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Russia’s growing engagement with Africa

  • Published at 12:01 am January 5th, 2020

The EU is watching anxiously

Russia’s interactive presence in Syria, Turkey, and Iran has drawn attention to its growing role in international affairs. These dynamics have also been manifest in Latin America -- particularly in Venezuela and Cuba.

The next stage in Kremlin’s charm offensive was taken forward on October 23-24 when over 40 African leaders and some 3,000 businessmen gathered in Sochi, Russia for the inaugural Russia-Africa Summit. 

Political analysts have pointed out that Russia cannot be considered a major economic actor in Africa at this point in time. However, Moscow’s growing footprint, primarily forged with arms and energy deals will definitely further complicate Africa’s geopolitical landscape.

This latest situation has to be understood against the past engagement that the Soviet Union had with Africa. After the break-up of the USSR, Russia had to pay more attention to developing its own socio-economic horizon.

The priorities of Russia have slowly changed, especially over the last five years. Russia is no stranger to Africa. However, its presence there has fluctuated throughout the decades. 

Russia had a strong foothold in Africa during the Cold War, but it largely left that continent to focus more on Europe. Africa has only come back on Moscow’s radar during President Putin’s second term.

Russia’s approach has also been described by some strategic analysts as a trailblazer search for influence, in part driven by economic interests rather than a grand strategy. 

From this perspective, Moscow has revitalized relations with Soviet-era clients and forged new ties with others, including the Central African Republic and Zimbabwe. They have been doing so by offering support to embattled strongmen.

Both Russia and some African countries believe that Russian expertise through bilateral agreements can be a mutually profitable platform. Russian energy giants Gazprom, Lukoil, Rostec, and ROSATOM are already present in several African countries, including Uganda, Nigeria, and Angola. 

Russia is also in the process of reaching a final agreement with regard to Egypt building its first nuclear plant. Modern armaments, for all the branches of the armed forces -- Army, Navy, and the Air Force -- are also being focused upon by Russia in some African countries. This is being done to underline the need to improve the security aspect in these countries. 

It needs to be understood here that stability and security are both in high demand in Africa, and Russia is posturing itself as a willing supplier. It is expanding its military footprint, security agreements, and training programs throughout the continent.

Several countries, including Mali and Mauritania, have also asked Russia for help in combating terrorist groups, including the Islamic State. 

It needs to be noted here that in the recent past, there has been such an attack in Mali that has resulted in many casualties -- all allegedly perpetrated by the IS. Russia has also undertaken a dialogue with Eritrea to construct a logistics base, which would consequently grant Moscow access to the Red Sea.

There has been another significant stride forward, achieved through a flexible approach. Russia’s trade with Africa has increased from $5.7 billion in 2009 to over $20bn in 2018. This is a good growth rate. However, the Kremlin still remains a relatively minor economic player in the continent.

Nevertheless, while Russia does not still possess the same economic leverage as its Western and Eastern competitors, its flexible approach, according to economists, can prove attractive to African partners in the future.

Russia’s increasing engagement in Africa is now being interpreted as an example of growing geopolitical competition in that continent. This osmotic growth in Russia’s presence is being viewed with some anxiety, particularly by the EU.

The EU continues to be Africa’s biggest trading partner, source of foreign direct investment, and development aid. However, it realizes that it has to step up its efforts to renew its partnership in the economic, political, and security fields. 

Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]

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