Putin Sees Africa as a Battleground Against the West

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 148

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum in Sochi (Source: Reuters)

President Vladimir Putin views Africa not as an end in itself, even when he and Russia obviously benefit directly (Rosbalt, January 19; see EDM, October 15), but rather as a battlefield in his renewed cold war against the West. This Soviet-style approach contains within it not only clues as to how Moscow will act there, but also—and perhaps more importantly—the seeds of Russia’s ultimate failure of this approach. No one likes to be viewed as a pawn for someone else’s use. At the very least, some African states will demand that they be paid off for such exploitation, and their demands are likely to exceed Moscow’s ability to pay them—especially when it no longer can use such inexpensive ways as debt forgiveness. In the short term, however, Moscow may have stolen a march on the West by the combination of its actions and Putin’s words.

In an interview with TASS, a week before the October 23–24 Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, Putin again played the anti-colonial card, suggesting that the West sought to frighten and blackmail African countries and keep all other players, including Russia, out of the game while continuing to reap “super profits.” In effect, Putin once again accused the Western powers of what Moscow itself has been doing or plans to do. Yet, the Kremlin leader’s rhetoric also importantly reduced Africa to a battlefield for outside competitors rather than a place deserving to be treated as an end in itself (RBC, October 21; see EDM, July 25).

Not surprisingly, Putin subsequently took pains to suggest that his neo-Soviet approach was anything but. He told Komsomolskaya Pravda that the Sochi summit had been in the works for some time because its convention required “great preparatory work” so that it “would become a starting point for the development of just partnership relations” between Russia and African countries based on “equal rights and mutual practical interests” (Komsomolskaya Pravda, October 20). “Russia has its own plans for the further development of ties with the African continent,” Russia’s president said—plans that he insisted would address “African problems [with] African solutions.” He then, however, made a key acknowledgement: “[U]ndoubtedly, the Soviet model, with its plusses and minuses, had turned out to be sufficiently effective at the stage of the establishment of the statehood of African countries.” That model, of course, was based on providing assistance to selected African countries in return for their support of Moscow and their opposition to the West.

“Even today,” he added, “we continue to provide the states of Africa with financial support. But if earlier such decisions were taken primarily out of political considerations, now they are made within the framework of humanitarian support.” Moscow is providing credits to countries like Egypt to build a nuclear power plant, but those funds will come back to the Russian Federation, which will be the prime contractor. Elsewhere, Putin said, Russia has written off $20 billion in African debt to Moscow, an act of “pragmatism,” he suggested, because “many of the African states have not been in a position to service these debts. Therefore, we considered the best variant for all concerned to begin cooperation from a clean slate” (Komsomolskaya Pravda, October 20).

That program of Russian debt forgiveness is being extended to other African countries as well, including Madagascar, Mozambique, Tanzania and Ethiopia, Putin continued. Furthermore, he insisted that unlike humanitarian aid from Western countries, including the United States, France and China, Russian aid was directed at solving problems rather than gaining influence. This purportedly reflects Russian desires to be helpful rather than to benefit itself or exclude others, not only in terms of economic development and health issues but also in fighting terrorism—a threat to many of the countries in Africa (Yenicag.ru, October 21).

Of course, this is what one would expect a Russian leader to say on such an occasion, but two developments intimate that one should treat his rhetoric as less than the full story. First, Moscow has pursued political as well as economic interests in Africa in such a way to profit itself by working to exclude others (see EDM, April 16, June 4, September 18, 19, October 11, 22). Second, Russian commentators have been far less restrained than Putin in underscoring the idea that Moscow is now “back” in Africa for the same reason Soviet leaders were there in the first place: to combat the West economically, militarily, and politically by selling arms, reaching agreements and integrating the economies of African countries with that of Russia (T.me/russmal, Iarex.ru, October 21). Their words, which reflect both Russia’s actions and its aspirations, present a more honest vision of what Russia is actually doing: reigniting a cold war in Africa in the hopes that it can do so below the West’s radar screen and thus on the cheap. Such hopes are more likely to prove true if governments in the West take Putin’s statements at face value and fail to look at what his government is doing there and what others in Russia are saying about it.