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After Decades-Long Hiatus, Russia Seeks Renewed Africa Ties

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa walks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before their meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe, March 8, 2018.

On Sunday, Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, will visit Rwanda to meet his counterpart, Louise Mushikiwabo, and President Paul Kagame. They plan to discuss economic development and fighting terrorism, Russia’s foreign ministry said, along with Russia’s involvement with the Africa Union, which Kagame chairs until the end of the year.

Lavrov’s Rwanda trip follows a five-nation Africa tour in March and highlights Russia’s interest in deepening its involvement across the continent.

After that trip, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia decided to cancel more than $20 billion in debt contracted by African nations to help the continent overcome poverty.

Russia “is looking at Africa as a potential trading partner. It’s looking at Africa as a partner in this desire of Russia to create a multipolar world,” Paul Stronski, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told VOA by phone.

Environmental activists protest against the use of nuclear power in Durban, South Africa, Dec. 14, 2016.
Environmental activists protest against the use of nuclear power in Durban, South Africa, Dec. 14, 2016.

Beyond arms deals

Those partnerships have historically centered on arms sales, with documented deals between Russia and at least 30 African nations, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

“They have three refurbishment plants at the moment already in the continent, including in South Africa,” said Alex Vines, a former U.N. sanctions inspector who’s now with the London-based think tank Chatham House. “That’s worked quite well for them, and Russian military equipment is pretty robust, fairly low maintenance. And that has made the Russians attractive.”

Increasingly, Russia has sought deals beyond weapons, including agreements to extract minerals, provide nuclear power, and boost its political and cultural influence in Africa.

Those efforts could translate into favorable votes at the U.N., where three African countries now serve on the Security Council.

The consequences of Russia’s re-emergence in Africa aren’t yet clear, experts say. But the implications could be profound, especially with new opportunities to partner with China and a U.S.-Africa strategy that remains largely undefined.

Soviet-era ties

Before its collapse, the Soviet Union enjoyed an extensive military presence in Africa — historic ties that bolster Russia’s efforts to reinvigorate its presence on the continent.

In the Cold War era, the Soviet Union established naval bases across Africa, including facilities in Egypt, Ethiopia, Angola, Libya and Tunisia.

Those bases were decommissioned when the Soviet Union fell, but military deals continued.

Between 1990 and 2017, Russia and Egypt, for example, engaged in nearly 30 arms deals, mainly for surface-to-air missiles and related technologies, according to SIPRI.

Now Russia is seeking partnerships that broaden its interests. Vines told VOA that Russia’s aims are expanding from security to trade and resources.

One example is Angola, which benefited from Soviet support when it gained independence from Portugal in 1975. Now, Russia is involved in diamond mining in the country and, according to Vines, may build a new telecommunications center in Angola at their own cost.

“There will be some new relationships which are more mercantile (focuses) and based probably around extractives,” Vines said. “I think we will see more trips of the foreign minister of Russia, Lavrov, and some of his colleagues into Africa in the future for that very reason.”

Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vassily Nebenzia speaks during a United Nations Security Council meeting, New York, April 18, 2018.
Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vassily Nebenzia speaks during a United Nations Security Council meeting, New York, April 18, 2018.

Securing votes

Russia also has political reasons to court African leaders.

Having long faced sanctions against itself and its trading partners, as well as an extended economic downturn, Russia needs African votes at the United Nations, Vines said, to accomplish its broader goals.

Russia has tried to sidestep U.N. sanctions and U.S. trade embargoes against countries it seeks arms deals with, Stronski said.

Allies in Africa could make that a lot easier. The continent’s 54 nations have considerable sway in the General Assembly, and Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea and Ethiopia hold temporary seats on the powerful Security Council.

FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping smiles before a meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Ufa, Russia.
FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping smiles before a meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Ufa, Russia.

‘No questions asked’

For African countries with emerging economies and authoritative governments, Russia, like China, represents an appealing partner: willing to engage, with few rules or requirements.

“Russia comes with, right now, sort of ‘no questions asked’ diplomacy,” Stronski said.

That’s good for African leaders, who benefit from added incentives and loose restrictions on the deals they make. But it also fuels corruption, according to Stronski, and that prevents citizens from benefiting from partnerships as much as they could.

“There is a lot of discussion about how Russian arms help fuel instability and fuel conflict on the African continent,” Stronski said. But African governments also risk a backlash, especially in countries with robust media playing a watchdog role, he added.

That’s a narrative Russia has sought to flip.

Russia “presents this vision of the West as sort of being an instability fueler and talk about how the bombing of Libya helped create sort of a power vacuum that has sort of led to the spread of weapons throughout the Middle East and North Africa,” Stronski said.

A multipolar world, rather than one dominated by the U.S., is one of Russia’s key strategic objectives, he added.


Russia’s efforts in Africa haven’t produced results at every turn. One failed venture appears to be in Djibouti, which Vines likened to “an aircraft carrier for Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.”

Five countries have established military bases in the tiny East African country, most recently China. Russia sought to subcontract space from China, Vines said. But Djibouti, facing pressure from the U.S. and its Western allies, blocked the deal.

Without access to China’s facility, Russia’s options are limited, Stronski said.

“I don’t see Russia really having the funds, the resources to put anything beyond a very limited port call or landing and refilling rights,” he said.

Playing catch-up

Whether Russia can translate its renewed investments in Africa into major economic or political benefits isn’t clear, both Stronski and Vines said.

That’s in part because others, including Europe, the U.S., Gulf countries and China, are far ahead, according to Stronski.

“They closed down many of their embassies, and they really focused more closer to home. And now, in the last five years, they’ve realized that they were needing to play catch-up in Africa,” Stronski said.

Russia also faces financial constraints, particularly relative to China.

“The Russian Federation is by no means a Soviet Union, and it doesn’t have the deep pockets (or) the capacity to extend itself globally in the way that the Soviet Union was able to,” Vines said.

Despite these limitations, Russia’s rising profile has clear implications for the U.S., according to Stronski.

“The United States should look at this as a warning sign and should develop a more coherent and clear policy of what it sees as U.S. interests in the African continent. And I don’t see a very coherent message coming out of either the State Department or the White House right now on that issue,” he said.