At the inaugural Russia-Africa summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in 2019, Russian president Vladimir Putin promised to double trade with African states within five years as he sought to win new friends with offers of nuclear power plants and fighter jets.
Three years on, few of those promises have materialised and yet Russian influence on the continent is growing faster than at any point since the end of the cold war.
Russian trade with Africa in 2021, the most recent full-year figure available, was worth $15.6bn — a tenth of the continent’s trade with China and a quarter up on 2018, according to IMF data. However, Moscow remains the biggest exporter of arms to Africa and — through investments and trading relationships in goods from diamonds to citrus fruit — has become a useful partner for African states.
“Russia didn’t really have Africa as one of its foreign policy priorities, but a lot has changed in recent years, particularly since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine,” said Eleonora Tafuro, a Russia expert at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies.
As Russia had become isolated from Europe and the US, expanding diplomatic and trade relationships with friendly states in Africa was key to the Kremlin’s narrative that Moscow had “alternatives”, said Tafuro.
Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was welcomed by his Malian counterpart Abdoulaye Diop in Bamako this year and also visited South Africa and Angola. Last July, he toured Egypt, the Republic of Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia and met African Union representatives in Addis Ababa.
“Russia has chosen the politics-first course, in which economic preferences are a natural consequence of successful political co-operation,” Russian academic Kirill Babaev wrote in November for Valdai, the Kremlin’s foreign policy think-tank.
Russian engagement in Africa is not new. The Soviet Union backed the UN General Assembly’s declaration affirming independence for colonised nations in 1960 and helped fund liberation movements in South Africa, Angola, Mozambique and elsewhere.
Ties frayed with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, before investments by state-owned Russian mining and energy companies, including Alrosa and Gazprom, restored engagement in the 2000s in countries such as Angola and Nigeria.
A concerted pursuit of African opportunities began after Putin regained the presidency in 2012, spearheaded by a handful of Russian companies, including state-owned VTB Bank.
Russia in Africa
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However, many of VTB’s African activities became embroiled in controversy, not least its involvement with Credit Suisse in the provision of $2bn of loans to Mozambique in 2013 and 2014 in an affair known as the “tuna bond” scandal. Three former Credit Suisse executives have pleaded guilty to handling bribes.
VTB chair Andrei Kostin and VTB Capital’s chief executive Alexey Yakovitsky would regularly take calls from Lavrov asking them to target deals with particular countries, according to a person familiar with the workings of the bank.
One such transaction was a potential loan to Tanzania in 2014, part of which the Kremlin hoped would be used to purchase Russian military equipment. Tanzania ultimately declined the loan after the west imposed sanctions on VTB and other Russian banks following Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, according to a person familiar with the proposal.
VTB said the suggestion of government involvement in the investment bank’s decision-making was “politically biased and incorrect”. The Tanzanian government did not respond to requests for comment.
Other VTB-backed proposals also failed. In around 2015, VTB helped state-owned Russian conglomerate Rostec’s bid to invest in two copper-cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo owned by Congolese state miner Gécamines. Arthur Katalayi, at the time an adviser to Gécamines’ chair, said the pitch was well received but that Russia could not match China’s influence. A joint-venture between Gécamines and China’s state-owned CNMC began production at one of the sites, Deziwa, four years later.
Russia lacks the economic muscle to compete head to head with China, the US or EU when it comes to trade and investment in Africa. Russia’s economy is nine times smaller than China’s and only slightly larger than that of Spain, according to World Bank data.
Instead, Russia has tended to play the role of “disrupter”, said Joseph Siegle, at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington.
“Russia’s engagement in Africa has been fairly consistent since the early 2000s, where they’ve realised they don’t have a strong hand to play vis-à-vis other external actors so the best thing they can do is be the spoiler,” he added.
The tactic, aimed at undermining western interests and boosting Moscow’s reach, has often succeeded, most recently in Central African Republic, where mercenaries from Wagner Group and other Russian private military companies have helped expand Russian influence — and gained access to lucrative gold and diamond mining areas in the process, according to the US Treasury.
However, while such mining activity is thought to be generating hundreds of millions of dollars, Siegle said there was no evidence the profits were flowing back to the Kremlin, adding that they were probably being used to finance Wagner’s operations.
The most successful pillar of Russia’s conventional trade with Africa is arms, managed mainly by state-controlled Rosoboronexport. Between 2010 and 2021 Russian arms exports to Africa dwarfed those of every other supplier and were three times greater than those of China, the second-biggest over the period, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Other Russian companies with significant operations in Africa include Alrosa, which operates diamond projects in Angola and is exploring in Zimbabwe; Rusal, which mines bauxite in Guinea; and Rosatom, which is building Africa’s first nuclear power plant in Egypt.
Alrosa was placed under sanctions by the US in April as part of its effort to reduce the Kremlin’s revenue streams following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. But further sanctions being imposed on Russian companies or diplomatic pressure on governments is unlikely to convince African states to break commercial ties.
“They don’t see the point in stopping their relationship with Russia because of the war in Ukraine,” said Tafuro. Such pressure was often perceived as a western attempt to “limit the economic opportunities of African states”, she added.
One area where Russia has significantly increased exports to Africa since the Ukraine invasion is oil. Russia sent 214,000 barrels a day of refined petroleum products to Africa in December 2022, roughly three times more than in December 2021, according to commodity analytics provider Kpler.
Traders expect the shipments, which went mainly to Tunisia, Morocco and Nigeria, to increase following the EU block on imports of Russian oil products, which took effect on February 5.
Putin is likely to seek to strengthen commercial ties further at the follow-up Russia-Africa summit due to be held in St Petersburg in July. However, politics is again likely to trump business, say analysts.
While African governments welcome Russian trade and investment, Russia’s political support, particularly given its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, was of greater value to many, said Priyal Singh, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa.
“No matter how meagre the commercial engagement can be, being a friend to the Kremlin, for a lot of African states, is a way of getting Russian support to keep them off the agenda of the UN Security Council,” he said. “That’s the value of having Moscow as a friend.”