There is a “new scramble for Africa,” by Russia, after a period of sluggish collaboration following the disintegration of the USSR. Speculations about whether Russian expansion will replace China’s expansion and existing Western influence in Africa were put to rest by President Putin when he emphasized at the First Africa-Russia Summit in Sochi in 2019 that Russia was “ready, not to repartition the continent’s wealth, but to compete and to cooperate with Africa. We have something to offer our African friends … Our African agenda has a positive, future-oriented character. We do not ally with one party against another and reject any geopolitical games involving Africa….We hold fast to the principle ‘African solutions to African problems”.
Russia’s interest in Africa was reignited following the oil boom of the first decade of the 21st century. Buoyed by newfound economic strength, Russia set out to establish a multipolar world in which it could have a pivotal role. Since then, Russia has expanded its partnerships on the continent. Russia’s sphere of influence in Africa has been extending which the West naturally finds worrying.
Throughout Soviet-African cooperation, Africa was in permanent debt, regularly canceled as a political gesture. Putin, however, canceled en bloc African debt of US dollar 20 billion in 2019 at the first Russia-Africa Summit and has once again canceled African debt of US dollars 22 billion at the second Russia-Africa Summit in July 2023, signaling its serious intention of further enhancing its presence in Africa.
Washington maintains 34 African military bases and conducts hundreds of billions of dollars in trade. China’s trade volume with Africa runs to 200 billion US dollars. Interestingly, Africa has again gained a pivotal position in the European Union’s foreign policy, manifested in the EU’s commitment to building a “partnership of equals”. This contrasts with previous EU policy, which viewed EU-Africa relations largely through the lens of the EU migration crisis. This strategic shift is most recently reflected in the joint vision for a renewed partnership by 2030 between EU and African leaders, developed during the February 2022 Brussels summit. Economic development was at the crux of the summit’s Joint Declaration. An Africa-Europe Investment Package of at least 150 billion euros will focus on investment, health, and education.
The huge economic potential of Africa and its growing strategic and political relevance forces Russia to seek market segments that are not occupied and re-establish its clout in this important continent. Russia’s bilateral trade with Africa is still far below its potential, and the recent sanctions against Russia following the war in Ukraine have limited this sphere of activity. The Russian economy is successfully meeting the challenges that sanctions pose. With concerted efforts by Russia, including the possibility of trading with Africa in Chinese Yuan or Rubbles and barter arrangements, can have a huge positive impact on trade.
As Ukraine sanctions continue to shut Moscow out of Western financial and economic markets, Russia is finding other international actors to counterbalance its losses. China has been a key partner over the past few years, but Russia does not depend exclusively on China despite being a strategic partner. Therefore, since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russian involvement in Africa has grown significantly. African leaders have been receptive to these overtures due to increasing concerns about reducing the United States and their interest in diversifying trading and security partners. Russia cultivates these relationships by relying on the legacy of the Soviet Union’s support for anti-colonial and liberation movements and focuses on strengthening diplomatic, military, and economic collaborations.
Russia’s strategy in Africa appears to involve a mix of arms sales, political support to various African leaders and security collaborations in exchange for mining rights, business opportunities and diplomatic support for Russia’s foreign policy preferences. The offers of military assistance and political support, have opened doors to Russian firms and strengthened diplomatic relationships.
Russian interests in Africa include the mining of precious metals, oil and gas extraction, and the construction of nuclear power stations. Economic ties also give Russia access to minerals and rare metals, including aluminum in Guinea and lithium in Zimbabwe. These resources are in high demand as they have proven essential for digital technologies and the green energy transition. For African countries, partnering with Russia offers an alternative to Western powers and China. Although natural resources are currently at the forefront, in the long term, it is socially significant mutual and multi-country projects, as well as construction projects-including roads, medicine, and education, that may become significant.
Moscow is also mindful that 54 African nations constitute a strong bloc in the UN and other international organizations. We saw many African countries abstained in the United Nations vote condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, pointing towards a mix of allegiance and dependence. These countries included Mali, Namibia, and CAR. Their vote signals a willingness to continue and potentially expand their partnership with Russia. From a political standpoint, the commonalities of their approaches are obvious, Russians, like Africans, value their independence and resist foreign pressure. In addition to influence, these ties are an outlet for Russian military expertise and equipment, including training and arms sales.
But what is it that Russia can offer to Africa? Experts keen on Russia believe that Russia has much to offer Africa regarding financial, political, and strategic support. Using its large gold and foreign currency reserves and having paid most of its national debt, Russia has broken the shackles of foreign financial control and allowed to implement an independent foreign policy. Gradually, an understanding of interdependence and mutual benefits is developing between Russia and Africa. Russia offers military equipment and repairs to the used military machinery supplied during the Soviet period. Russia has concluded over 20 military cooperation agreements with African countries and is negotiating the establishment of military bases in several states. It is also providing counter-terrorism training. Russia is currently the largest supplier of arms to the continent.
Russia’s cooperation with many African nations is developing successfully in several other domains as well. Over 4,000 of the over 18,000 African students in Russia are financed by the Russian government. Additionally, cooperation in strengthening the military defense and security of African nations has picked up significantly. Thousands of military personnel from African nations have graduated from the military academies and every year, African peacekeeping police are trained by the Russians.
It is also important to note that Russia has re-entered the stage during growing discontent. France, in particular, is seen as continuing a policy of imperialism in West Africa through conditional support and profitable business deals. Russia’s re-engagement coincided with US disengagement from the region under Donald Trump, whose priorities were Iran, China, and American isolationism. Some African countries are also with China’s offer of an alternative, thus providing Russia the opportunity to ingress more in Africa.
Russia has already been able to reap the benefits of some of its re-engagement. Since 2015, Russia has signed military agreements with more than 20 African countries, with cooperation ranging from counterterrorism and peacekeeping to weapons sales. Russia is Africa’s main arms supplier, accounting for around 39 percent of the continent’s defense imports. Several countries, such as Mali and Mauritania, have asked for Russian support in combating terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State (ISIS), Ansaroul Islam, and Boko Haram. Russia has deployed Russian trainers in Mali to enhance the security forces’ operational capacity. In 2021, it also provided Mali with four helicopters, weapons, and ammunition.
Climate change further drives conflict dynamics in a semi-desert region of the world, where borders are porous, states are weak, and resources are limited. An upsurge in extremist groups would be extremely difficult to rein in, and the consequences would be disastrous and global: not only would extremist groups have a new geographic base from which to plot attacks around the world, but it could also lead to mass displacement of people. Russia’s involvement in Africa could help maintain some stability in the region, but it would be on its terms.
Many African watchers believe that while the West is often preoccupied with concerns about Chinese inroads into the African continent, which have a much larger footprint and consist of visible infrastructure projects and increasingly less concealed attempts to influence politics, Russia, by contrast, manages to accrue influence by playing to its strength and exploiting Western weaknesses.
Despite the remarkably understated consistency of Russia’s approach to Africa over the past quarter-century, Moscow’s policy is dynamic. Russia’s historically grounded use of energy and health diplomacy and military-technical assistance and training have been incrementally reformatted for a multipolar order. Russia has used social media, state media, and ‘political technologists’ to create narratives of Russian generosity and to erode public support for Western involvement in Africa. While the sustainability of Moscow’s influence can be doubted, at present, its efforts are proving effective, and it is that renewed attention by Russia to Africa presents both risks and opportunities for the continent.
the Author is a retired diplomat with over 37 years of distinguished service in the Foreign Service of Pakistan. During her career, she held key positions, including Ambassador to China, the European Union, Ireland. She also served as Deputy Head of Mission to China and Denmark. With expertise in various areas, she held significant roles at the Foreign Office, including Additional Foreign Secretary for America’s and Director General Policy Planning.
In addition to her diplomatic career, she is actively engaged as Vice Chair of the Council on Global Policy and a member of the Board of Directors of First Women Bank. She serves as an advisor to the China Study Center at ISSI and Kestral International. Furthermore, she is a prolific writer, contributing regularly to esteemed magazines and newspapers. As an accomplished author, she has published several books, including “Magnificent Pakistan” and “Pakistan-China-All Weather Friendship.” Her dedication and expertise continue to impact the field of international relations. She tweets @AmbNaghmanaHash.