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Russia-Africa: Putin’s continental strategy

By Joséphine Dedet
Posted on Monday, 19 August 2019 13:27

Russian president Vladimir Putin, surrounded by his generals. Mikhail Klimentyev/AP/SIPA

From south of the Sahara all the way north to the Maghreb, Vladimir Putin wants his country to play a leading role in Africa, as it did during the Cold War.

From October 22 – 24, the Russian city of Sochi, on the Black Sea Coast, will host the first ever Russia-Africa Summit.

When Morocco’s King Mohammed VI offered Vladimir Putin milk and dates as a welcome gift, back in September 2006, the North African ruler knew that the event was exceptional in more ways than one.

Not only was this the first visit of a Russian president to Morocco since the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991 – the last one had been by Leonid Brezhnev in 1961. But the man with light hair and opaque eyes that Mohammed VI received with high honours had rarely set foot in an African country, except for Algeria six months earlier, and Egypt, the previous year.

Low interest in sub-Saharan Africa

Putin has since visited Libya (2008) and Egypt (2015 and 2017). But the only country in sub-Saharan Africa the Russian president has visited is South Africa.

This shows how little interest he has in the south of the continent, at least on a personal level. And yet it was in Johannesburg, in July 2018 during the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit – a block of five emerging countries meant to counterbalance the West – that Putin launched his big idea: to organise a Russia-Africa summit.

It will be a first in the history of his country. Long faded are the memories from the 1970s of the relations that united a continent in the process of decolonisation while the USSR pursued its campaign of Third World solidarity.

Sochi, a historic summit

From October 22 – 24, Sochi will host this major diplomatic event, which will be preceded by a business forum. Because of its Mediterranean climate, the city was once a haven for tuberculosis patients (including playwright Anton Chekhov), who nursed their hopes of recovery under Sochi’s palm trees.

It is also famous for the sulphurous waters with anti-rheumatic properties, in which Stalin dipped his clubfoot. It was to here that his entire court, terrified, was ordered to accompany him on holiday.

Completely redesigned for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games – for better or for worse – it is undergoing a new facelift of its infrastructure and conference centres in preparation for the event.

The Governorate of Krasnodar and the Roscongress Foundation, which are responsible for the logistics of the Russia-Africa summit, are expecting no less than 10,000 people, including thousands of businesspeople.

  • Thirty-five countries have already confirmed their participation, and many African leaders will be in attendance.

Among those announced are Angola’s President João Lourenço, South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, Côte d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara, Mali’s Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) Félix Tshisekedi, Madagascar’s Andry Rajoelina and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who, in his capacity as president of the African Union, will be master of ceremonies alongside Putin.

The former KGB colonel and the Cairo field marshal appreciate each other; Putin has never criticised the way Al-Sisi came to power and punished his opponents.

Growing enthusiasm

According to Mikhail Bogdanov, Putin’s special envoy for the Middle East and Africa, the enthusiasm is such that this summit will take place”every two or three years” going forward. He and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov have spared no effort, increasing their travel on the continent since the beginning of the year to prepare the diplomatic and commercial ground.

  • Bogdanov travelled to Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Central African Republic, and Sudan – where relations are to be rebuilt after Omar al-Bashir was overthrown. He was also at the inaugurations of both Rajoelina and Mauritania’s Mohamed Ould Ghazouani. Lavrov toured the Maghreb, and was received by Mohammed VI.

Other key Russian officials are also involved with the summit. Putin entrusted his diplomatic adviser Yuri Uchakov, who is not a specialist on Africa but a Putin loyalist, with its preparations. Another key player is Andrei Kemarski, the “Mr. sub-Saharan Africa” at the foreign affairs ministry. In January, he participated in the Khartoum conference on the conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR).

Also on the Russian team are a number of ambassadors (former and current), masters in the art of speaking to all factions, even if they were irreducibly opposed. Among the team are Andrey Slepnev, the head of the Russian Export Centre, and members of the Institute for African Studies of the prestigious Russian Academy of Sciences.

Director of the institute, Irina Abramova, is participating in preparatory summit meetings and has long campaigned to ensure that her country does not fall too far behind China.

Africanists Alexei Vasiliev, Yevgeny Korendyasov and Andrei Maslov are among the coordinators of the report entitled “Russia-Africa: Shared Vision 2030”, which will be presented in Sochi and will serve as a basis for future discussions.

Moscow rendezvous

In June and July, a series of events were held in which Africans played a major role: the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, whose 2018 guest of honour was CAR’s President Faustin-Archange Touadéra; the annual meeting of the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank), in which Russia became a shareholder two years ago; and a Russia-Africa inter-parliamentary meeting in Moscow.

Does this mean that the continent, which was only included as Article 99 – in other words the last article – of the “Foreign Policy Design” (2016), is now a priority for Moscow? And that the Red Square has become “the place to be” for African heads of state?

Since 2015, trips to Russia by African heads of state have become more frequent:

  • Zimbabwe’s former President Robert Mugabe (2015),
  • Morocco’s Mohammed VI (2016),
  • Sudan’s ousted Al-Bashir,
  • Guinean President Alpha Condé (2017),
  • CAR’s Touadéra (2018),
  • Senegalese President Macky Sall,
  • Egypt’s Al-Sisi (2018),
  • Zimbabwe’s current President Emmerson Mnangagwa,
  • Angola’s Lourenço, and
  • Congo’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso (2019)

Murky waters

CAR’s Touadéra is so close to Putin that Paris is alarmed. Russia has sent military experts to the central African nation and the dispatching of “security adviser” Valery Zakharov to CAR’s presidency led Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign affairs minister, to criticise Russia’s “recent, significant, and active anti-French presence”.

A deal sealed in October 2017 in Sochi between the Russians and Touadéra is the most visible part of an iceberg that Westerners are worried about drifting beyond the murky waters of the Chari River that passes through N’Djamena. The agreement includes diamonds, gold and uranium in exchange for military support (and ensuring the security of the CAR President).

Active in the Ukrainian and Syrian theatres of war, the Wagner Group, a Russian military company said to be under the control of the mysterious Evgueni Prigozhin, have, according to the Moscow Times, spread to Sudan, Libya, the DRC, Madagascar, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau, where they offer their security services in exchange for oil and mining concessions.

Officially unrelated to the Kremlin, they nevertheless have the “right”, according to Putin, “to defend their commercial interests in the four corners of the globe”.

Troops on the ground

In fact, after decades of absence, the Russians have put troops back on the continent. They are considering building a naval logistics platform in one of Eritrea’s ports.

Over the past four years, some 20 military cooperation agreements have been signed, and that trend is accelerating: Guinea and CAR in 2017; Egypt, Burkina Faso and the DRC in 2018; Sudan, Mali and the Republic of Congo in 2019.

A memorandum has even been signed with the Southern African Development Community (16 Southern African countries). And Russian military advisers are in Guinea-Bissau.

Does the visit to Moscow of two Ivorian ministers – Hamed Bakayoko (defence) in August 2018 and Marcel Amon-Tanoh (foreign affairs) in July 2019 – mean that their country could also conclude a similar agreement?

The continent’s leading arms suppliers

Arms sales are booming thanks to the war in Syria, during which the Russians demonstrated their effectiveness. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), they are Africa’s leading suppliers of arms (35%), ahead of China (17%), the United States (9.6%) and France (6.9%). While Algeria remains Russia’s biggest market, Morocco, Egypt and Nigeria are becoming significant customers.

The war in Chechnya has given Russia experience in the fight against terrorism, which it is promoting to countries exposed to this threat – like Nigeria and those in the Maghreb and the Sahel. Satellite imagery, security cooperation and intelligence exchange are all instruments on which Moscow relies to strengthen its influence.

  • Nikolai Patrouchev, secretary of the National Security Council and a fierce critic of the United States, acts as Putin’s emissary to some heads of state, organises forums on terrorism and receives heads of intelligence services – the most recent being Madagascar’s.

This activity does not make the US happy. In December 2018, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton expressed his concern. These were echoed by General Thomas David Waldhauser, commander of US Africa Command, in March.

In June, The Guardian disclosed “top secret” Russian documents mentioning the countries that Moscow (via Prigozhin’s “activities”) managed to infiltrate: Sudan, Madagascar, CAR (level 5, which refers to the highest level of infiltration), South Africa, Zimbabwe, Libya (4), South Sudan (3), Chad, the DRC and Zambia (2). Also mentioned as targets are: Mali, Uganda, Equatorial Guinea and Egypt (1).

These leaks come from the Dossier Centre, headed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch that Putin threw in prison, now in exile in London.

Fantasies and propaganda

As in the Cold War, it is difficult to distinguish between the propaganda and counter-propaganda on both sides. The Western press, for example, accuses the Russians of having favoured Rajoelina’s victory in the Malagasy presidential election and the African National Congress’s victory in the South African legislature by buying local journalists or influencing voters through social networks – similar to how they have helped Trump beat Hillary Clinton.

On the other hand, it is clear that the 54 African countries, which represent nearly a third of the votes in the United Nations General Assembly, constitute a very useful voting pool for Russia: in 2014, 58 countries abstained from voting on the resolution condemning the annexation of the Crimea. Among them, Egypt, Algeria, South Africa, Mali, Rwanda, Senegal and Gabon.

The economic sanctions imposed by the West following the annexation of the Crimea and the latent conflict with the Ukraine has pushed Moscow to take an interest in Africa. At the same time, many African governments are looking to diversify their partners and have been interested in hearing about what the Russian Bear has to offer.

  • Moscow’s argument is that since Russia did not colonise Africa, it could not disappoint it like Western powers did. Moscow also refrains from moralising interference.

Didn’t Putin speak out against the killing of Muammar Gaddafi, which traumatised some African leaders? That he supports Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad – that he received Mugabe and Al-Bashir before their falls – is somewhat reassuring for those who are not virtuous democrats.

Is Putin’s strategy the posthumous victory of Yevgeny Primakov? Foreign affairs minister and prime minister in the late 1990s, the bushy-eyebrowed leader had been working after the fall of the USSR to rebuild relations with Africa with the aim of creating an anti-Western bloc and a multipolar world in which Russia could rise from the ashes.

Land and rare metals

But what about business? This will be discussed in Sochi at the business forum, where the Russians hope to sign many contracts. Land and rare metals are in their sights. And yet in Africa, Russia remains an economic dwarf. Its trade with the continent is only $17bn a year, compared to more than $200bn for China.

Besides, the Russian Bear has some notable weaknesses. Its small and medium-sized enterprises do not have much of an African presence and no consumer goods to sell.

There are still good economic tools that could be used to improve ties: erasing debt in exchange for the signing of bilateral military agreements or the right to exploit natural resources; relying on major investments made by the state; and using the giants Gazprom, Rosneft and Lukoil (hydrocarbons), Alrosa (diamonds), Rusal (aluminium), Rosatom (nuclear), Uralkali and Uralchem (fertiliser), Rosoboronexport (arms) to conquer new markets.

In short, with limited resources, Russia is trying to make people believe that it has regained its former splendour.

This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.

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