Advancing Russia’s Interests in Africa

On March 5, 2018, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov leaves for a five-day African tour including visits to Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia. Russia “is returning” to Africa. Even in a modest way, Moscow’s presence on the continent is constantly growing, says Olga Kulkova, Research Fellow at the Centre for studies of Russian-African relations and foreign policy of African countries, Institute for African Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences.

The cooling of Russia’s relations with the West and sanctions against Moscow have in many ways influenced Russia’s decision to reorient its attention to new partners, including African countries.

It would be wrong to perceive Africa in only a negative way – through poverty, wars, etc. For all its diversity, many African countries are success stories economically, with the GDP growth rate averaging 5.2% in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2000-2013. In Africa, the middle class is rapidly growing, which creates a huge new consumer market, including, perhaps, a niche for Russian goods and services. Africa remains the key source of the most important resources – energy, raw materials for innovative industries, non-ferrous, rare and rare-earth metals, gold, and platinum. These resources include some of the minerals, which Russia does not have enough, and it is economically justifiable to extract them in African countries.

In 2017, business dialogue “Russia-Africa: A Structured Approach to Cooperation in New Economic Reality” with participation of Russian and African businessmen, scholars, and politicians (in particular from South Africa and Zimbabwe) was held within the framework of the St Petersburg Economic Forum. In 2018, the SPIEF plans to give even more attention to Africa.

Russia’s main interests in Africa are the following:

  • Strengthening of political cooperation with the countries of the continent to ensure support of Russia’s position on international affairs (for example, in the UN, where African countries constitute a significant and influential group). Strengthening of political interaction with African countries, including in the BRICS format. Today, only South Africa is a member of the organization, but there are prospects to include other African countries.

  • Development of trade and economic relations – extraction/purchase of mineral resources, tropical farming products (coffee, cocoa, citrus fruits) in Africa, increase of fruits and vegetables supplies to Russia, which largely came to replace products from the EU countries. Delivery of Russian agricultural products (for example, grain), as well as fertilizers, engineering products, weapons, equipment, etc. to Africa.

  • Export of Russian services and technologies – for example, construction of nuclear power plants, other infrastructure facilities (hydroelectric power stations, light industry plants, processing of agricultural raw materials), technologies in oil refining and pipeline construction, launching satellites of African countries.

Competitors of Russia in Africa

According to Western and Russian experts, a new “fight for Africa” is unfolding. The main players are China, the EU (as the bloc of states and individual countries), and the United States. India, Brazil, Turkey, Iran, South Korea, the Gulf countries are also interested in increasing cooperation with Africa. Russia’s volume of trade and economic interaction with Africa is inferior to almost all of the abovementioned players. Today, the Russian Federation’s trade turnover with Africa does not exceed $12 billion. Nevertheless, in some areas competition between Russia and other players is quite serious.

As Russia’s interests in Africa expand, so does the field for possible conflicts and competition with other players. For example, not only Russia is trying to help Africa in the construction of nuclear power plants, but there is already serious competition, and there have been cases of opposition to Russia’s interests.

Representatives of Zambia, Ethiopia, and Sudan visited the ATOMEXPO-2017 forum in Moscow and a number of cooperation agreements were signed. These are examples of Russia’s so-called “nuclear diplomacy.” As early as in 2014, Egypt signed an agreement with Russia on the construction of the El Dabaa nuclear power plant, Russian specialists also proposed the establishment of desalination plants which will be operated on the heat produced by nuclear power reactors, which somewhat reduced Cairo’s concerns about water resources, which caused tensions with Ethiopia in 2011. In the next decade, Russia is likely to begin construction of a nuclear power plant in Ethiopia.

In 2016, Sudan signed nuclear energy cooperation agreements with China, but the country’s leadership shows great interest in cooperation with Russia in the construction of a nuclear power plant. Sudan is also very interested in the construction of plants for desalination of seawater on the basis of a nuclear power plant, and this technology is not available to anyone except Russia. For African countries, water and energy security are the key issues.

Another direction where Russia became a competitor to other foreign players in Africa is grain export.

Sergei Lavrov’s tour as a new stage in relations with African countries

The Russian Foreign Minister’s visit to four countries in southern Africa – Namibia, Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique, and one East African country, Ethiopia, confirms the unprecedented level of attention to Sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, Russia’s “turn to Africa” began back in the mid-2000s. The abovementioned countries are important partners of Russia.

Russia is striving to consolidate its positions in Sub-Saharan Africa. Cooperation with these countries has roots in the Soviet era, and now interaction with the region, including working within the BRICS, is important. For many external players, South Africa is the “gateway to the continent,” and Russia is no exception.

Russian companies implement some interesting projects in the African countries, Sergey Lavrov said. From the point of view of mining, it is important to cooperate with Zimbabwe (where Russia is developing Darwendale, one of the world’s largest deposits of platinum group metals), and with Angola (where Alrosa mines diamonds). There are talks with Angola in the field of hydrocarbon production, it is one of the largest oil-producing countries on the continent and an OPEC member.

Angola and Mozambique actively cooperate with Russia in the field of military-technical cooperation. Russia and Mozambique are planning to jointly develop and produce military equipment. In November 2017, supplies of the civilian medium-haul Sukhoi Superjet 100 aircraft to Angola in 2019-2021 were discussed.

For Lavrov, it is important to strengthen contacts with the new government of Zimbabwe, which came to power after the displacement of president Robert Mugabe.

An intergovernmental commission on trade and economic cooperation between Russia and Namibia was established. Russia has big plans to increase exports of its agricultural products to Namibia (wheat, dairy products, poultry, etc.).

Ethiopia is one of the key regional powers. Russia appreciates Ethiopia’s active role in the African Union and in regional structures on the African continent. Ethiopia was elected a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2017-2018. Sergey Lavrov’s visit can be considered a sign of increased attention of the Russian leadership to Africa.

At the same time, similar visits of top Russian officials to the continent should be organized more often. As to the frequency of such visits, Russia’s potential competitors are far ahead with politicians of China and France being particularly active.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.