The Russia-Africa Summit: Soviet Mistakes and Fresh Challenges

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 149

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) leans over to speak with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit (Source: EPA-EFE)

The Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum, held in Sochi on October 23–24, is the first regional event of such magnitude ever hosted by the Russian Federation. While the main goals set forth by the Kremlin were political and economic (e.g., to double the current volume of Russian trade with African states) (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, October 22), the dominant leitmotif of the event was to rectify “the post-1991 mistakes” of Russian policies toward Africa.

Several days before the start of the summit, President Vladimir Putin declared that Russia’s strategy vis-à-vis Africa represented “civilized competition” and juxtaposed this approach against that of “other Western powers” (Vzglyad, October 21). Indeed, for years, Russia had made a number of important steps ostensibly in line with this stratagem—ranging from forgiving, in 2017, $20 billion in debt owed by African countries to the Soviet Union (, September 28, 2017) to intensifying military-technical cooperation (both legal and less so) with those states (see EDM, October 22, 2019). At this juncture, it is worth detailing what exactly Russia could offer African governments:

  • Military-technical cooperation is, perhaps, one of Russia’s few competitive advantages compared to the West. The first suggestion to use Russian military capabilities as a means to return to Africa was voiced in 2008 by the then–head of the Russian navy, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, who proposed deploying naval forces against Somali pirates. Last week, this rhetoric was picked up (and expanded on) by President Putin, who (while blaming the Arab Spring for increasing regional destabilization) asserted that the Russian experience of fighting terrorism and extremism could be used not only “across the whole of North Africa” but also “in the Sahel region [and] around Lake Chad and the Horn of Africa” (TASS, October 24). Moreover, according to the head of the state-owned arms sales intermediary Rosoboronexport, Alexander Mikheev, Russia is currently cooperating with 20 African countries, bringing in $4 billion in revenues in 2019. He also acknowledged that some African states are expressing growing interest in more up-to-date and expensive technology, such as the Pantsir-S1 missile system. Ethiopia, in fact, concluded a deal on purchasing this system during the Russia-Africa Summit (Vzglyad, October 23).
  • Another important service Russia can provide is information technologies (IT). With Kaspersky Lab starting operations in the Republic of South Africa in 2009, Russia is increasingly involved in cyber support, “smart city” technology and big data storage across the continent and has been successfully marketing the MyOffice software project (Russian analogue of Microsoft Office). Russian IT firms expect to capitalize primarily on their relative affordability (, October 21).
  • In the construction sector, Russia’s main advantage is “affordability and experience,” which has successfully been demonstrated in Guinea (RIA Novosti, October 24). Relatedly, Russian firms offer “a complete package of services” in transport infrastructure, “including the most up-to-date digitalization of transportation services” as well as “large railroad projects, the construction of seaports and all related infrastructure.” These are all elements where Russian positions are said to be quite strong and internationally competitive (, October 22).
  • Russia can also offer its African customers advanced navigation technologies. Specifically, Russia is developing and expanding commercial applications for the Globalnaya Navigatsionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema (GLONASS) satellite navigation system as a potential challenge to GPS. Moreover, Russia aims to expand on the (reportedly already successful) Yandex.Taxi system, which currently operates in the Ivory Coast and Ghana (TASS, October 22).
  • Finally, Moscow is willing to sell nuclear power and related projects. As noted by the head of the state-owned Rosatom corporation, Alexei Likhachyov, “the leaders of all African countries who have met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Russia-Africa summit expressed a readiness to cooperate with Moscow in the development of nuclear power for peaceful purposes” (TASS, October 23).

That said, Russia’s high hopes may be outweighed by a number of stumbling blocks. First is the lack of an overall Russian strategy—the above-mentioned Kremlin rhetoric notwithstanding. Despite some seemingly decisive steps, the majority of observers argue that, to date, Russia has not presented any coherent or systemic forward-looking explanation for its mode of behavior in Africa. Some Russian experts also urge the country’s current ruling elites not to overestimate the Soviet Union’s actual gains in Africa during the Cold War: both economic and military-technical cooperation between Moscow and African states were more of a “one-way road” than mutually lucrative cooperation.

Furthermore, Russian sources point to the fact that present-day Russia’s cumulative trade balance with Africa rests on cooperation with Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and South Africa. Trade with other players on the continent remains extremely low and is unlikely to experience dramatic growth in the near future. In other words, as noted by Andrey Emelyanov, a professor in the Department of Oriental Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), “[F]rankly speaking, Russia currently has no foreign policy strategy toward Africa […] what we have are just common phrases […] we do not know what we want from the African continent and what our national interests are there” (Kommersant, October 23).

The second main obstacle is the continuation (to some extent) of the Soviet path, reflected in Moscow’s inability to convert present efforts into profitable and economically sustainable gains (YouTube, October 15). Third is Russia’s limited competitive advantage: aside from relatively successful military-technical cooperation, the Russian leadership has had to extensively rely on sentimental arguments, pointing to the economic, political and military support rendered by the Soviet Union to the African nations in the post-colonial period (TASS, October 20). Yet there is every reason to believe that by employing these arguments, Russia is de facto luring itself into a trap. In referring to the Soviet model of cooperation (in the absolute majority of cases bereft of economic profitability for Moscow), the Russian side is (perhaps or as a means to criticize the “Western approach”) inadvertently encouraging African countries to espouse the previous practices—which Russia will be unable to sustain. Putin’s (and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s) heightened rhetoric, combined with the grandiose gala and reception of the foreign guests in Sochi last week, may, therefore, potentially convey a wrong message to African leaders.

Lastly, the Summit’s final declaration (TASS, October 24) is striking in its wording and vagueness. Instead of business-related content, the document is permeated with romanticism and written in a tone more commensurate with the Cold War era. Apparently, despite the veneer of change, Russian thinking when it comes to cooperation with Africa has preserved much of its dated essence.