Why is Russia engaging Africa?

Russian foreign minister's Africa visit showed that Russia still has partners globally and the Western narrative has limited value
Last Updated 29 July 2022, 10:08 IST

This week Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov concluded his four-nation visit to Africa. Lavrov covered four sub-regions of Africa as he visited Egypt (North and Arab Africa), the Republic of Congo (West Africa), Uganda (East-Central Africa), and Ethiopia (Horn of Africa). Egypt and Ethiopia are major players in their respective regions and Africa.

The visit sought to achieve many objectives. First, Russia strives to maintain support among African countries amidst Western attempts to isolate it. Lavrov's visit was reminiscent of past behaviour involving China and Africa. In 1989, after the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, six southern African countries hosted the Chinese foreign minister Qian Qichen and saved China from global diplomatic isolation.

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With 54 votes in the United Nations (UN), Africa is an important diplomatic bloc. The dependence on the UN is mutual as the Russian veto is helpful for many African countries in the Security Council. African countries have been reluctant to take sides in the Russia-Ukraine war and are practising non-alignment. In the UN vote in March, 17 African countries abstained, including South Africa, whereas Ethiopia did not vote.

During the visit to Egypt, the top Russian diplomat also met with the Secretary General of the Arab League. Influential Middle Eastern states are members of the Arab League, and therefore, the signalling by both sides has been critical. Lavrov's engagement with Egypt and Arab League came just a week after American President Joe Biden visited the Middle East.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine drags on, and the whole world suffers from the knock-on effects, it is necessary for Russia to maintain its diplomatic clout and acceptability across the world. The visit of Lavrov showed that Russia still has partners across the globe and that the Western narrative has limited value in the world outside Europe.

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Second, Russia sought to shift the blame for the disruption of grain exports to Western sanctions. As a Russian state-backed news agency TASS reported, "the conflict in Ukraine and Western anti-Russian sanctions have disrupted key grain supply chains".

Many African countries depend on the grain exported from the Black Sea region, and the disruption of supplies has been a worrying factor. For example, Egypt imports as much as 80 per cent of its grain from the region, and the spectre of a looming food crisis coupled with high energy prices has been on the minds of Egyptian policymakers.

The rising food prices tend to generate political discontent, as happened in the case of the so-called ''Arab Spring'' of 2010-11. Thus, during Lavrov's visit, Russia promised to meet the Egyptian requirements. Cooperation in nuclear energy, too, figured in the discussions.

Ethiopia is staring at acute food shortages and is already facing Western pressure for its war in the northern region of Tigray. Ethiopia was once a key Western partner in Africa. Ethiopia's hosting of the Russian foreign minister amidst the war in Ukraine and the western diplomatic campaign was a political signal. During the visit, it was also announced that the second Russia-Africa summit will take place in 2023.

Third, Russia seeks to continue and expand its role in the security affairs of Africa. Russia is the largest exporter of weapons to Africa. It supplies about 44 per cent of total armaments imported by African countries. Egypt and Algeria are major importers of Russian weapon systems. Ethiopia seeks to deepen defence cooperation with Russia.

In this context, Russia reckons that it has the opportunity to enter the African weapons market in a big way. But, how the war in Ukraine plays out and what will be the effects of tough sanctions on the Russian defence industry, including on the development of newer weapons platforms, remains to be seen.

Apart from this, Russia has emerged as a key external security partner for some African regimes. Russian support has been instrumental for the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali. CAR is a host to Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group and has legalised bitcoin as a legal tender, ostensibly to signal its shift away from the French sphere of influence.

Mali, too, has kicked out French forces from the country and turned to Russia for support in its fight against the Islamists in the Sahel region. Russian mercenaries have been spotted in Sudan, Mozambique, Libya, and Madagascar as well. Russia sought to establish naval facilities in Sudan and Eritrea as well. The Lavrov visit built on these expanding security ties.

Russia is emerging as an important politico-military partner for Africa. During the Cold War, the erstwhile Soviet Union extended support to the anti-colonial national liberation movements. Post-Soviet Russia is now engaging with Africa in a changed geopolitical setting. Africa is being wooed by China, and France is making efforts to retain its influence. The European Union is looking at Africa as an alternative energy source to lessen its dependence on Russian energy. Therefore, Africa is moving to the centre of the emerging strategic scenario. The visit of the Russian foreign minister pointed toward this evolving reality.

(Sankalp Gurjar is a strategic analyst based in Delhi)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

(Published 29 July 2022, 03:03 IST)

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