The 43 African heads of state who attended the first Russia–Africa Summit in 2019 had high hopes that Russia would emerge as a new source of investment and trade for the continent. Russian President Vladmir Putin promised to double Russian trade with Africa in 5 years to $40 billion.
Since then, Russian trade with the continent has contracted to $14 billion and remains lopsided with Russia exporting seven times as much as it imports from Africa. Seventy percent of this trade is concentrated in just four countries—Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, and South Africa.
Russia, furthermore, invests very little in Africa. It accounts for 1 percent of the foreign direct investment (FDI) that goes to the continent. Mauritius is a larger source of FDI for Africa. Russia’s gross domestic product, moreover, has shrunk in value from $2.3 trillion in 2013 to $1.8 trillion in 2021, and is now roughly equivalent to that of Mexico.
Despite these diminishing economic ties, Russia’s influence in Africa has rapidly expanded since the first Russia–Africa Summit. This has largely been achieved by irregular means—propping up isolated, autocratic regimes through a combination of the deployment of Wagner paramilitary forces, electoral interference, disinformation, and arms for resources deals.
Each of these tactics are destabilizing for the host country. Predictably, half of the two dozen African countries where Russia has been actively plying its influence are in conflict. Russia has similarly undermined UN operations in African countries where Russia is vying for influence, further compounding instability.
Moscow curries favor with these regimes by providing protection from international sanctions for human rights violations or undermining democratic practices. Unsurprisingly, the African countries where Russia is most involved have median democracy scores of 19 on Freedom House’s 100-point scale. This compares to a median of 51 in African countries where Russian influence operations are more limited.
Security in every African country where Wagner has been deployed has deteriorated while human rights abuses have surged. Local communities have been intimidated into leaving their homes where Wagner has been given mining access, effectively annexing these territories.
A Symbolic Coup for Moscow
The Summit has obvious benefits for Moscow. It conveys a perception of normalcy following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the International Criminal Court’s war crimes arrest warrant for Putin, and the aborted insurrection led by Wagner leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin. The Summit is a chance to show it’s business as usual—and that Russia is not a pariah but enjoys the implicit endorsement of its violations of international law by African heads of state.
While Russian-African economic ties are modest, the continent provides Russia a global stage.
Russia will also likely use the Summit to falsely claim that Western sanctions are limiting the export of Russian (and Ukrainian) food and fertilizer to Africa, distracting attention from Russia’s culpability for triggering the disruption in global grain supplies. This includes Russia bombing the Ukrainian port of Odesa in the days prior to the Summit, while the grain intended for Africa and elsewhere was being loaded.
The Summit also highlights the increasing importance of Africa to Russian foreign policy. Africa remains the continent most welcoming of Russian engagement. It is also the region least willing to criticize Moscow for its land grab in Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has made at least eight visits to Africa since Russia launched its attack in March 2022.
While Russian-African economic ties are modest, the continent provides Russia a global stage from which Moscow can puff up its geostrategic posture. Africa matters more to Russia than Russia does to Africa.
Dubious Benefits to Africa
Anemic investment, normalizing autocracy, fomenting instability, and intervening in African domestic politics does not sound like a winning strategy for building a long-term partnership. So, what is the attraction for African leaders to show up in St. Petersburg? It is one thing to take a nonaligned posture on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which may seem like a far-off conflict. However, why would African leaders continue to engage with a foreign actor with an active record of undermining stability on the continent?
A clear-eyed assessment of national interests isn’t compelling. The instability caused by Russia’s irregular tactics threatens to spill across borders. The manner and degree to which Russia has gained influence in the Central African Republic, Mali, and Libya, moreover, are creating crises of sovereignty on the continent. The upending of the rule of law is simultaneously damaging the continent’s budding reputation as a reliable destination for investment and international partnerships.
Much comes down to the political and financial calculus of individual leaders. Russia’s influence operations are nearly always aimed at helping incumbent (typically autocratic) regimes retain power. Opaque mining and arms deals are frequently part of the package. African leaders benefitting from these tactics welcome Moscow’s overtures. The main losers of these exclusive deals are ordinary citizens who pay for them through higher taxes, greater instability, and less freedom.
Other African leaders see engaging with Russia as a hedging tactic to leverage more support from the West.
A minority may naively see their participation as a genuine opportunity to gain Russian investment or encourage more constructive Russian engagement on the continent. Expected announcements of mining, energy, grain, transport, and digitization deals at the Summit will provide a justifying fig leaf to all attendees, even if such plans never materialize.
Russia’s strategy of elite cooption is widening the gap between African leaders’ and citizens’ interests.
The reality is that Russia’s strategy of elite cooption is widening the gap between African leaders’ and citizens’ interests. Citizens regularly say that they want more democracy, job creation, and upholding of the rule of law. Russian engagements on the continent are undermining all three.
The “interests gap” between African leaders and citizens points to another change since the 2019 Summit: there are more authoritarian-leaning governments on the continent—at least partly as a result of Russian interventions. Accordingly, most African political leaders will not be championing reforms on citizen priorities for better governance, development, and security. Rather, leadership on these interests will need to come from African civil society, media, and independent judiciaries.
Much has changed since the last Russia–Africa Summit. This includes Russia conspicuously tipping its hand about how it wants to shape the continent. Nonetheless, Moscow is sure to use this year’s gathering in St. Petersburg to conjure up the same imagery of shared Russian and African interests. The key question for African citizens is just whose interests are being served?
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