Putin free hard to African leaders


The second Russia-Africa summit that took place on Thursday and Friday in Saint Petersburg between Russia and 49 African countries provided an opportunity for politicians, entrepreneurs, scientists and public figures to strengthen multi-faceted cooperative relations.

A total of 17 African leaders, including South Africa’s pres. Cyril Ramaphosa, was expected at the Russia-Africa summit which lasted until Friday.

Second of its kind

This summit was the second of its kind after the inaugural summit in 2019 which was attended by 43 heads of state; it aims to establish comprehensive cooperative relations between the parties.

During the first summit, delegates adopted a declaration of cooperation in which African countries and Russia agreed to intensify cooperation in areas such as politics, security, trade, law, science, technical issues, the humanitarian space, information and environmental protection.

In the light of this summit, the question then is what exactly the balance of interests between Russia and Africa looks like.

Mutual interests?

“More than 500 days after the outbreak of the war, Russia definitely feels the pinch of international pressure and isolation, especially given this power’s weakening since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia definitely needs Africa as an alternative for the import and export of Russian products,” explains Prof. Jo-Ansie van Wyk, lecturer in international politics at Unisa.

At the 2019 summit, Putin pledged to increase Russian trade with Africa fivefold to US$40 billion. Since then, Russian trade with the continent has shrunk to $14 billion with a huge trade deficit on Africa’s side of the relationship.

“Russia invests very little in Africa and is responsible for 1% of the foreign direct investment that goes to the continent. Mauritius is a greater source of foreign direct investment for Africa. In addition, Russia’s gross domestic product has shrunk in value from $2.3 trillion in 2013 to $1.8 trillion in 2021,” explained Joseph Siegle, research director at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Maryland in a Conversation-article.

Van Wyk agrees: “Russia made many promises again at the summit, but its economy is simply not such that it can offer Africa these promised great trade opportunities.”

Despite these weakening economic ties, “Russia’s influence in Africa has expanded rapidly since 2019”, according to Siegle, particularly by strengthening its military presence on the continent.

“While Russian-African economic ties are modest, the continent offers Russia an international stage from which Moscow can inflate its geostrategic posture. Africa matters more to Russia than Russia matters to Africa,” says Siegle.

“The summit highlights the increasing importance of Africa for Russian foreign policy. Africa remains the continent that welcomes Russian involvement the most (…) and is also the least willing to criticize Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine.”

According to Siegle, Russia’s influence operations are almost always aimed at helping established (typically autocratic) regimes retain power – African leaders who benefit from this welcome Moscow’s actions.

Thus, this interest promotion may explain something of Africa’s interest in Russia, despite this country’s anemic investment weight.

“The reality is that Russia’s strategy of elite cooperation widens the gap between African leaders and citizens’ interests. Citizens often say that they want more democracy, job creation and upholding of the rule of law. Russian engagements on the continent undermine all three.”

This interest gap between leaders and citizens indicates another aspect of the summit: “Most political leaders in Africa will not promote reforms based on citizen priorities for better governance, development and security.”

When it comes to the interests underlying the Russia-Africa relationship, Van Wyk believes ideology is still the most important.

“When it comes to the underlying factors, there are of course economic, geopolitical and military factors involved. At the very top of the list, however, is the former support that Russia offered to Africa’s liberation struggles.

“Because many of the African leaders and elites received their training under the former Soviet Union, this is only part of their imaginary world – something we also see play out in the ANC context.”

According to Van Wyk, Russia is still seen as an ideological home for several of the African states with this issue of historical ties added to the summit by Putin as an agenda item.

“Russia is aware that there is a very large interest in Africa because it is an extremely large political power block, is rich in minerals and thus also offers many development opportunities” and uses Africa’s regard for these historical ties as best as possible to its own advantage.

Support test for Putin

The two-day summit is described by some as a test of Putin’s support in Africa, where Russia still retains substantial support despite international isolation due to its military invasion of Ukraine last year.

Since launching its offensive in Ukraine, Moscow has sought to strengthen ties with Africa by emphasizing Russia’s stance against Western “imperialism” and gathering other allies.

“The Russia-Africa summit has obvious benefits for Moscow. It conveys a perception of normalcy following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, (the warrant) and the ended uprising led by Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin,” explains Siegle.

Prof. Gilbert Khadiagala from the University of the Witwatersrand agrees.

“Russia needs the summit to help it win more friends in Africa.”

Yet Russia “must also be aware of the fact that it cannot compete with the West and China in Africa because it does not bring any tangible resources to the table”.

Although Putin claimed at the Sochi summit in 2019 that he would seek to engage in “competition for cooperation with Africa”, none of this has materialized apart from military investments in conflict areas.

Large grain comer

The Russia-Africa summit comes after Russia recently pulled out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which halted Ukrainian grain exports to Africa through the Black Sea and caused major food security concerns among certain African countries.

Amid concerns about food security and in an attempt to replace the Ukrainian market, Putin promised free grain to six African countries on Thursday in a continuation of his so-called charm campaign on the continent.

“In the coming months, we will be able to secure free supplies of 25,000 to 50,000 tons of grain to Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, the Central African Republic and Eritrea,” Putin said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed African leaders attending the summit to demand answers about the grain disruptions threatening poorer nations.

“They know exactly who is to blame for this current situation,” Blinken said of the leaders.

“My expectation would be that Russia will hear this clearly from our African partners,” he said on Thursday during a visit to New Zealand.

During the earlier peace mission, African leaders made proposals for military de-escalation, security guarantees for both sides and a mutual recognition of sovereignty, among other things.

Both parties to the war expressed their reservations about implementing this.

War on agenda

Still, Putin said on Friday that Moscow would “carefully” examine proposals made by some African leaders following last month’s African peace mission to Russia about the conflict in Ukraine.

“We respect your initiatives and we are investigating them carefully.”

The continent has so far not held a coherent position on the war, with some states supporting Russia, some states supporting Ukraine and several states expressing neutral positions towards the war and acting accordingly.

According to Khadiagala, African leaders should have seized this summit as an opportunity to unite in their position on the war for the sake of the continent.

“The (…) summit should be an opportunity for Africa to put pressure on Russia to begin to unlock some of the key issues raised in the 10-point peace plan presented by the African leaders.”

African states must use the collective weight of the continent to urge Putin to a speedy end to the war, says Khadiagala.

According to Putin, “previous mediation initiatives were monopolized by so-called advanced democracies” with Africa “also ready to solve problems that seem to fall outside its priority area”.

The Kremlin has accused Western countries of trying to prevent African states from participating in the summit.

Brics around the corner

The summit in Sint Petersburg comes less than a month before a summit of leaders of the Brics countries which takes place in Johannesburg in August. South Africa finally confirmed this month that Putin, who is currently served with an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court, will not attend the summit in person.

Sources: AFP, The Conversation