Image reproduced with the kind permission 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’s 2016 foreign policy concept, Africa was at the very bottom of Russia’s list of goals. 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 more than 20 bilateral defense agreements with African countries, increased its trade volume with the continent and also expanded its media presence. Particularly after being sanctioned by various Western countries following its annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia needed to find new commercial 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 “key milestone” in 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 was recently postponed to 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 carried an article by Lavrov titled “Russia and Africa: A Forward-Looking Partnership.” In the 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 responsible for the food crisis, an argument he also underlined in his newspaper article. According to the 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 depend on both Russia and Ukraine for more than 30% of their wheat imports. In this regard, the Russian-Ukrainian grain deal that the Russian Foreign Minister touted during his visit to Africa has succeeded in allaying concerns about grain delivery, at least temporarily.
Western growing concern
For some time now, the West has been paying close attention to Russia’s actions in Africa, while Russia’s recent involvement in countries like Mali, Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic (CAR) has them worried about more and more. For example, Russia and the CAR signed a security cooperation agreement in 2018, and the CAR president’s national security adviser is a former FSB agent. Additionally, the Wagner Group, a Russian-based military contractor, supports the Central African government’s fight against various rebel groups. In addition, Russia also promotes its cultural influence in the country, in particular with a Russian cultural center in Bangui and the production of pro-Russian films such as “Tourist”. 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 U.S. Sub-Saharan Africa Strategy that was released during a recent visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to three African countries. He 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. An internal EU report said the EU feared ‘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 for 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, Turkey, the US and 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 the official website, 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.
During the summit, Putin announced his intention to double the volume of trade between Russia and Africa to $40 billion by 2024. Whereas the trade volume decreased to $14.5 billion in 2020 and given the ongoing war in Ukraine, however, this remains highly debatable. whether this goal can be achieved within the next two years. When it comes to military cooperation, however, Russia is the largest arms supplier to Africa, accounting for 44% of the region’s imports between 2017 and 2021. The Russia-Africa Summit has further strengthened these military ties. Multiple military agreements, for example between Russia and Algeria and Nigeria, were concluded during the summit. In addition, Rosatom, the Russian atomic energy company, has signed two new agreements with Ethiopia and Rwanda at the site.
The Kremlin reported that in total trade deals worth $12 billion were reached 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 importance of the diplomatic event, and the Financial Times added that it was a “summit poor in concrete trade and investment agreements, but rich in conviviality”. .
After the first Russia-Africa summit, Russia’s lack of a comprehensive African policy came under criticism. Russian presidential adviser Anton Kobyakov announced that in this regard, an action plan on cooperation between Russia and the African Union for the period up to 2025 is 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 decree 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.
At 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. Unsurprisingly, Oleg Ozerov, the head of the secretariat of the Russian-African Partnership Forum, said that the topic of food security will be among the main priorities of the second summit. The topic of arms exports and security cooperation is also expected to be hotly debated, as weapons intended for export would be 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 mainly boils down to taking similar positions in the 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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