Russia’s Growing Influence In Africa Calls For More Balanced Partnerships – Analysis

By Denys Reva

In early June, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Guinea, the Republic of the Congo and Burkina Faso – his sixth official visit to Africa since 2022. As Russia ramps up its charm offensive, can African states avoid becoming entangled in Moscow’s geopolitical competition with the West?

The rivalry intensified with the war in Ukraine, and several European countries have recently accused Russia of a coordinated sabotage campaign across the European Union (EU). The Kremlin says its growing presence in Africa isn’t about competition with the West, but anti-Western rhetoric often follows Russian visits.

It’s also clear that the Russo-Ukrainian war has elevated Africa’s importance in Russian foreign policy. While Russia’s 2016 Foreign Policy Concept included minimal engagement with the continent, the 2023 version referred to Africa as a ‘distinctive and influential centre of world development.’

Africa is the largest voting bloc in the United Nations, with 54 out of 193 voting members. Unsurprisingly, Western, Ukrainian and Russian diplomats rushed to secure support from African states early in the war. But the conflict negatively impacted international food, energy and finance systems. Food security became an urgent issue for Africa, and the Kremlin used that to engage with African countries and promote itself as an alternative partner.

In some cases, Russia is the only international partner for African countries facing sanctions

Yet, despite the pageantry and public declarations, Russia’s initial efforts have fallen short of expectations, for three reasons. First, Russia’s tradevolume with Africa in 2022 (US$18.4 billion) was lower than the continent’s traditional partners, such as China (US$199 billion), Italy (US$76.3 billion), France (US$67.8 billion), the US (US$65.7 billion) and Germany (US$45 billion).

Even more telling is how low the figures are for African imports from Russia – under 2% – compared to other global trade partners (see chart). These trends may explain why African countries’ initial response to Moscow’s strategic pivot has been tepid. Only 17 African heads of state attended the 2023 Russia-Africa Summit – less than half of those at the 2019 summit.

% of African imports from selected global trade partners. Source: Trade Map, International Trade Centre

Second, Ukraine’s success in ending Russia’s naval blockade eased export restrictions on grain in 2023, and food prices are expected to drop in 2024. Food security remains an important topic for Russian and Ukrainian relations with Africa, but the war no longer has the same urgency for the continent. Some African states, like Morocco, even used the trade disruption to increase their share of the market.

Finally, by the 2023 Russia-Africa Summit, most African states had voiced their positions on the war, with many opting for non-alignment. This seems unlikely to change. As a result, global powers are competing to influence and secure African support for specific issues.

In this regard, Moscow’s bilateral engagements are bearing fruit. To start with, Russia’s re-connection with Africa was accelerated by geopolitical shifts in the Sahel. These have challenged the dominance of traditional powers and created an economic and security vacuum in the so-called Coup Belt.

The Kremlin’s openness to unconditional partnerships helped position Russia as a new favourite and, sometimes, the only international partner for countries facing isolation and sanctions. Two of the three nations Lavrov visited in June – Guinea and Burkina Faso – have experienced recent coups and remain under sanctions, including from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). After Niger’s 2023 coup, Russia warned ECOWAS against using military measures in the country.

All six Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa have signed military agreements with Russia

And while Moscow’s actions may weaken ECOWAS and the African Union’s responses to coups, Russia has managed to avoid being seen as a disruptor by West African countries. This is an example in Africa, as happened in Syria, of Russia leveraging its growing importance by becoming part of regional peace and security discussions.

But Russia’s greatest success comes from bilateral security agreements, including training and weapon supplies. Lavrov’s visit coincided with Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov’s trip to Libya and Niger. Russia is expected to sign security agreements with Chad, Guinea, Congo, Libya and Niger.

A new Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) report says Yevkurov is now responsible for Africa Corps (formerly Wagner) operations in Africa. Wagner’s activities on the continent have been compared to those of an organised crime group, focusing on illicit activities, smuggling, and money laundering. While the Kremlin claimed a degree of separation, Wagner supported Moscow’s interests.

The PISM report notes that under new management, Africa Corps is pursuing Russian strategic objectives more effectively, emphasising formal economic and security cooperation. The specific intent is to displace Western political influence in Africa by establishing alternative security cooperation agreements.

Russia’s greatest success comes from bilateral security agreements, including training and weapon supplies

Russia’s cooperation with Sahelian states comes at the expense of France, which has been losing influence in the region. A recent report says France is set to drastically decrease its military presence in West and Central Africa, owing partly to the lack of demand for training and security partnerships. Russia is also making gains in Lusophone Africa, with Portugal expressing concerns about its increased influence. All six Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa have signed military agreements with Russia.

The strategy is gradually paying off. Bilateral deals with Russia won’t tip the global balance of power in Africa, but will make African states more cautious about their stance on the war in Ukraine, or criticism of Moscow.

This was evident in the limited participation of African countries in Switzerland’s Summit on Peace in Ukraine this month. Before the event, Russia and Ukraine lobbied ‘global south’ countries, especially in Africa. Russia criticised the summit and campaigned to dissuade countries from participating. Ukraine sought to ensure global south participation, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy personally inviting several African leaders.

Even though the Summit on Peace’s agenda focused on soft humanitarian issues such as prisoner exchange, the return of Ukrainian children and food security, only 13 African countries participated. Only 10 signed the final declaration.

Russia’s growing presence shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a risk, and its increasing footprint may complement Africa’s relations with new and traditional partners. But while African states have become less concerned about the war in Ukraine, the continent has remained a priority for Ukraine, Russia and other major powers. As these global contenders seek Africa’s support or neutrality, countries on the continent must avoid being used or becoming a belligerent in a proxy war.