Russia-Africa summit: Here's what Vladmir Putin and Moscow stands to gain

Putin and Ramaphosa

This handout photograph taken and released by RIA Novosti on June 17, 2023, shows Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) shaking hands with South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa (right) ahead of a meeting with delegation of African leaders at the Constantine (Konstantinovsky) Palace in Strelna, outside Saint Petersburg. Russia's President Vladimir Putin will not attend a BRICS nations summit in South Africa in August, South Africa's presidency said on July 19, 2023 ending months of speculation. 

Photo credit: Courtesy | AFP

Forty-three African heads of state attended the 2019 Russia-Africa summit. They had high hopes that Russia would emerge as a new source of investment and trade for the continent. Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to double Russian trade with Africa in five years to US$40 billion.

Since then, Russian trade with the continent has contracted to US$14 billion. It is lopsided, with Russia exporting seven times as much as it imports from Africa. Additionally, 70% of this trade is concentrated in just four countries: Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and South Africa.

Russia invests very little in Africa. It accounts for 1% of the foreign direct investment that goes to the continent. Mauritius is a larger source of foreign direct investment for Africa. Additionally, Russia’s gross domestic product has shrunk in value from US$2.3 trillion in 2013 to US$1.8 trillion in 2021.

Despite these diminishing economic ties, Russia’s influence in Africa has rapidly expanded since 2019. It has deployed troops to the continent and become the dominant external partner in a handful of countries. Russian disinformation campaigns in at least 16 African countries are shaping the information environment on the continent.

This has largely been achieved through irregular means. These include propping up isolated, autocratic regimes through a combination of the deployment of Wagner paramilitary forces, electoral interference, disinformation and arms-for-resources deals.

Each of these tactics is destabilising for the host country.

Predictably, half of the two dozen African countries where Russia has been actively plying its influence are in conflict. Russia has similarly undermined UN operations in African countries where Moscow is vying for influence, further compounding instability.

Despite Russia’s increasingly aggressive policies on the continent and internationally, roughly the same number of African heads of state are expected to participate in this year’s St Petersburg summit as in 2019.

More significant than any commercial deals announced are the political and financial benefits Russian and African elites are expecting to gain.

Having closely followed Russia’s disruptive interventions in Africa for many years, the main losers will be ordinary citizens who will pay for these exclusive partnerships – through higher taxes, greater instability and less freedom.

The Russia-Africa summit has obvious benefits for Moscow. It conveys a perception of normalcy following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an International Criminal Court war crimes arrest warrant for Putin and the aborted insurrection led by Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin.

While Russian-African economic ties are modest, the continent provides Russia with a global stage from which Moscow can puff up its geostrategic posture. Africa matters more to Russia than Russia does to Africa.

The upside for Moscow

Given Russia’s track record of destabilisation on the continent since 2019, it begs the question why African leaders would even consider attending the St Petersburg summit.

Security has deteriorated in every African country where Wagner has been deployed, while human rights abuses have surged. Local communities have been intimidated into leaving their homes where Wagner has been given mining access, effectively annexing these territories.

Moscow curries favour with some of these regimes by providing protection from international sanctions for human rights violations or for violating democratic practices. Unsurprisingly, the African countries where Russia is most involved have median democracy scores of 19. The African democracy median is 51 on Freedom House’s 100-point scale.

The summit is a chance to show it’s business as usual for Russia. And that Russia is not a pariah, but enjoys the implicit endorsement of its violations of international law by African heads of state.

Russia will likely use this year’s summit to falsely claim that western sanctions are limiting the export of Russian (and Ukrainian) food and fertiliser to Africa, distracting attention from Russia’s culpability for triggering the disruption in global grain supplies.

The summit also highlights the increasing importance of Africa to Russian foreign policy. Africa remains the continent most welcoming of Russian engagement. It’s also the least willing to criticise Moscow for its land grab in Ukraine. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has made at least eight visits to Africa since Russia launched its attack in March 2022.

Dubious benefits to Africa

Anaemic investment, normalising autocracy, fomenting instability and intervening in African domestic politics doesn’t sound like a winning strategy for building a long-term partnership.

It’s one thing to take a non-aligned posture on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which may seem like a far-off conflict. But why would African leaders continue to engage with a foreign actor with an active record of undermining stability on the continent?

A clear-eyed assessment of national interests isn’t compelling. The instability caused by Russia’s irregular tactics threatens to spill across borders and is creating crises of sovereignty on the continent.

The upending of the rule of law is simultaneously damaging the continent’s budding reputation as a reliable destination for investment and international partnerships.

Russia’s influence operations are nearly always aimed at helping incumbent (typically autocratic) regimes retain power. Opaque mining and arms deals are frequently part of the package. African leaders benefiting from these tactics welcome Moscow’s overtures.

Other African leaders see engaging with Russia as a tactic to get more support from the west.

A minority may naively see their participation as a genuine opportunity to gain more Russian investment or encourage more constructive Russian engagement. Expected announcements of mining, energy, grain, transport and digitisation deals at the summit will provide a justifying fig leaf to all attendees. Even if such plans never materialise.

Reality check

The reality is that Russia’s strategy of elite cooption is widening the gap between African leaders’ and citizens’ interests. Citizens regularly say they want more democracy, job creation and upholding of the rule of law. Russian engagements on the continent are undermining all three.

The “interests gap” between African leaders and citizens points to another takeaway from the summit: most African political leaders won’t be championing reforms on citizen priorities for better governance, development and security. Rather, leadership on these interests will need to come from African civil society, media and independent judiciaries.

Moscow is sure to use this year’s gathering in St Petersburg to conjure up the imagery of shared Russian and African interests. The key question for African citizens to ask is: whose interests are being served?

- The writer, Joseph Siegle, is the Director of Research, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, University of Maryland