30 October 2019

No Strings Attached: Russia’s African great game

Russia hosted the Russia Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia, from Wednesday 23rd to Thursday 24th October. This summit was the first of its kind and will surely not be the last. The two-day event saw thousands of delegates from all 54 African countries and 43 heads of states or government were expected to attend the summit. During the two-day summit, Moscow sought trade agreements and partners for its large energy, mining and defence companies. The opening keynote was given by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Egyptian President Abdelfattah Al-Sisi, head of the African Union and co-chairman of the Summit.  

Once a strong geopolitical player in Africa during the cold war Russia, formerly known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was never a colonial power on the continent. The USSR was ideologically anti-colonial after World War II, providing vital assistance to countries struggling to achieve independence and democracy in Africa, such as Mozambique and Angola. However, soon after radical political changes in Moscow at the end of the Cold War, most of the development projects supported by the USSR in Africa were closed by the newly formed Russian government, and all regular flights of Russian airlines were cancelled; thus, ending Russia’s efforts on the continent. 

Russia has been hinting at a renewed interest in the African continent for some time now. In 2017, Russian exports to African countries hit $20bn, roughly double the level of 2015. Although this pales in comparison with China’s $205bn, it is a clear indicator of Russia’s growing interest in Africa. For years, a lot of Russian relationships with the continent have been based on military operations, in countries such as Central Africa, Angola and Sudan for instance, but now it seems they wish to open up deals in other sectors. Naturally, technology, energy and power are the most sought-after business opportunities as Russia is traditionally strong in these areas while African countries are looking to develop in these sectors. 

The Kremlin’s official narrative for this rapprochement is to create a fair and balanced system of international and business relations with the continent. However, some observers see this as a move to counter China’s ever-growing grip on the continent. Like China, Russia seems to use the non-colonial narrative to their advantage as there is a shared attitude to the west, which is that the global structure as it is today needs to be changed. Prior to the summit, President Putin had set the tone of his pitch to African countries by accusing the West of intimidating the continent’s sovereign states to exploit the continent’s resources. Moscow assured it could offer help without strings attached unlike the “exploitative West”. This being said, there’s no clear indicator of Russia’s expectations in what is presented as a fair bilateral trade relationship. 

The African continent is becoming ever more important in today’s international order. Russian-African relations are adding an additional dimension to developments, especially with the boost provided by rapidly expanding links across a vast range of sectors Russia has progressively engaged African countries on a bilateral basis, as well as through regional blocs such as the African Union (AU) and Southern African Development Community (SADC), at continental level. The creation of the largest trade agreement since the WTO, the The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), indicates the exponential potential of Africa as a trading bloc, going forward. The intention of AfCFTA is to provide a significant consolidated voice for African states to negotiate economic and trade opportunities in e-commerce, technology transfers, manufacturing growth, scholarship and training; and infrastructure financing. It is forecasted that there will be an additional 1.3 billion people in Africa by 2050. This is a substantial market for Russian corporates to explore if they can leverage mutually beneficial engagement at the AfCFTA level.

However, this massive opportunity potentially comes with challenges Russia needs to anticipate. The initial challenge will be to demystify and contextualise Russia for Africa’s political, business and general population and vice versa. This is key to help counter any negative public perception, share cultural experiences and begin to break down language barriers. It is only through transparency and positive representation that the relationship between Russia and the African continent will be a relationship of equals. 

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