diplomatic test

Five questions to understand Putin’s Russia-Africa Summit ambitions

By Benjamin Roger, Maher Hajbi, Thaïs Brouck

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Posted on July 26, 2023 11:27

 © President Vladimir Putin surrounded by African leaders at the first Russia-Africa Summit, in Sochi in 2019. (Reuters/Sergei Chirikov)
President Vladimir Putin surrounded by African leaders at the first Russia-Africa Summit, in Sochi in 2019. (Reuters/Sergei Chirikov)

Vladimir Putin’s upcoming summit in St. Petersburg on 27 and 28 July will be an opportunity for Moscow to do a continental roll call.

On 27 and 28 July, many eyes will be on St. Petersburg for the second Russia-Africa summit, following the Sochi summit of 2019.

A year and a half after the conflict in Ukraine began on 24 February 2022, this meeting of leaders, whose presence and absence will be closely scrutinised, is a major diplomatic test for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

Since the Wagner Group’s failed rebellion against Putin on 23 June against Putin, the future of Russia’s presence and influence on the continent has been called into question.

Doubts still linger, despite the recent announcement by Wagner’s boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, that his troops will no longer be fighting in Ukraine and will instead be concentrating on Africa.

The announcement that the Russian president will not be attending the BRICS summit in South Africa at the end of August also appears to be a setback.

The St. Petersburg summit also involves crucial economic issues for Africa.

While the non-renewal of the agreement on grain exports to the Black Sea poses a major risk to food supplies in Africa, Putin gave an assurance on 24 July that, despite the sanctions targeting it, “Russia will continue its energetic efforts to ensure the distribution of grain, food products, fertilisers and other goods to Africa.”

1. Will Putin pass his diplomatic test?

Since he launched the war against Ukraine, the master of the Kremlin has isolated himself from much of the world.

In search of allies in his conflict with the West, President Putin is seeking to win over as many partners as possible to his cause. In Africa, Russia has a number of declared supporters, such as Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR), where the Wagner group is present, and more importantly Algeria and South Africa, two African heavyweights historically close to the former Soviet Union.

At a time when his enemies portray him as isolated internationally and weakened internally, as demonstrated by the failed rebellion of Wagner’s mercenaries on 23 June, Putin is counting heavily on this summit to demonstrate that he continues to be the head of a powerful and appealing state.

He hopes that a significant number of his African counterparts will make the trip to St. Petersburg and pose with him for the traditional diplomatic family photo.

The unstated objective is to do at least as well as the Sochi summit, which all observers will be measuring it against. Sochi was attended by 43 leaders out of 54 African countries. The summit was a diplomatic success for Putin, who wants to show that, despite the war in Ukraine, his influence has not waned.

In recent months, Western diplomats have spared no effort in trying to dissuade their African partners from travelling to Russia. “We told them that appearing alongside Putin in the current context was a marker,” explains a diplomatic source.

Among the heads of state who have announced their presence are several of his privileged partners on the continent, such as Mali’s transitional president Assimi Goïta.

Goïta’s visit to Russia will be his first trip abroad since assuming power after the coup d’état in 2021.  Presidents considered to be closer to France will also attend the summit, such as Senegal’s Macky Sall, who will step down at the end of his term in February 2024.

2. What are Russia’s African ambitions?

The success of the Sochi summit clearly marked the return of Russian ambitions in Africa, three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been an important ally for many African countries. At the time, Putin said “a new chapter” was being opened between Africa and Russia.

He also said that he wanted to repeat this type of meeting to bolster relations between his country and African nations, while stating his desire to double the volume of trade between Moscow and the continent (which was around $20bn in 2018, including $7.7bn for Egypt alone).

This is a gamble, however, with the figure dropping to $17.7bn in 2021. On 24 July, ahead of the St. Petersburg summit, Putin gave assurances that “the network of Russian embassies and trade missions in Africa will be expanded.”

Russia has clearly advanced its military and security interests. Through the Wagner Group, a number of countries – led by the CAR and Mali – have made Moscow their new ally, to the detriment of France and other Western countries.

According to a report published in March by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), between 2018 and 2022 Russia overtook China as the leading arms seller in sub-Saharan Africa, with a total market share of 26%.

3. What next for the Wagner Group?

Russia in Africa means Wagner. Since 2017, Prigozhin’s private military company has been the Kremlin’s armed wing on the continent, pushing Russian interests with a series of influential operations in Libya, Sudan, the CAR and Mali. The group’s men are serving as auxiliaries to local armed forces, while developing their commercial interests, particularly in the mining sector.

Since Prigozhin’s failed rebellion against Putin’s regime, the Russian authorities have been trying to regain control of the Wagner Group’s activities. Driven out of Russia, its boss and the several thousand men who have remained loyal to him now have their rearguard base in Belarus.

It was from their new headquarters in Asipovichy, near Tsel, that Prigozhin spoke publicly for the first time after the failed coup. In a video broadcast on 19 July, the Wagner boss announced that his troops would no longer be fighting in Ukraine and that they would henceforth be focusing on Africa.

It remains to be seen how much room for manoeuvre Prigozhin has. Without the financial and logistical support of the Russian authorities, Wagner’s future on the continent is inevitably more uncertain.

But many believe that despite Prigozhin’s “betrayal”, Putin cannot do without the hotdog-vendor-cum-warlord to safeguard his interests in Africa, with some citing their 29 June meeting in the Kremlin, just a few days after Wagner’s failed coup in Russia, as proof.

While a few hundred mercenaries left the CAR at the beginning of July, no similar movement of troops has been seen in Mali.

4. Why have fertilisers become a diplomatic weapon for Putin?

Russian fertilisers have proved indispensable for many African crop producers, particularly in cocoa, cotton and cereals. With four global giants in the sector (EuroChem, Acron, PhosAgro, and Uralchem-Uralkali), Russia is one of the continent’s leading fertiliser producers and suppliers.

By 2021, Moscow will have covered 50% of Togo’s needs, 35% of those of Burkina Faso and Senegal, nearly 30% of those of Côte d’Ivoire, and more than 20% of those of Mali and Guinea, according to a tripartite study conducted by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP).

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Africa has faced fertiliser supply problems. To free up allocations seized in European ports following European Union sanctions against Moscow, President Putin has pulled the joker out of the pack with strategic donations of fertilisers to African countries.

Although 300,000tn of products were to be shipped free of charge to the continent by Uralchem-Uralkali, only 67,000tn of potash, urea and NPK have arrived safely: 23,000tn to Burkina Faso, 20,000tn to Malawi, and 24,000tn to Kenya. A fourth delivery is expected in Nigeria.

The Russian offensive is also aimed at strengthening commercial offerings and transferring skills. As Russia’s leading exporter to Africa, with 500,000tn of fertiliser by 2022, PhosAgro plans to double its exports to the continent over the next five years, according to Alexander Sharabaika, the Russian giant’s deputy general manager in charge of finance and international affairs.

The Russia-Africa summit in St-Petersburg will address ‘the stability of the fertiliser market as a guarantee of eradicating hunger in African countries’, with a promise to ‘transfer cutting-edge agricultural technologies to Africa’.

5. Why could the end of the Black Sea Grain Initiative starve the continent?

Recently, the Kremlin decided not to renew the cereal agreement that has allowed Ukrainian agricultural exports across the Black Sea despite the Russian offensive. According to the FAO, some African countries are “dangerously” dependent on Russian-Ukrainian cereal exports.

Between 2018 and 2020, Benin and Somalia were totally dependent on Russian and Ukrainian wheat, which accounted for 100% of their supplies, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Some 15 African countries currently rely on Ukraine and/or Russia for more than 55% of their supplies, with the most notable being Sudan (75%), the DRC (68%), Senegal (65%) and Congo (61%).

Moscow’s withdrawal “means a return to square one for African countries”, says Mahfoud Kaoubi, an Algerian economic analyst. The decision has accelerated the rise in the price of these commodities, despite President Putin’s promise to “replace Ukrainian cereals bound for Africa”, and the continent must prepare for all possible scenarios. “Not only is there a risk of a surge in inflation, but above all a threat of shortages if supply chains are disrupted,” says Kaoubi.

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