A New Doctrine? Understanding Russia and the New Scramble for Africa

Russia’s interest in Africa has been re-ignited by the clear opportunity to establish influence in a region that is increasingly becoming vulnerable to a renewed global scramble for its resources.

In July 2000, the constitutive act of the African Union was adopted and subsequently agreed. Some 30 African heads of state masked their sweat through diplomacy in the typically 27-degrees Celsius heat of Togo to pen a constitutive act offering the continent a new progressive identity. With a fresh political outlook that recognized the undemocratic institutions many of the newly independent African governments had established, the young AU appeared poised for a model of leadership that would prioritize the masses and not a privileged few.

Leaders like Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo, South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki and Togo’s Gnassingbé Eyadema came together to remodel the so-called ‘dictators club’ that the earlier, 1999 Sirte Declaration had condemned. These leaders identified African unity, ‘real unity that serves the people first’, as the premise from which to accelerate development in Africa. While this new geo-political entity took form, the eyes of the world re-aligned to Africa, and the ‘scramble for Africa’ began for a second time. 

Signalling the New Scramble

Russia’s interest in Africa is not new—the Cold-War had seen significant Soviet presence on the African continent. Rather, the Kremlin’s interest has been re-ignited by the clear opportunity to establish influence in a region that is increasingly becoming vulnerable to a renewed global scramble for its resources. While it is inaccurate to say that Russia has never shown any interest in Africa before, the re-emergent potential of one united African voice, epitomized by the formation of Africa Continental Free Trade Area—the largest free trade area since the World Trade Organisation—in 2019, certainly alerted Russia and other global players to the need to either consolidate or re-establish their influence on the continent. While the UK’s then-prime minister, Theresa May’s ‘casual’ three-state tour of the continent in 2019 was a calculated move towards consolidation, Vladimir Putin’s Sochi Summit appeared to be a desperate attempt at re-establishment. 

Indeed, with a seemingly clear direction for comprehensive development through its several frameworks for integration, such as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and the continental passport, Africa inadvertently signalled the new scramble for a hand in its polities. In this scramble, Russia’s role can best be described as ambivalent. On the one hand, Russia has the potential to promote favourable intra-continental relations. On the other hand, Russia could push Africa into a failure to make good on the promises leaders at Lomé 2000 looked so eager to deliver on. Defining which scenario is more likely, requires understanding this new scramble for Africa from the lens of the AU and its relationship with Russia.

The Seeds of the ‘Old Scramble’

The long depression (1873-1879) stimulated the first global scramble for Africa in the 19th century. It consisted in the occupation, division and colonization of African territories by European powers between 1881 and 1914. Between 1870 and 1914, the portion of Africa under formal European control, rose rapidly from ten per cent to 90 per cent. A lack of resources combined with the consolidation of economic influence contributed to the proliferation of Europe’s authority on the continent. The latter ranged from excessive military influence and economic dominance to direct rule and colonial imperialism. The White Man’s Burden—the 19th century’s façade for territorial competition—saw Africa partitioned between seven major powers, including Spain, Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal and Italy. In contrast, Russia was largely disinterested in gaining influence on the continent and was, instead, embroiled in its own internal battle for a political identity. 

The embryo of Russia-Africa relations was only conceived much later. It was based on a shared resentment about excessive Western influence on African states in the mid-twentieth century. Alexey Salnikov, a high-ranking KGB officer in 1979, testified of Nikita Khrushchev’s (Soviet leader from 1953 to 1964) true intentions behind the façade of a UN speech in 1963 that welcomed the decolonization process: ‘We are basically selling communism to Africa. But in fact, we have to pay the Africans to buy it.’

This came after the Kremlin confirmed that most African states were not ready to embrace communist ideas without serious economic assistance. In the decades since, the Kremlin has signed cooperation treaties with 37 African countries and participated in building some 600 enterprises, factories and plants. Among them, for instance, are the Aswan Dam, crucial for Egypt’s agriculture and energy supply and the Capanda hydroelectric dam. As the popular sentiment that ‘economy defies politics’ proved to be true, the Russian influence grew rapidly.

Picking Apart Russia’s Foreign Policy: The Primakov Doctrine

In 1999, Yevgeny Primakov, then-Russian prime minister, called for Russia, alongside China and India, to position itself as an independent Eurasian centre of power on the world stage. This positioning would serve the purpose of re-introducing a counterweight to the capitalist hegemony fronted by the US since 1989. Russia has since embraced ‘The Primakov Doctrine’ globally, through which it has been leveraging its commitment to the mid-twentieth century decolonization process as a precedent for its increased presence in Africa. According to President Putin, Africa is a priority for Russian foreign policy; a commitment that in practice means diplomatic support, security help and economic assistance amongst several other incentives to bring African leaders to the table. The Kremlin has recently written off US$20 billion in African debt, and Russian corporates continue to steadily increase their influence on the continent. In June 2018, Rosneft signed a deal to supply Ghana with liquefied natural gas adding to existing partnerships in with Algeria, Egypt and Mozambique. Lukoil, another Russian energy powerhouse, is active in other southern African states. 

Undoubtedly, Russia is a major defence partner for African states and a supplier of the majority of arms in the region. Russia’s two biggest defence customers in Africa are Algeria and Egypt, which purchased US$8 billion and US$3.1 billion worth of Russian arms during the 10-year period from 2009 to 2018. On a clearly rising trajectory, Russia–Africa trade has grown from US$1.1 billion worth of Russian exports in 2009 to almost double that amount ten years later (US$2.1 billion).

However, many external commentators note the imbalance in trade. Africa still represents just three per cent of Russia’s international trade in goods and only two per cent of imports in services. Russia is embedding itself on the African continent to increase its sphere of influence with no intent of buying African goods and engaging in a mutually beneficial relationship. Paul Stronski, senior fellow at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggests that private Russian security operatives and corporates serve a useful purpose for Moscow: ‘They are often self-financing through their work guarding key resources and give the Russian state the chance to expand its security presence and political influence in the country at virtually no cost and little risk.’ These security operations, approved by Moscow, reflect Putin’s modest appreciation of the Primakov Doctrine. 

By attempting to leverage its commitment to the decolonization process, Moscow, represented by the Valdai Club, said in conjunction with the World Economic Forum: ‘Unlike Western and a number of Asian countries, Russia has never subjugated Africa, neither politically nor economically, and does not carry the burden of slave trade’. 

However, with a rapidly increasing share of GDP, the Kremlin is knocking on the door of the club of the top ten richest economies in the world by GDP. It is, hence, fair to say that Russia has incentives to bear its claws into the quickly integrating Africa in search for a range of potential benefits. Moreover, the current posture of the Russian foreign policy strategy is not consistent with the state’s previously demonstrated sentiments through its 2014 annexation of Crimea, its 2008 war with Georgia and its refusal to accept the post-Cold-War security order in Europe. More recently, Putin has expanded his geo-politic strategies to actively reach parts of the world where Russian influence had been depleting over the last three decades. But what implications do an increased engagement with Russia carry for African development? 

Mirroring the ‘Old Scramble’

As a result of the global economic downturn that would eventually lead to the 19th century’s long depression, external states expanded their interests on the African continent. The sudden scarcity of resources motivated these states to seek increased influence on the internal workings of the continent. A similar or perhaps worse economic downturn, the recessionary contraction that directly results from the COVID-19 pandemic, is threatening the world today. While it can be argued that Russian influence on the continent preceded the negative effects of this pandemic, any potential expansion of the Kremlin’s influence on African states must be analyzed within today’s global context.

 Episodes, including the colonial exhibitions of the 19th century as well as the post-Cold-War decolonization wars fought between the defenders of capitalist, socialist and communist ideologies on the continent, helped fuel internal conflicts in Algeria and South Africa, to name just a few. Such global rivalry has never been as intense as today. New trade war sagas between global superpowers are reported on a regular basis along with intensifying fragmentation dynamics in the European Union in the aftermath of Brexit. 

Finally, and perhaps most significant, is the catalyst of change on the African continent as a signal for external powers to consolidate their influence. Such was the case during the decolonization era when the Soviet Union’s main foreign policy objective was the spread of communist ideology. As a result, the USSR funded and directly participated in many intra-African wars to put in place leaders aligned with its agenda. Soviet influence has been robust on the continent: from the Angolan Civil War (1975–1992), where the USSR supported the left-wing People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola; the Mozambique Civil War (1977–1992), where Moscow also sided with left-wingers; to the Ogaden War between Ethiopia and Somali (1977-1978). 

Today, Moscow has once again identified the rapid change occurring on the continent with the postponed African continental free trade area and the regional integration projects, such as the Economic Commission for West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). For the Kremlin, such transitions are an opportunity to increase its foothold on the continent. 

In other words, the same or at least similar conditions that were present 140 years ago during the first ‘scramble for Africa’ and 60 years ago during the decolonization era are present once again. The Kremlin has moved swiftly to take advantage of this situation by putting together its first ever summit focused on Africa. The implications of Africa furthering relations—trade, political or otherwise—with Moscow could well result in offsetting political influence in the thriving cooperation between African states. However, it could also undermine the continent’s push to be self-reliant in the coming decades.

The Race for Africa

The Primakov Doctrine in Africa culminated in the 2019 Russia-Africa Economic Forum, which happened in Russia’s black sea city of Sochi. Putin alongside Egypt’s president, Fattah el-Sisi, chaired the conference sequence of 42 heads of state or government. At the summit, African leaders emphasized state sovereignty and advocated and offered trade deals absent of political or other conditions. Interestingly enough, during the summit other external powers, such as China and the US, were criticized as ‘pressurizing’ and ‘blackmailing’ African states. 

Russia, China and the US have long been critical of each other’s presence on the continent. John Bolton, former US National Security Adviser, even said 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 US investment, interfere with US military operations, and pose a significant threat to US national security interests’. US president Donald Trump has, so far, refrained from reigniting the Cold-War’s Truman Doctrine, but UN spokesmen have not held back from accusing Russia of selling arms to African states in exchange for votes. Likewise, both Russian and U.S. have condemned China’s foreign aid presence in Africa as ‘predatory lending’, claiming the Chinese employ debt as a strategic mechanism to hold African states ‘captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands’.

Between 2015-2020 alone, there have been 12 international summits with an African trade and policy focus in all corners of the world, including the FOCACs, TICADs, IAFs and more recently the UK-Africa Investment Summit and Sochi’s Russia-Africa Economic Forum. All of them have yielded invaluable benefits and insights for African leaders to better serve their people. 

However, the conflicts and tensions surrounding external states’ positions underline a race for influence on the continent’s development. It is now clear that external states’ seek to leverage economic and political relationships with African leaders to benefit from a host of opportunities. Such opportunities include Africa’s position as, arguably, the biggest voting bloc in the UN general assembly. Africa also has the largest youth population that is growing in its middle-class capacity and one just beginning to determine regional and national policies on its own terms. This race for influence on the continent is what underpins the new scramble for Africa. 

The single major difference between the twenty-first- and the nineteenth-century scramble is the newly aligned vision of the AU that considers all 54 African states and culminates in the fabric of the agreement signed 20 years ago in Lomé. The unity of Africa is at the core of its pursuit of self-reliance. Allowing external powers such as those sitting in Moscow to interfere with this unity is, perhaps, the biggest potential trap for the development of continent.

What is at Stake?

The question mark regarding the sincerity of Putin’s approach to Africa persists. However, it is nothing new in the broader scheme of things. Let’s consider Obama’s efforts to sustain the relationship between the US and Africa, for example, that landed him in Addis Ababa before the 54 heads of state of the AU in 2015 while Putin had 42 leaders travel across to Sochi instead to present his ideas before them. That’s not to say that the US is any more genuine in its approach towards Africa, but to highlight the difference in respect, acknowledgement and support of the AU between both leaders. The onus is on countries like Egypt, with its close political ties to the Russian state, and Algeria with its excessive import of Russian arms and military technology, to prioritize the potential of a united Africa.

It is fundamentally wrong to advocate for a dissolution of ties between Africa and Russia or even to limit the trade relationships between the continent and Russia. A dissolution could mean a fall in the industrial mobility of African states, slowing down the progression of one of the fastest developing economic regions in the world, and leading to a fall in investments and higher rates of government borrowing. 

However, the incentives behind Russia’s reinvigorated interest as well as the potential for the Kremlin to impose its own political strategy in Africa should both be carefully considered. In this regard, it is worth recalling that many parts of Asia also faced detrimental effects from the ‘Great Game’ of the 19th century following the long depression but have birthed significant powerhouses by allowing for a period—and in some cases several periods—of self-empowerment. For the promise of Lomé 2000 to be fulfilled, the African continent needs to be reliant on its own materials, processes and governance. If stronger ties with Russia turn out to be a stumbling block in this regard, they could have negative implications for Africa’s developmental progress

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