Isolated Russia turns to Africa

The Bell

Last week, Russia hosted its second Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg. Although the Kremlin actively promoted the forum, only 17 of the continent’s 54 nations sent high-level delegations. It’s no surprise that this is far fewer than the number that attended the previous summit in 2019. Even though Russia needsAfrica as a partner to strengthen its bulwark against the West, the war in Ukraine has impacted African countries through rising grain and energy prices, putting a strain on state budgets.

  • How important is Africa to Russia right now? Russia’s new Foreign Policy Concept, adopted in March 2023, featured a full section on the continent for the first time, as Africa specialist Vadim Zaitsev noted in his research for Carnegie. The document describes Russia and Africa as forces that strive together for “the establishment of a fairer, multipolar world.” In addition, Africa is the strongest regional voting bloc at the UN, Zaitsev said. Even if each resolution adopted on the war in Ukraine may seem pointless, it will have a bearing on any future peace process.
  • Russia also uses African countries to get around sanctions. For example, North African countries are buying up Russian diesel fuel and other oil products that are embargoed in Europe. Countries like Tunisia and Morocco then blend Russian fuels and “clean” them for buyers in Europe via a process described by The Wall Street Journal.
  • At the summit, Putin put his full energy into winning over African leaders. Russia has some unique advantages in Africa, dating back to the personal and economic ties established in the Soviet era, Zaitsev said. It’s no surprise, then, that Putin recalled the continent’s Soviet ties in a bid to remind the current generation who its real allies are. In addition, the Russian presidentmentioned how $23 billion in debt to Russia was written off.
  • However, it remains unclear how Russia intends to further develop is partnerships in Africa. The 2019 summit ended with the signing of hundreds of trade deals and memoranda of cooperation worth $15 billion. Four years later, this achievement was not repeated and two-way trade is instead in decline. Current, Russia accounts for just 1% of foreign investment in Africa, less than Switzerland or Singapore.
  • Friendship with Africa is unlikely to be well-received by Russian society, a third of which regards “natives of Africa” with contempt. According to a Levada Center poll, 33% of Russians said they would not allow Africans into the country.

Why the world should care

Faced with international isolation, Russia is returning to the Soviet playbook and seeking allies among countries that might join its battle against “Western hegemony.” However, there are questions about the viability of this “friendship”: Russia’s spending power is reduced because of the war and many African states have already condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.


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