At the world’s first Russia-Africa Summit this past October, President Vladimir Putin expressed his determination to increase Russia’s presence in Africa. For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, African delegations flooded Russian conference rooms to establish a foundation for future cooperation in security, trade, health, and education. Ministers and businessmen from both camps convened over the course of two days in Sochi to exchange views on Russia’s potential to accelerate development in Africa. Russian arms manufacturers had their wares on display, and visiting delegations could take selfies with their pick of Kalashnikov firearms. Not since Nikita Krushchev has Russia courted African leaders with such vigor. Unfortunately for Africans who thought that Russia had a serious role to play in Africa’s development, the abundance of military gear sent a very different message.
When Nikita Krushchev met President Kennedy in Vienna in 1961, the two sides sparred over the Soviet Union’s role in promoting “wars of national liberation” across Africa. Unlike his predecessor, Krushchev believed that Africa would play an important role in the ideological struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States. Krushchev closely associated decolonization in Africa with the global struggle against Western capitalism and believed that Soviet support for African revolutionaries would strengthen support for communism. Russia’s relationship with Africa for most of the Cold War rested upon the transfer of weapons to governments and rebels friendly to Moscow, as well as educational exchanges that exposed African leaders to Marxism-Leninism.
Although the Soviet Union lavished attention on its African client states throughout the Cold War, a 1986 CIA report highlighted the Soviet Union’s overwhelming dependence on military commitments to preserve its waning influence. Western economic assistance to Africa outstripped Soviet efforts by a factor of 20 to one, and Soviet military commitments outstripped economic pledges by almost three to one. Written five years before the end of the Cold War, the report revealed the political rather than economic commitments that composed the main thrust of Soviet foreign policy towards Africa.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Africa took a backseat to Russian priorities in Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine. Russia sought to consolidate its sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space and deter further NATO encroachment in Eastern Europe. However, the Syrian Civil War and Bashar al-Assad’s plea for Russian military assistance revived Russian efforts to expand its sphere of influence beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. Since Vladimir Putin first announced his intention to intervene in Syria four years ago, 63,000 Russian troops have seen combat. The intervention turned the tide against opposition forces and issued a fresh challenge against the liberal world order. In spite of falling oil prices and Western resistance, Vladimir Putin’s decisive intervention in the Syrian Civil War returned Russia to the world stage as the illiberal world’s premier powerbroker.
This fact did not go unnoticed among governments with patchy human rights records and authoritarian inclinations, particularly those in Sub-Saharan Africa. Although economic development occupies the day to day affairs of most African leaders, so does regime survival. These priorities often come to a head when Sub-Saharan governments receive offers of aid from Western democracies. Between 1960 and 1997, Western governments spent nearly $500 billion on developmental aid to Africa, and although scholars debate whether African countries have squandered this money, American aid alone exceeds similar contributions from Russia by a factor of 36 to one. However, Western governments often precondition aid on support for human rights and democracy, imposing a political cost many authoritarian governments are reluctant to accept. China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative has opened up an enormous new source of funding for development projects, but African governments are just as wary of interest payments on Chinese loans as they are of preconditions on Western aid. African leaders see Russia — a resurgent power with far fewer moral scruples than the United States or its European allies — as a possible alternative.
At the Russia-African Summit in Sochi, Vladimir Putin attempted to capitalize on his recent foreign policy successes and demonstrate the important role that Russian can play in African development. In addition to expanding existing ties in healthcare and education that have existed since Krushchev was the Soviet premier, he proposed joint projects in energy generation and extractive industries that would benefit from Russian technical expertise. Russia has interests of its own in developing ties with Africa. The Russian economy has stagnated since 2013, growing at an annual rate of 1-2%. Putin likely hopes that energy exports, arms sales, and joint infrastructure projects could boost GDP without requiring reforms to Russia’s kleptocracy. Meanwhile, poor relations with the West put pressure on Russia to seek political support and new markets elsewhere. Foreign policy victories would also relieve Putin of the domestic pressure that sanctions and depressed living standards have generated.
Although African leaders emphasized the importance of sustainable development to their Russian counterparts, the Summit took place in the shadow of Russia’s vast arms industry. Of 15 companies with exhibitions at the Summit, seven were arms producers. Industry representatives proffered advanced missile systems, attack helicopters, fighter jets, Humvees, and a plethora of conventional arms to eager buyers. The overwhelming presence of Russian defense firms demonstrated that Russia, much like the Soviet Union that preceded it, will rely on its vast military capabilities rather than economic assistance to secure a more advantageous position among African governments. Plentiful opportunities exist to increase arms sales, insert advisors, and deploy mercenaries in Africa. In the Central African Republic, the president installed a Russian National Security Advisor. The Sudanese government has employed Russian mercenaries to protect the country’s embattled dictator. Across the Sahel, several African countries have requested Russian assistance to fight jihadists.
Even though economic aid to Africa will likely amount to pocket change, Russia could use its large and capable military to quietly build political influence among countries sympathetic to the illiberal order that Moscow promotes. It could subsequently leverage this influence to obtain favorable contracts for Russian firms and support for Russian proposals in international bodies like the UN. The centrality of defense to Russia’s strategy in Africa became clear when Russia announced plans to send $4 billion worth of weapons to Africa in 2019 and signed a contract to supply 12 attack helicopters to Nigeria. Only new energy deals outnumbered the number of military agreements announced at the Summit.
Although Russia’s new defense ties with Africa challenge efforts by Western powers to promote democratic norms, they do not position Russia as a major African power. China invested $26 billion in African economies last year, and the US disbursed more than $8 billion of assistance to African countries in 2015. Although Russia may not play a pivotal role in Africa’s development, it’s interest in the continent makes it a potential wild card actor. Because it does not possess the resources to execute a long term strategy in Africa, Russia will act opportunistically to achieve narrow interests. Russian military assistance to the Central African Republic in exchange for lucrative mining contracts epitomizes this approach. The arms industry remains the biggest source of Russian influence on the continent, and grandiose displays of advanced weaponry only affirm widespread perception among Africans that Russia has little to offer them other than guns. It will take much more than a summit to change that.
Categories: Foreign Affairs