African studiesGeopolitics StudiesPolitical studiesStrategic studies

Russia’s intentions to become an alternative power in Africa

By Dr. Hamdy Abdul Rahman - Future for Advanced Research and Studies (FARAS)

By the end of this year’s edition of International Defense Industry Fair (IDEF), which was attended by African delegations, taking place in Istanbul, Turkey, a majority of the African states have decided to opt for Russian arms. From August 22-August 28, Russia held the Army-2021 International Military-Technical Forum at the town of Kubinka, about 70 kilometers west of Moscow. The annual event is organized by the Russian Military Industrial Complex with support from industrial giants Rostec and Kalashnikov Concern. It is promoted outside Russia by Rosoboronexport, the sole state intermediary agency for Russia’s exports and imports of defense-related and dual use products, technologies and services.

The forum aims to help improve military technology and equipment and the ministry of defense’s capabilities and encourage innovation and development at the Russian Military Industrial Complex, while also contributing towards promoting military cooperation between Russia and other states. Remarkably, military experts and delegations from all Africa attended the event, which offers an opportunity for Russia to bolster its influence in the African security sector.

Russia’s Kalashnikov Diplomacy 

The political nature of the event was highlighted by President Vladimir Putin’s speech and the defense minister Sergey Shoigu’s participation. While this year’s event was designed to be a show of power and to honor the Russian army and serves as a popular attraction for Russians, it also helps promote Russia’s influence by attracting foreign delegations, from Africa in particular. The latest edition of the event was a sign of receding US and western influence in Africa and rising Russian influence in African security policies.

The official delegation of Algeria, a major buyer of Russian arms, was looking for drones and electronic surveillance equipment. Representatives of the armies of West African states showed interest in armored vehicles showcased at the event.  Additionally, officers from the Malian and Guinean armed forces visited Military Industrial Company which has Africa as a trade priority. The weapons maker participated in Sheild Africa 2021, held in Abidjan, Ivory Coast in early June, where it unveiled an amphibious variant of the Strela 4×4 light armored vehicle.

The company signed a contract with Zambia to supply 35 Tigr armoured vehicles. Also, a delegation from the armed forces of the Republic of Congo discussed the purchase of light personnel carriers. The African country has been enhancing security ties with Russia since 2019, driven by determined President Denis Sassou Nguesso. Additionally, the Congolese Navy, three months ago, began to operate three Russian-made BK-10 assault boats, delivered secretly last year to the African country to reinforce the naval base at Pointe-Noire. The boats will no doubt help the Republic of Congo address maritime challenges in the Gulf of Guinea, where piracy, illegal fishing and smuggling are on the rise.

Delegations from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique were also present at the event. The dilemma of the terrorist insurgency in the northern province of Cabo Delgado seems to have prompted the Mozambican delegation to hurriedly look for Russian armored vehicles.

Additionally, top officers of the Ethiopian armed forces attended the show to look for military equipment that can help overcome the severe military setbacks inflicted on the army by the Tigray Defense Forces. Moreover, the allied rebels continue to advance outside the Tigray Region posing a growing threat to the federal government led by Prime Minister Abyi Ahmed.

The Duality of Arms and Natural Resources

Over the past three decades, Russia showed little interest in Africa. Its trade with all African countries in 2018 stood at a little more than USD20 billion, even though Africa was the only continent that increased its imports from Russia after western countries-imposed sanctions on Russia over the annexation of the Crimea. Two North African countries, Algeria and Egypt, accounted for more than 50 percent of the trade volume with Russia. Overall, North Africa accounts for more than 75 percent of Russia’s trade with the whole continent.

Arms continue to dominate all Russia’s trade with Sub-Saharan Africa, which means that despite the modest figures of trade with Africa, Russia was able to make progress in Africa by 2000 and became the largest arms exporter to Africa where arms account for 49 percent of its total trade with the whole continent, according to data released by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Since 2014, Rosoboronexport signed agreements with Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Mali, Nigeria and Sudan. In addition to military equipment, the agreements provide for combating terrorism and joint training of military and security forces.  

Russia shows an evident interest in Africa’s natural resources, despite its own wealth of mineral resources, which are difficult to mine and are easier imported than extracted. For example, a Russian consortium including arms conglomerate Rostec partnered to develop a $3 billion platinum mining project in Zimbabwe, the single biggest investment in the country since independence in 1980.

Russian state-owned energy corporations such as Gazprom and Rosatom are active in Africa, with major investments in the oil, gas and nuclear energy sectors in Algeria, Egypt, Uganda and Angola. It is worth noting here that state-run investments are often tied to military or diplomatic initiatives. When it signed an agreement to build two nuclear power plants in Nigeria, Russia also declared commitment to combating terrorism in the African country. To explain Russia’s rise in international politics, it is important to know that Russian military companies’ operations across the Middle East, North Africa and the African coast have partially contributed to satisfy Russia’s ambition for making Russia a great power once again. The majority of President Putin’s supporters continue to be haunted by political stereotypes from the Soviet era.

Russia’s Penetration of the Sahel and Southern Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Sahel region in particular, are likely to become more important for Moscow as a foothold for establishing military and security presence. Conflicts in Syria and Libya have become less attractive for Moscow, given the Kremlin’s ‘military shadow diplomacy’. Additionally, progress made in reaching a settlement to the Libyan conflict reduced opportunities available for Russian private military companies in the North African country. With regards to the outcome of the Berlin conference and the political course of the transitional government, more attention will be paid to removing foreign mercenaries from Libya.

Based on this, it can be said that if general elections are held in Libya in 2021, the new authorities will also continue to insist on removing foreign troops from the country. In this regard, the Sahel region is becoming more attractive for Russia’s military diplomacy. On the other hand, the region was hit by conflicts and persistent political turmoil. Western countries led by France and the United States became less interested in the Sahel, compared with the Middle East and North Africa region which is directly linked to Europe’s security. Overall, this can give rise to favorable circumstances for potential Russian intervention in the Sahel and Africa’s heartland.

It should also be noted that the first Russia-Africa Summit held in Sochi, Russia in 2019, was attended by heads of states of 43 African states, and saw the signing of several memorandums of understanding, including one between Russia and the African Union. At the summit, President Putin said that Russia will not participate in redistributing wealth in the continent but will enter into a competition for cooperation with Africa. “We have a lot to offer to our African friends.” This perhaps is what raised controversy about Russia’s increasing influence in Africa.

Russia seems to be heading towards winning the hearts and minds of African elites. African leaders, on several occasions, talked positively about Moscow. At the Sochi summit, President of Burkina Faso Roch Marc Christian Kabore, invited Russia to take part in a summit held by the Group of Five for the Sahel. Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, in Sochi, praised Russia’s non-interference in the internal affairs of African states, and called for creating a Russian-African bloc to counter the world order’s interventionism.

Lack of Strategic Outlook

A close look into Russia’s policy on Africa over the past years shows that Russia’s “return” to Africa is facing obstacles in the long run.

1.   First, Moscow lacks a long-term strategy for cooperation with African states. The concept of the Russian Federation’s foreign policy, approved in 2016, defined Russia’s interests in a completely abstract way.

2.   Secondly, African demand on Russian services, including military services, is only circumstantial, which matches the Russian leadership’s inability to formulate long-term priorities in Africa. In this sense, it is not possible to say that the African elites’ interest in the Kremlin implies a long-term trend. The best example is an agreement signed in 2020 between Moscow and Khartoum to build a Russian naval base in Port Sudan. Only one year later, and after the international sanctions on Sudan were lifted and multilateral relations with the western countries were restored, the interim Sudanese government announced that it was reviewing the agreement signed with Russia about Port Sudan.

Perhaps, the African elites view Russia as a bargaining chip that is used to build dialogue with other international powers. That is why, Russia, in the long term, can rely only on its being just one out of the many partners of African states, given that it is not their only partner.

To conclude, the growth of Russian-African relations, especially since 2014, raised concerns in the United States and other western countries over a comeback made by the “Russian bear”. The concerns were clearly voiced in 2018 by the then-US National Security Adviser John Bolton when he noted Russia’s expansionist efforts and influence across Africa. Although a great deal of attention is paid to Russia’s movements in the continent, it is hard to compare the Russian presence to that of the traditional partners of the African states, such as the United States, United Kingdom and France, or that of even other rising powers such as China. No doubt, the international scramble about, and interest in the African continent clearly means that African states can now determine and choose their partner states, where such decisions are guided by a complex matrix of priorities.

Although President Putin considers Africa as one of the foreign policy priorities, it is in reality not on the top of the list, which shows a lack of strategic outlook. That is to say, with regards to economic and trade relations, Russia’s exchange with Europe and Asia is much larger than with Africa. This perhaps can be attributed to factors such as geography and closeness to the Eurasian continental area. On the other hand, plans for the second Russia-Africa Summit, to be held in 2020, are underway, which once again poses questions about Russia’s growing presence in the continent. The said summit will be held either in Cairo, Dakar or Addis Ababa to bring together hundreds of business people and government officials.

Hence, the question remains: is “summit diplomacy” to be considered as part of Russia’s strategy towards Africa or just a continuation of its previous course? In either case, the levels of Russia’s penetration of Africa are likely to go even higher.

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SAKHRI Mohamed

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