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Russia’s Comeback in Africa

Russia’s Comeback in Africa

04 December 2019
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Sochi, a city located on the Black Sea coast, has begun to be called the southern capital of Russia after Vladimir Putin came into power. At the same time, Sochi, which began to host important high-level international summits in the last few years, has also gained the status of Russia's diplomatic capital. The last one of these summits, the First Russian-African Summit, was held on 23-24 October 2019.

It was the first of its kind with participation by representatives from all the 54 African countries (43 of them at the Head of State or Head of Government level) and other delegates. More than 50 agreements worth US $ 12.5 billion were signed between Russia and the African countries. The summit also addressed several issues, particularly regarding the energy problems of the African continent and trade relations. In addition, Moscow, which plans to build expensive nuclear power plants across the continent and export its technology to Africa, expressed its intention to increase military cooperation with African countries.

Historical Background and the Increasingly Importance of Africa

When it comes to the Russia-African countries relations, generally what stands out would be the role played by the Soviet Union in supporting the independence of African countries, as well as the support it gives to these countries in building their national economies. Because in 1960, despite the resistance of Western states, under the influence of the USSR, the United Nations (UN) adopted the Declaration on Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples which created an international legal basis for the independence of colonized countries in Africa.

In the following years, various mutually beneficial political, economic and cultural relations developed between the USSR and independent African countries. With the USSR support, about 300 industrial projects, in which 155 in the agricultural sector, approximately 100 in educational institutions, including 10 higher and 80 intermediate vocational schools, were built in Africa. Also during this period, Africa was an important export market of the Soviet industrial products. However, almost all of the strong economic ties with African countries disappeared with the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s. It should also be noted that at the centre of the USSR's African policy were the ideological approach and concept of a geopolitical struggle stemming from the bipolar world order.

With the end of the bipolar world order, the importance of African continent in global politics started to increase gradually. In this context, especially in the 2000s, states and non-state actors began to flock into the continent in order to increase their own wealth. There are several reasons behind this. The first reason is linked to advances in technology around the world. Unlike other parts of the world, Africa is a continent with natural resources that are far from exhaustion. Therefore the great powers that constantly need new natural resources are trying to expand their sphere of influence on this continent.

Another reason is the rapid growth of the African economy. Since the beginning of the 21st century Sub-Saharan Africa has been the second fastest growing region in the world after East and Southeast Asia. In the 2003-2018 period, the regional economy grew by an average of 4.7% per year. This rate is above 7% in eight countries in the region. Demographic factor also plays an important part in Africa’s economic growth. In this regard, the middle class in African countries, with the world's fastest growing populations, is growing rapidly. This means that today's African continent has turned into a large consumer market. At the same time, this growth of the continental economy increases the demand for investment goods.

Henceforth, it is very important for Russia, which wants to stop its dependency on the export of energy resources, to gain a place in the African markets. Furthermore, Russia is faced with the sanctions of Western states especially after the Crimean annexation of 2014 and needs to find new markets. In this sense, Africa offers great opportunities for Russia. In the five-year period from 2013 to 2018, the trade volume between Russia and Africa has doubled and exceeded $20 billion. However, it is not possible to talk about a balance in these relations, because Russia's exports to African countries are about five times higher than its imports.

While the USSR’s African policy was based on an ideological approach, a “win-win” approach is at the centre of Russia's African policy. And Russia expresses the difference between these two periods at every opportunity. For instance, in his opening speech at the Russian-African Summit, Putin argued that the cooperation between Russia and African countries is based on common values (justice, equality, respect of peoples' right to determine their own future, etc.). In this discourse, Russia tries to explain that its African policy is different from the policies of the USSR, as well as the policies of Western countries.

Dimensions of African-Russian Cooperation

Russia’s return to the African continent is a new and significant trend in Russian foreign policy in the last 20 years. All African countries are on the agenda of Russian diplomacy, but cooperation with some countries is developing much faster.

One of the most important areas of cooperation between Russia and African countries is military relations. In recent years, Russia has signed new military-technical cooperation agreements with many African countries. Indeed, Russia has traditionally played an important role in the African arms market. Three North African Countries namely Algeria, Egypt and Angola’s 49% of arms imports are obtained from Russia, with the rest 15% coming from USA, 10% from China and 7.8% from France. In recent years, Russia's arms exports to Egypt have increased by 150%. At the same time, by the end of 2019, Russia plans to export $4 billion worth of arms to Africa. Moreover, Russia currently exports arms to 20 African countries, including Uganda, Rwanda, Mozambique and Angola. In October 2018, Dmitriy Shugayev, the head of Russia’s Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation said that Russia is engaged in military and technical cooperation with more than 40 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. In this context, according to the data of the Russian military product export company Rosoboronexport, Russia ranks first among the countries exporting arms to Sub-Saharan Africa (30% in 2011-2015).

In the field of military and technical cooperation, Russia precedes the African continent; because African countries continue to use Soviet-made weapons and military equipment imported between 1960 and 1980. At the same time, many experts trained in the USSR and Russia are currently employed in the African armies. For these reasons, many African countries are interested in the modernization of Russian-made military equipment.

Mi class helicopters, Su and Mig class fighter jets, Pantsir-S1, Kornet-E, Tor-M2E air defence missile systems, as well as tanks, armoured personnel carriers and long-barrelled weapons are the most demanded Russian-made weapons and military vehicles in African countries. Russia also exports a wide range of surveillance and control vehicles to its African partners, including unmanned aerial vehicles and radar stations, primarily used to protect borders and important facilities.

When it comes to military cooperation between Russia and African countries, it is not possible to mention the Wagner Group headed by the Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. This private military company is thought to be an important force that spread Russia's influence over Africa. Wagner’s mercenaries and political advisers provide security and political consulting services to managers in African countries in exchange for the right to extract various natural resources. Today Wagner operates in about 10 African countries (Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Libya, Madagascar, Angola, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Central African Republic). Hence it is clear that on top of arms exports, precious metals imports from the continent are also central to Moscow's African policy.

Russia's largest trading partners in Africa are Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and the Republic of South Africa. Russia’s commercial relations with Ethiopia, Cameroon, Angola and Zimbabwe have also been increasing. Also, agricultural products have a vital place in the countries’ mutual trade. Russia supplies large quantities of wheat especially to Morocco, South Africa, Libya, Kenya, Sudan, Nigeria and Egypt. Many African countries (Egypt, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau, Central African Republic, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali) also increase their fruit and vegetable exports to Russia. The sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union (EU) countries were effective in this increase.

Large Russian companies opening to African countries’ investments not only in agriculture, but also in energy, mining, communication and infrastructure. For example, the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation ROSATOM has signed energy cooperation agreements with many countries including Egypt, Sudan, Zambia, Morocco, South Africa and the Republic of Congo. Russia also plays an active role in the operation of the world's second largest platinum field, Darwendale, in Zimbabwe, and this cooperation could make Russia a world leader in the platinum market.

At the same time, Russia is trying to improve its cooperation with African countries that constitute a big block within the UN. Therefore, Russia is constantly expressing that the interests of African countries should be taken into consideration during a possible reform of the UN Security Council. Thus, Russia is trying to gather a big block around itself at the UN.

In the last decade, Russia began to devote more space to African countries in its foreign policy. This coincides with the period in which Russia's relations with Western states were deteriorating. Today, the Russian economy faces major problems due to sanctions, and since the enforcement of these sanctions, Africa is the only region where Russia has increased trade relations with. However, compared to China and Western countries, it is too early to say that Russia would create a major impact on the African continent. The trade volume of African countries is approximately $54 billion with the US, $303 billion with the EU and $148 billion with China. Meanwhile, the trade between Russia and Africa was only recorded at $20 billion in 2018. Therefore, it requires a long time-consuming job for Russia to bridge the gap in trade volume let alone catching up with China and Western countries.