From October 22 to 25, 2019, Vladimir Putin received about fifty African heads of state in Sochi in Russia. If no major announcement was made, this summit was above all intended to celebrate the Russian-African friendship and has a highly symbolic significance.
Russia in the cold war
During the Cold War, the African continent was the site of an indirect confrontation between the USSR and the United States. The USSR had forged strong military, economic and intellectual ties with Africa (training of elites and military cadres, scholarships granted to students, etc.). However, the collapse of the Soviet bloc dealt a severe blow to the Russian presence in Africa.Today, all eyes are on China, accused of neo-imperialism in Africa. However, there is less talk about the Russian presence, which is nonetheless very real. Russia’s return to Africa can be dated from the mid-2000s.
The Sochi summit in Russia
The Sochi summit is very revealing of this return of Russia on the African scene. According to Thierry Vircoulon, a researcher associated with the IFRI’s Sub-Saharan Africa Center, the organization of this summit is part of a real communication strategy. It is a deliberate will of Russia to show the international community that it maintains strong links with the African continent.
The causes of a renewed Russian interest in Africa
First, Russia’s return to the African continent is linked to the Ukrainian crisis of 2014. Russia, under Western sanctions, is looking for new diplomatic, economic and military allies according to Thierry Vircoulon.
Russia first turned to Sudan, a real international pariah. Moscow signed economic and military contracts with Khartoum before gaining a foothold in the Central African Republic and then extending its influence in other African countries. According to Poline Tchoubar, a consultant and author of a note for the FRS on Russia’s presence in Africa, Russia is primarily targeting countries where it can have the greatest impact at the lowest cost. For example, it will look first to countries that have been allies in the past.
Second, Russia is taking advantage of the withdrawal of Western powers. It was from 2016 with the withdrawal of French troops from Operation Sangaris that a defense agreement was signed with the Central African government. Today, Russian influence is particularly evident in the Central African Republic where there is a Russian armed presence.
But Russian interest in Africa is not new and has never really disappeared. Indeed, as Arnaud Kalika, consultant and author of a report for IFRI on Russian policy in Africa, reminds us, at a time when the Soviet bloc was collapsing and the USSR had to close many embassies in Africa, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Institute of African Studies were very interested in the Chinese presence in Africa. Moreover, the USSR had been able to forge very strong intellectual ties with African elites. So much so that many army and intelligence officials in African countries are now Russian-speaking.
Large media campaigns are deployed in African countries to praise the positive role of Russia and criticize the imperialism of the former colonial powers.
The presence of rare metals in Africa, such as nickel and cobalt derivatives, is of particular interest to Russian giants. Rosatom, a Russian public company specialized in nuclear energy, announced at the Sochi forum the signing of framework agreements with Rwanda and Ethiopia to build a third generation WER nuclear power plant.
Africa is a source of agricultural and food resources for Russia. The agricultural sector is highly coveted. Phosagro, a private Russian company and leader in fertilizers, plans to expand its business base in Kenya, Benin and Mali. Africa also needs Russia as it seeks new trading partners. This includes breaking away from the economic influence of former colonial powers like France.
The main engine of the Russian economy is arms exports and this is particularly noticeable on the African continent. Military arms exports account for $20 billion in trade between Russia and Africa. Russia is, between 2014 and 2018, the main supplier of arms to Africa, and is the source of 28% of African imports. The African continent sucked up 15% of Russian military exports. Arms exports are trending upwards. The Russian arms industry produces new equipment such as armored vehicles and defense systems that are particularly popular with African leaders.