries of Russia exploiting or feeding off African resources. As such, Russia must work to repair its reputation by targeting the continent’s political elite and public opinion as well as addressing existing fears held by African countries over cooperation. By better framing the revival of Russia’s interest in Africa and demonstrating Russia’s commitment to mutually beneficial Russia-Africa relations, through the use of soft power perhaps, Russian officials may consciously move away from reliance on or replication of the Soviet Union’s former ideological, diplomatic and economic ties with Africa to reflect present-day needs and capabilities of both Russia and Africa. As such, Russia must strategically divide its attention between pursuing principles of economism, pragmatism and universalism in cross-cutting relations with African countries and employing African support towards the achievement of increased Russian influence over world politics and a multipolar global order.
Undoubtedly, Russia is actively pursuing its interest in and influence on the African continent in line with Russian foreign policy goals. Despite the historically close ties enjoyed by the Soviet Union with African countries, present-day Russia will not find it as easy to sustain mutually beneficial relations with the continent as well as achieve its long-term foreign policy goals⎈
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