Image courtesy of REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Ethiopian counterpart Demeke Mekonnen arrive at the Russian Embassy for the tree planting ceremony during Lavrov’s visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 27 July 2022.
Barely a decade ago, Africa was Russia’s lowest foreign policy priority. Now, in the face of growing isolation, Russia is once again seeking support from the continent. The West is watching these efforts with concern, which could lead to growing great-power competition and securitization on the continent.
In Russia Foreign policy concept dating back to 2016, Africa was at the very bottom of Russia’s target list. The continent was mentioned only as the last objective of some 50 regional foreign policy priorities. Despite this belated and brief reference, the expansion of Russia’s military, economic and political cooperation with Africa has increased in recent years. For example, Russia has signed over 20 bilateral defense agreements with African countries, increased its trading volume with the mainland, and has also expanded its media presence. Especially after being sanctioned by various Western countries following its annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia had to find new business and geopolitical opportunities. Moreover, Russia capitalized on frustrations with Western policies and skillfully played the anti-colonialism card on the African continent.
Russia’s growing influence led to the convening of the first Russia-Africa Summit in 2019, a “milestonein Russian-African relations. At the summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that “the development and consolidation of mutually beneficial ties with African nations and their integration associations is now one of Russia’s foreign policy priorities”. The second Russia-Africa summit was supposed to be held in the fall of 2022 but has just been postponed until mid-2023.
Why did the Russian Foreign Minister visit Africa?
As the war in Ukraine entered its sixth month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov paid a visit to the African continent. During his four-day visit in July, Lavrov made stops in Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Republic of Congo. Prior to his arrival, local newspapers published an article by Lavrov titled “Russia and Africa: a forward-looking partnership.” In this article, Lavrov expressed his gratitude to African countries that did not support the United Nations General Assembly resolution in March condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A total of 24 of the 54 African states abstained or were absent from the vote.
On the one hand, Lavrov’s trip to Africa was intended to show that Russia is not an isolated country and still has partners. On the other hand, the Russian foreign minister wanted to make sure that Moscow was not to be blamed for the food crisis, an argument he also made in his newspaper article. According to UN, “acute food insecurity is at an all-time high”, amplified by the war in Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine are among the largest producers and exporters of agricultural raw materials in the world. A total of 50 countries are addicted Russia and Ukraine for more than 30% of their wheat imports. In this regard, the Russian-Ukrainian grain deal which the Russian foreign minister boasted during his visit to Africa has succeeded in allaying concerns about the delivery of grain, at least temporarily.
Western growing concern
For some time now, the West has been paying close attention to Russia’s actions in Africa, as Russia’s recent involvement in countries like mali, Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic (RCA) worry them more and more. For example, Russia and CAR sign a security cooperation agreement in 2018, and the advise for National Security to the President of the CAR is a former FSB agent. Moreover, the Wagner Group, a Russian-based military contractor, supports the Central African government’s fight against various rebel groups. Moreover, Russia is also promoting its cultural influence in the country, in particular with a Russian cultural center in Bangui and the production of pro-Russian films such as “sightseeing.” In addition, potential cooperation between China and Russia on the continent is seen as a growing threat by the West. This is reflected in the new Sub-Saharan Africa Strategy of the United States which was published during a recent visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to three African countries. It stresses the desire for further engagement “with African partners to expose and highlight the risks of negative Chinese and Russian activities in Africa.” Some European countries are also worried. A internal report of the EU said that the EU fears “losing the battle for hearts and minds in Africa because of the conflict [in Ukraine].” Even though many African countries are not interested in taking sides in the conflict in Ukraine, instead wishing to keep their doors open to various partnerships, the current situation pushes them more and more to do so.
Political symbolism in the form of summits between African states and their partners, such as China, Turkeythe WEand the EU, is nothing new. The Russia-Africa summit is an example of this. It was held for the first time in October 2019 in the city of Sochi on the Black Sea. The format is intended to foster political, economic and social cooperation between Russia and Africa and is expected to be held every three years. According to official site, the 2019 summit brought together representatives from all 54 African states, 45 of which were represented by their Heads of State. In addition, various Russian and African ministers as well as representatives of regional organizations and various companies attended the Black Sea meeting.
At the summit, Putin announced his intention to double the volume of trade between Russia and Africa to $40 billion by 2024. Whereas the trading volume has decreased at $14.5 billion in 2020 and given the ongoing war in Ukraine, however, it remains very doubtful that this target can be achieved in the next two years. When it comes to military cooperation, however, Russia is the biggest supplier arms to Africa, accounting for 44% of the region’s imports between 2017 and 2021. The Russia-Africa Summit has further strengthened these military ties. Several military agreements, for example between Russia and Algeria and Nigeria, were concluded at the summit. In addition, Rosatom, the State Atomic Energy Corporation of Russia, has signed two new agreements with Ethiopia and Rwanda on the spot.
The Kremlin reported that in total, trade deals worth $12 billion were achieved at the first Russia-Africa summit. However, many of these agreements were in the form of memoranda of understanding. As they are not legally binding, some of them may not lead to an effective investment. Consequently, some media questioned the significance of the diplomatic event, and the FinancialTimes added that it was a “summit poor in concrete trade and investment agreements, but rich in conviviality”.
After the first Russia-Africa summit, the absence of a comprehensive African policy on the part of Russia was a point critical. Russian Presidential Advisor Anton Kobyakov announcement that in this regard, an action plan on cooperation between Russia and the African Union for the period up to 2025 is currently being prepared for adoption.
Russia-Africa Summit 2023
Until recently, the next Russia-Africa summit was scheduled to take place in October or November 2022 in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. However, following a presidential order announced during Lavrov’s African tour, the event was postponed until mid-2023. The war in Ukraine, which will likely be the elephant in the room for the second Russia-Africa summit, was likely the reason for its postponement.
In a press conference in Cairo, Lavrov said the agenda for the upcoming summit will include trade, natural resource development, energy and security, among other issues. Not surprisingly, Oleg Ozerov, the head of the secretariat of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum, said that the theme of food security will be one of the main priorities of the second summit. The subject of arms exports and security cooperation should also be the subject of intense debate, since arms intended for export are they say used by Russia itself on the battlefield in Ukraine.
So far, Russian influence in Africa has focused on niche assets in areas such as arms trade and security cooperation, energy and mining, and cultural influence. And for now, concrete Sino-Russian cooperation in Africa basically boils down to taking similar positions in UN vote on the region and joint naval exercises with South Africa in 2019. It remains to be seen whether this cooperation will lead to stronger political partnerships in the future. What is already clear is the growing concern in the West about Russian and Chinese influence in Africa, or worse, their combined influence on the continent. The ultimate concern is that the growing competition between great powers could spill over to Africa, leading to the securitization of the continent.
About the Author
Charlotte Hirsbrunner is an intern with the Security Studies Center’s Global Security Team.
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