Russia’s involvement in Africa over the last decade has attracted attention particularly when it has involved Moscow’s use of private military companies to support one or another side of civil conflicts there (see Jamestown.org, January 10, 2020; see EDM, January 20, 2021) or when it has sought to establish a longer-term military presence in the form of local bases or dual-use facilities (see EDM, November 25, 2020). But far less attention has been given to Russian diplomatic efforts, economic involvement, and use of soft power to gain allies, in large measure because Moscow has been able to act in these areas without the kind of opposition that the projection of military power almost inevitably generates (see EDM, February 12, 2020 and December 4, 2019).
Two years ago, Moscow launched major campaigns in all these areas, and two weeks ago (February 16, 2021), Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signaled, during a meeting with his Togolese counterpart, Robert Dussey, that the Kremlin has great expectations as a result. He said Moscow wants to build on the cooperation established by the 2019 Russian-African summit in Sochi and plans to use two institutions created as a result of that event—the Association for Economic Cooperation With the Countries of Africa and the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum—as the primary channels to achieve those goals. That will set the stage, Lavrov continued, for the convocation of the second Russia-Africa summit next year. He acknowledged Russia is “still a little behind other countries in dealing with Africa” but said it plans to make up the time it lost after 1991. Indeed, Lavrov assured his Togolese hosts Moscow will soon muster even more influence in Africa than it had in the Soviet past (Mid.ru, February 16).
Exactly what Russia’s strategy in Africa looks like in this regard has now been outlined by Leonid Fituni, the deputy head of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Center for Global and Strategic Research. According to him, Moscow seeks to avoid going head-to-head against other powers active in Africa and rather is focusing on the numerous situations in which neither the West nor China is yet active. There, Russia can achieve real progress because such heretofore neglected African countries welcome the attention and are far more ready to cooperate with Russia in ways that benefit both without setting off alarm bells. Moreover, Fituni told Svobodnaya Pressa, Moscow can operate there far more inexpensively than is the case where it must compete with Western or Chinese governments and companies. As a result, Russia can and is building alliances that can help it across the board, as it is currently doing in Sierra Leone (Svobodnaya Pressa, February 26).
The time for such an approach, however, may pass quickly, the Russian Academy of Sciences expert warned, because although “the African continent is one of the zones where attitudes toward us [Russia] are not bad,” that could change quickly. Not only may the West and China become more active there, but also, in many African countries, “about 60 percent” of all media content comes from the outside, mostly from the West but also from China. That content is altering how many Africans view the world—and not in Russia’s favor. To counter this influence, Moscow must reaffirm its commitment to mutually profitable cooperation, something it can do not only by purchasing raw materials from Africa but also by selling it Russian pharmaceuticals and other goods Africa needs. Russians who think that such cooperation will open the way to Soviet-style “feeding of Africa” and thus work against them forget, Fituni said, that Russia lost many markets when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Today, it needs Africa as a marketplace to compensate for what it lost with the absorption of Eastern Europe and the Baltic States into the European Union (Svobodnaya Pressa, February 26).
Moscow has the opportunity to move in that direction because United Nations and World Trade Organization (WTO) rules make it easier to trade with developing countries, Fituni asserted. But at the same time, he argued, Russians must drop their outdated, erroneous and prejudiced stereotypes about Africa. It is not “a land where wild and uneducated people live.” Instead, it is a center of industrial and scientific development. “In certain areas,” Fituni continued, some African countries are more advanced than Russia, which both they and Moscow can mutually take advantage of. The West and China, of course, can be counted on to interfere with Russia’s efforts, but Moscow can still achieve its goals by focusing on developing ties with countries they have ignored. To the extent it can succeed, Russia will come out a winner and at lower cost than anyone imagines.
That approach—one emphasizing building relations with less prominent countries like Sierra Leone or Togo—has drawn criticism in Russia itself by those who believe the Kremlin is interested in showcasing easy victories even if they are so small as to be irrelevant. Such people point to the joint declaration of Lavrov and Dussey in which the two countries agreed to oppose any first use of force in space as essentially absurd given that Togo does not have any space program at all (APN, March 2). But that criticism ignores something that Moscow is not: By gaining support from such smaller countries, it adds to its leverage in the UN and other international bodies. Indeed, many of Russia’s biggest victories in such bodies, including the International Olympic Committee, have come about because of the support (including votes) of countries no one else took the trouble to cultivate.
And at least some of these states are open to being cultivated. When Dussey was in Moscow, the media in his home country noted that in foreign relations of all kinds, “Moscow has several advantages” over the West and Beijing. Namely, Moscow lacks a colonial past in Africa, it supported the national liberation movements, and many current Togolese officials are products of Soviet and Russian universities (Republicoftogo.com, February 16). Such people and such countries can be expected to be responsive to Russia, especially if the West and China are not making similar economic, political and other “soft power” efforts.