During the first Russia-Africa summit in 2019 in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin vowed to increase trade with African governments within five years as he sought new allies with promises of nuclear power projects and fighter jets. Only some of those promises have been fulfilled three years later, but Russian influence on the continent has risen faster than ever since the Cold War.
Russian influence in Africa has risen faster than ever since the Cold War. Russia is the largest provider of armaments to Africa and has become a vital partner for African nations via investments and business links in items ranging from diamonds to citrus fruit.
According to IMF statistics, Russian commerce with Africa in 2021 was worth $15.6 billion, a tenth of the continent’s trade with China and a quarter more than in 2018. Yet, Russia remains the largest provider of armaments to Africa and has become a vital partner for African nations via investments and business links in items ranging from diamonds to citrus fruit.
Russia did not previously see Africa as a priority in its foreign policy, but much has changed recently, especially after the Russian actions in Ukraine. When Russia became isolated from Europe and the United States, establishing diplomatic and commercial links with sympathetic African governments was critical to the Kremlin’s narrative that Moscow had options.
Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, was greeted in Bamako by his Malian colleague, Abdoulaye Diop, and traveled to South Africa and Angola. In July, he visited Egypt, the Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Ethiopia and met with African Union leaders in Addis Abeba. Russia has adopted a policy of putting politics first, with economic preferences emerging as a natural result of successful political cooperation. Since the contrary method of first the economy, then everything else has shown to be shaky, this technique will likely be efficient.
When Russia became isolated from Europe and the United States, establishing diplomatic and commercial links with sympathetic African governments was critical to the Kremlin’s narrative that Moscow had options.
Russia’s presence in Africa has been around for a while. In 1960, the Soviet Union supported the UN General Assembly’s statement recognizing colonized countries’ independence and helped finance liberation movements in South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, and others. Relations were strained with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, investments by state-owned Russian mining and energy businesses such as Alrosa and Gazprom resumed participation in nations such as Angola and Nigeria in the 2000s.
After Putin’s re-election in 2012, a number of Russian corporations, notably the state-owned VTB Bank, launched an aggressive pursuit of African possibilities. However, several of VTB’s African initiatives got mired in controversy, including its collaboration with Credit Suisse in the supply of $2 billion in loans to Mozambique in 2013 and 2014, dubbed the “tuna bond” crisis. Three former Credit Suisse executives pled guilty to bribery charges.
VTB aided Rostec, a state-owned Russian firm, in its quest to invest in two copper-cobalt mines in the Congo controlled by Congolese state miner Gécamines in 2015. The proposal was favorable, but Russia could not compete with China’s clout. Four years later, a joint venture between Gécamines and China’s state-owned CNMC commenced production at one of the locations, Deziwa.
The tactic, aimed to undermine Western interests while increasing Moscow’s reach, has frequently succeeded, most recently in the Central African Republic, where mercenaries from the Wagner Group and other Russian private military companies have helped expand Russian influence while gaining access to lucrative gold and diamond mining areas.
Regarding trade and investment in Africa, Russia needs more economic might to compete with China, the United States, or the European Union. Russia’s economy is nine times smaller than China’s and marginally bigger than Spain’s. Russia, on the other hand, has tended to play the role of a disruptor. Russia’s involvement in Africa has been steady since the early 2000s when they realized they did not have a solid hand to play compared to other foreign players; therefore, the most they could do was be the spoiler.
The tactic, which aims to undermine Western interests while increasing Moscow’s reach, has frequently succeeded, most recently in the Central African Republic, where mercenaries from the Wagner Group and other Russian private military companies have helped expand Russian influence while gaining access to lucrative gold and diamond mining areas. Although such mining activities are expected to generate hundreds of millions of dollars, there needed to be more proof that the funds were being returned to the Kremlin and most likely used to fund Wagner’s operations.
The most successful pillar of Russia’s traditional commerce with Africa is weaponry, administered mainly by the state-controlled Rosoboron. Russian weapons shipments to Africa surpassed those of any other provider between 2010 and 2021 and were three times bigger than China’s.
Other Russian firms with substantial activities in Africa include Alrosa, which runs diamond sites in Angola and is exploring in Zimbabwe; Rusal, which mines bauxite in Guinea; and Rosatom, which is developing a nuclear power station in Egypt. The US sanctioned Alrosa in April as part of its campaign to cut the Kremlin’s financial sources after last year’s Russian action in Ukraine. Yet, new restrictions against Russian enterprises or diplomatic pressure on governments will unlikely persuade African countries to cut trade links.
Oil is one sector where Russia has dramatically boosted its supplies to Africa since the invasion of Ukraine. In December 2022, Russia shipped 214,000 barrels per day of refined petroleum products to Africa, approximately three times higher than in December 2021. Traders anticipate that the shipments, mostly traveling to Tunisia, Morocco, and Nigeria, will grow due to the EU ban on Russian oil imports. Although African nations appreciate Russian commerce and investment, they also value Russia’s political backing, especially given the country’s permanent place on the United Nations Security Council. Regardless of how little the business involvement is, being a friend of the Kremlin is a method for many African governments to get Russian backing in order to keep them off the UN Security Council agenda.
Research Scholar and Academic; Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Pisa, Italy. Dr. Usman has participated in various national and international conferences and published 30 research articles in international journals.