The Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum, held in Sochi on October 23–24, 2019 (see EDM, October 28, 2019), reaffirmed Russia’s growing interest in Central Africa. Among the countries comprising this region, two—the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Republic of the Congo—received the most visible attention.
In the DRC, one of the world’s most unstable and impoverished countries despite its abundance of natural resources, Russian interests are premised on a combination of geo-economic and geopolitical calculations. To achieve its objectives there, Moscow relies on three elements: economic cooperation, humanitarian contacts, and political ties. This multi-dimensional approach was outlined by Russian President Vladimir Putin during last autumn’s summit in Sochi (RIA Novosti, October 23, 2019).
Russia’s main path to building the economic relationship is by assisting the DRC in building large infrastructural projects, in which the Central African state does not have much experience, and taking advantage of the economic nationalism rhetoric coming from the local ruling elites. During the Russia-Africa summit, Putin identified the “unjust redistribution of profits coming from the exploitation of local natural resources” as one of the DRC’s main problems. This statement closely mirrored remarks by DRC President Félix Tshisekedi, who accused foreign companies of not paying enough of their huge corporate profits into his state’s coffers (RIA Novosti, October 24, 2019).
Prior to Putin’s grandiose meeting with African leaders in Sochi, the Congolese side underscored its willingness to use the Russian experience in natural resource extraction (primarily in the realm of mining) “[D]espite being very endowed [in natural resources], we have next to no experience in extracting and processing it,” then–DCR Foreign Minister Léonard She Okitundu told Izvestia in April 2019 (Izvestia, April 19, 2019). Indeed, Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov later confirmed that the DRC and Russia “are working on some large [not mentioned] joint projects in geological exploration, extraction and transportation of mineral resources” as well as “in transportation, energy and agriculture” (RIA Novosti, October 21, 2019).
Another area of Russia’s potential involvement is hydropower—specifically, development of the Grand Inga Dam, which, if completed, will be the largest hydro-electric dam in the world, worth an estimated $14 billion. The African Union (AU) has already offered Russia an official invitation to take part in the project, a prospect that has become even more viable after one of the main stakeholders, Spanish Actividades de Construcción y Servicios (ACS), abandoned the project in early 2020 (RIA Novosti, July 2, 2019; The Africa Report, January 24, 2020).
Furthermore, following the end of the Sochi summit, Russian Railways (OAO RZhD) signed a memorandum of partnership with the DRC worth $500 million on modernization and development of the local railway system (currently 4,000 kilometers, out of which only 858 kilometers are electrified) (TASS, October 26, 2019).
One essential aspect of Russian-DRC economic cooperation is that these ties are tightly connected with Moscow’s geopolitical calculations aimed at gaining leverage over global competitor countries. Namely, the DRC is extremely rich in coltan, also known as tantalite—an element indispensable for modern electronics. As stated by Russian sources, half of the coltan needs of the United States’ military-industrial complex is covered by imports from the DRC. This dependency is seen by Russian observers as an element Moscow should capitalize on (Vpk.name, October 14, 2019).
The second, and frequently underplayed, facet of Russia’s involvement in the DRC includes humanitarian support and cultural ties. In a recent interview, Moscow’s ambassador to the DRC, Alexey Sentebov, confirmed that Russia is willing to increase (in addition to other steps made since 2019) its support to the DRC in combating dangerous viruses, including those responsible for COVID-19 and, more importantly, Ebola, which has already claimed the lives of more than 2,000 Congolese (RIA Novosti, February 8). Ambassador Sentebov also noted that during the rule of pro-Western authoritarian Joseph-Desiré Mobutu (1965–1997), much of the influence and connections the Soviet Union had earlier built up in the country were eradicated. He noted that this should be reversed through cultural and humanitarian contacts. Incidentally, in 2019, the Immortal Regiment (Bessmertnii Polk), a parade celebrating Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany, was carried out for the first time in the DRC’s capital of Kinshasa. Aside from Russian diplomats, it was supported by the local Greek and Serbian embassies (RIA Novosti, February 8, 2020).
The third main component of the relationship is premised on double-track political contacts between Russia and the DRC. The “official” side of this dimension was formed in 2007, when a “Russia-DRC friendship group” was established inside the Democratic Republic’s Senate (upper chamber of parliament). Members of the group visited Russia in 2007, 2012 and 2015. From the Russian side, one of the key roles is played by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who is personally involved in reestablishing ties with Kinshasa (RIA Novosti, January 22, 2019).
The “unofficial” (and, in fact, illegal) side of this cooperation consists of three channels. The first is Ukraine’s separatist-controlled, unrecognized but Moscow-backed Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) region. In early 2019, an LPR cultural representation office was opened in Kolwezi (population over 418,000), located near the DRC’s Musonoi mine. The area is endowed with copper, cobalt, uranium, radium, oxide ore and lime (Donetsk.kp.ru, February 19, 2019). The second channel concerns DRC actions surrounding the annexation of the Crimea peninsula as well as the African country’s participation in the Yalta Economic Forum. In 2019, a DRC delegation attended the event and conducted negotiations (the results of which are unreported) on cooperation in the realms of agriculture and mining (1prime.ru, April 18, 2019). The third channel is closely related to the figure of Yevgeny Prigozhin, an alleged sponsor of the notorious Wagner Group private military company and the St. Petersburg–based “troll farm.” In 2018, one of the DRC’s most independent local newspapers, Le Potentiel, stated that Russia tried to interfere in local elections, which the Russian embassy immediately denied (Drc.mid.ru, accessed April 20).
As noted by Martin Fayulu, the leader of the Engagement for Citizenship and Development party, Russia’s growing involvement in the DRC stems from the African state’s vast mineral wealth (The Moscow Times, November 20, 2018). In 2019, two Russian pilots were killed in a plane crash in the Maniema province (endowed with diamonds, copper, gold and cobalt), triggering rumors (never corroborated) about Prigozhin having been onboard (RIA Novosti, October 15, 2019).
Russian interests in the DRC, while important on their own, might also be viewed as a stepping stone to other regional players including the Republic of the Congo, Gabon and, potentially, Angola.