Russia-Africa Summit: Misleading Economic Stakes?

On July 27, the second edition of the Russia-Africa summit will open in St. Petersburg, dedicated to strengthening partnerships with the continent. analyzes the stakes for this oh so strategic meeting for Moscow.

It is presented as a “major event” for Russian-African relations. The second Russia-Africa summit, devoted to deepening ties between Moscow and the continent, will take place on July 27-28 in Saint Petersburg.

After a first meeting in 2019 in Sochi, this new meeting aims to strengthen partnerships in the political, security, economic, scientific and even cultural fields.

New fact, the economic forum organized within the framework of the summit now includes a humanitarian component, which is supposed to embody the diversification of the partnership that Moscow wanted and its desire for “long-term development”.

In light of this summit, Russia has in recent months multiplied messages of support to Africa as well as diplomatic missions. In early 2023, its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, led two African tours in quick succession.

But behind the visits and speeches, trade remains weak between Moscow and the continent. As the war in Ukraine drags on and Western sanctions weaken Russia’s economy, its real capacity to engage in Africa is questionable.

Weapons diplomacy

Among the areas of cooperation between Russia and Africa, the arms sector is probably the one that has caused the most ink to flow. In recent years, Moscow has announced the strengthening of its military partnerships with many countries, including Cameroon, Ethiopia, South Africa, the Central African Republic and even Mali.

These agreements are far from new. At the time of independence, the USSR had invested in this area and supplied weapons to many African countries. Partnerships put on hold after the fall of the Soviet bloc, which Moscow has undertaken to reactivate over the past two decades. At the same time, the Wagner militia has expanded its presence in the Central African Republic, Mali, Sudan and Libya in recent years.

Between 2018 and 2022, Russia overtook China as the largest arms exporter in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, rising from 21% to 26% market share.

Nevertheless, according to the same report, arms deliveries to Africa constitute only a small part of Russia’s arms exports (12% in 2022), the total volume of which has also seen a significant decrease in recent years and more so with the war in Ukraine.

“Military exports to Africa are not the most significant for Russia, neither in terms of technological level nor in terms of foreign exchange earnings, although they constitute one of the vectors of Russian influence in the region” emphasizes Julien Vercueil, economist specializing in Russia and vice-president of the National Institute of Oriental Languages ​​​​and Civilizations (Inalco).

An analysis shared by Maxime Ricard, researcher specializing in West Africa at the Norwegian Military School’s Strategic Research Institute (Irsem). “In Russian, these supplies are still relatively small, but they are of strategic interest for Russia’s influence in Africa. By supporting political elites with little regard for human rights, they have an important political dimension because they contribute to strengthening authoritarian regimes. For the leaders of states like Mali or Burkina Faso, the military partnership with Russia is a big problem, especially since they asked for the withdrawal of French forces”.

In this context, the rebellion of Wagner’s leader, Evguéni Prigojine, who had started a march on Moscow at the end of June, which was ultimately aborted, has attracted particular attention. Sergei Lavrov then promised that the work of Wagner’s “directors” “present in Mali and the Central African Republic” would “of course continue”.

The beat of wheat

Besides the security domain, Russia also maintains an important agricultural partnership with the continent, of which it is the leading supplier of wheat in the world. The Russia-Africa forum comes just as Moscow has just pulled out of the deal allowing Ukrainian grain exports through the Black Sea, which the UN says is key to balancing prices and averting a global food crisis.

Russia is calling for an easing of economic sanctions that “hinder” the country’s international trade in grain, but also, and above all, its exports of chemical fertilizers and agricultural equipment.

Russia assured that it was ready to offer its grain products for free to the African countries that need it most, and specified that this proposal would be discussed during the summit, which includes a section on the continent’s food sovereignty.

“Wheat imports pose an ideological problem for Africa because it is unacceptable that it remains dependent on third countries for food, 60 years after independence” analyzes Adama Gaye, Senegalese journalist and essayist, specialist in international relations. “If Russia wants to develop long-term partnerships with the continent, Russia must support its food independence by helping to develop its production capacity for fertilizers and grains, by building factories and by providing production tools”.

All-round diversification

On July 23, just days before the summit, the Kremlin published a letter from the Russian president outlining the “priority areas of cooperation”. Vladimir Putin emphasizes his desire to “intensify” work in many sectors, including high technology, geological exploration, energy, especially nuclear, the chemical industry, or even mining and transport engineering, promising “the expansion of the network of Russian embassies and trade representations” on the continent.

Among the major Russian projects launched in recent years on the continent are the offshore gas extraction contract in Mozambique, signed by the Russian group Rosneft, or Rosatom’s nuclear power plant projects in South Africa and Egypt.

“There is no shortage of opportunities for partnerships,” emphasizes Adama Gaye. “Africa needs co-investments in infrastructure, energy, petrochemicals, cyber security or even the manufacturing industry. In these areas, the Russians have a card to play because they offer expertise at an affordable price and often more flexible standards. But for Africans, the question today is rather whether Russia is still able to carry out these investments, because it is no longer as powerful economically as it was at the Sochi summit”.

While the Russian economy has weathered international sanctions better than Ukraine’s backers predicted, it has nonetheless fallen into recession since Russia’s sweeping invasion. According to World Bank estimates, its GDP, which fell by 2.1% in 2022, is expected to fall again by 2.5% in 2023.

False promises?

In October 2019, before fifty heads of state and government gathered in the coastal city of Sochi, Vladimir Putin promised to “double trade within five years” with the continent.

However, after several years of growth, these registered a decline in the period 2018 – 2021, falling from 20 to 17.7 billion dollars. A figure disproportionate to China’s trade (282 billion), the EU (254 billion) or the US (83 billion) with Africa, while Russia still represents less than 1% of foreign investment on the continent.

In his letter to African countries, Vladimir Putin claims that Russia’s trade figures with African countries have increased by 2022 “to almost 18 billion US dollars”, while acknowledging that “the capacity of (their) trade and economic partnership is much greater”.

Russia tends to “over-promise and under-promise when it comes to its economic commitments in Africa”, analyzes Joseph Siegle, author of a report on Russia’s economic commitments in Africa. For the American researcher, Russia wants above all “to promote its geostrategic interests (…): to secure a foothold in the Mediterranean on NATO’s southern border, to supplant Western influence and to normalize Russia’s vision of the world”.

“Apart from perhaps a few privileged partners such as Egypt, South Africa or Nigeria, Africa is clearly not a priority market for Russia,” emphasizes Igor Delanoë, deputy director of the Franco-Russian Observatory. “Sub-Saharan Africa represents only one to two billion dollars a year out of the 700 billion Russian foreign trade. Nevertheless, Moscow needs to build new partnerships and as such this market could be promising”.

“Africa presents a mosaic of economies with different income levels, economic structures and development goals. It is up to Russia to adapt to this diversity if it wants to trade on a significant level with each of the continent’s countries,” says Julien Vercueil.

communication operation

However, the economist estimates that the first challenge at the summit for Moscow is to “preserve the image of partner-use” for African countries that “want to find strong alternatives to their relations with Western powers”.

“The economic dimension cannot be absent from this type of summit. But the display and the symbolism, in case of isolation of Russia by Western countries, will be the main objectives of this event for the Russian authorities.”

In this context, the communication battle rages between Kiev’s allies and Russia to win the favor of the continent’s heads of state. As France sees its influence waning in its former colonies, President Emmanuel Macron, during his visit to Cameroon, was irritated by the reluctance of some African countries to single out Russia as an aggressor. In March 2022, around twenty states on the continent preferred to abstain from a UN resolution calling for Russia to withdraw militarily from Ukraine.

“The leaders do not want to support the West in a conflict that does not concern them. But that does not mean they support Russia,” said Senegalese journalist Adame Gaye, who was present in 2019 at the first Sochi summit. “This first meeting was in line with similar events organized by the US and the EU with Africa, and it created real enthusiasm. Today, the context has changed. Africans are willing to do business, but they do not want to be pawns in the conflict between Moscow and the West. What they want to defend are African interests,” he concludes.

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