On October 23rd and 24th, Russia hosted representatives from all 54 African countries at the first ever Russia-Africa summit, with the aim of improving partnership and trade links. Putin, the Russian president, pulled out all the stops as host, and after the summit, announced that 12.5 million dollars worth of trade deals had been discussed. This event shows that Russia is clearly seeking to further its influence in Africa. But why is Russia so interested in improving ties with African states?
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was an influential player in Africa, supporting many liberation movements and providing financial aid to regimes, often with the aim of antagonising the United States and promoting communism. However, since the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow’s influence on the continent has waned. Now, Vladimir Putin wants to bring it back.
There are several reasons why Russia wants to revive its power in Africa. The first is the desire to gain back what the Soviet Union once had. Russia wishes to be seen as a great power that can compete with the US and China on a global stage – for example, Russia may be interested in increasing its leverage over African countries to affect power dynamics in the United Nations. In 2014, 29 African states voted against or abstained from a UN resolution condemning Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in the Ukraine. This demonstrates that increasing its power and sway can lead to clear benefits for Russia. The latter is also extending its power in the Middle East, evidenced by its involvement in the Syrian conflict. Similarly Russia has meddled in elections in multiple countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom.
‘All of these attempts to increase the number of countries in Russia’s sphere of influence signal its desire to exert more power globally and be taken seriously as a global player. One thing that helps Russia in this quest is that some African leaders are attracted to Russia over the US and Europe, due to the lack of conditions attached to Russian aid and trade. While more liberal countries are often wary of making deals with African leaders accused of human rights violations or misuse of funds, Russia, as well as China, is happy to provide help for those leaders, and uses that to its advantage. China has massively increased its involvement with Africa in recent years, while the United States has pulled back. These provide both an incentive and an opportunity for Russia to step in.
Aside from improving its status, there are some material benefits Russia can gain from increasing its relations with Africa. Russia is currently the largest exporter of weapons to Africa and the recent Summit suggests that increased trade links are on the Russian agenda. However, its overall trade with Africa remains small compared to some other countries. There is a lot of room for Russia to potentially expand the amount of weapons it exports to African countries. Furthermore, there are lots of potential business opportunities for Russian companies in Africa, especially in the energy sector. Many Russian state-owned energy firms already have contracts with African countries and are looking to increase these. Russian mining companies also stand to benefit from the rich mineral resources of many African countries. Additionally, Putin has stated that he would like to see an increase in Russian non-military exports to Africa, such as the food export sector.
As well as being involved in trade and aid in Africa, Putin has also increased Russia’s military involvement there, with Russian soldiers being active in several countries, including the Central African Republic and Libya. While many of these soldiers work for private military groups rather than the Russian government, their presence could be helpful for Putin in boosting the reputation of Russia among African countries where those mercenaries work for government forces. These military ties may be increasing soon, as Russia seems to be in talks with the Central African Republic to open its first African military base. This move could have been spurred on by the increased presence of the Chinese military in Africa, who have a military base in Djibouti. The United States also has three bases in Africa. Therefore, if Russia really wants to seem on the same level as these countries it may need to open its own base.
Overall, it seems that increasing its presence in Africa fits into Russia’s strategy of trying to project more power globally in order to challenge the US and China. It will attempt to achieve this by increasing its military and political sway in Africa, as well as hoping to improve its own waning economy by increasing trade with African nations. It remains to be seen exactly what effects this will have on Africa. It could lead to economic gains, but given Putin’s support for dictators and his habit of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses, if Russia’s influence comes at the expense of that of more liberal countries, it could lead to further entrenchment of these abuses in many countries.
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