– Rising economies, start-ups, and Black wealth, etc.

Russian-Western Conflict Highlights Trade Imbalance With Africa

By Igor Delanoë

When looking at Russia’s presence and activities in Africa, there are a few key ideas to keep in mind. First of all, Russia has no vital interest on the African continent. Moscow considers that its perceived vital interests remain concentrated in the post-Soviet space. This is also very clear from the latest version of the “Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation” published on 31 March, which puts the spotlight on the Russian “near foreigner”, i.e. the states of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), those of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Russia-Belarus Union and, of course, Ukraine.

Compared to the previous version, which dates back to 2016, Africa’s place in the regional priorities of Russian foreign policy is enhanced. While the African continent was last in the old text, it is in the middle of the table in the new version.

It should be noted that, as is the case for Western chancelleries, Russia dissociates North Africa from the rest of the African continent in the definition of the African zone.

My research focuses, among other things, on the geopolitics of Russia. In this article, I explain how Africa is becoming a field of confrontation between Russia and the West, whereas it was until now their field of competition.

A trade balance in Moscow’s favour

Africa remains marginal for Moscow from the point of view of trade – especially if we disregard the economic relations with Algeria and Egypt: the volume of Russian-African economic exchanges is between 1 and 2 billion dollars annually. Between 2012 and 2021, its trade balance with Africa is positive for Russia and amounts to 92 billion dollars.

By way of comparison, Russians and Turks traded nearly $2022 billion in 62 alone. The drivers of the development of Russian-African trade are known: the de-dollarization of trade with the use of the Chinese yuan likely to overcome the reluctance of partners anxious not to expose themselves to Western secondary sanctions, better international logistics, in-depth mutual knowledge… Today, 35,000 African students reside in Russia. That’s 3.5 times more than 10 years ago.

Second, Russia’s reintegration into Africa was made possible by another “return,” the one Moscow managed in the Middle East and North Africa during the 2010s. It is indeed difficult to imagine Russia embarking on the “African adventure” without having back-bases. It has created these points of support in the Mediterranean, Syria, Sudan and Libya over the past decade. They have served as diplomatic, political, security and corridors to access Africa.

Third, contrary to popular belief, the Kremlin has no “grand plan” for Africa. Russian reintegration in sub-Saharan Africa occurs in “fits and starts” and is the result of the exploitation of favorable local or regional contexts. It relies on the expertise or networks of Russian actors sometimes established for many years on the African continent, such as large state conglomerates or private majors (the diamond company Alrosa, the oil company Lukoïl …). However, the coordination of Russian diplomatic actions towards Africa is the responsibility of the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Increase in diplomatic resources

If the presidential administration remains in touch with Africa – Vladimir Putin has a special envoy for Africa and the Middle East in the person of Mikhail Bogdanov – it is the services of Sergei Lavrov that are at the maneuver, and not the Ministry of Defense (as in Syria) or the special services (as in Iran). Russia’s room for maneuver and diplomatic resources are expected to continue, if not increase, in the coming years.

The drastic reduction of staff in Russian embassies in the West, following the expulsions that have occurred since the end of the 2010s, and the rupture of all forms of cooperation between Russia and Western countries due to the conflict in Ukraine, will allow the redistribution of resources (human, financial) in favor of the Russian diplomatic network deployed in Africa.

Among the vectors mobilized by Moscow to rebuild its influence is military-technical cooperation – Russia is the leading supplier of military equipment in sub-Saharan Africa for the period 2018-2022 according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). We can also mention economic diplomacy with the Coordination Committee for Economic Cooperation with African Countries (Afrokom).

There is also a discourse of rupture with the West that revolves around multipolarity in world affairs, the emphasis on the sovereignty of states and the sharp denunciation of the so-called neo-colonialism that Westerners would show towards the so-called countries of the “Global South”.

Benevolence of Africans

The significance of the Russian discourse could be gauged during the votes on the war in Ukraine at the United Nations General Assembly since February 24, 2022. During these votes, several African countries practiced the empty chair policy, while others preferred to abstain from voting in favor of texts deemed too virulent towards Moscow. The distancing, even benevolent neutrality of some African states, challenges and reflects a form of understanding towards Russia. Added to these vectors is the well-known security vector, with Wagner and its many African subsidiaries.

The religious vector could be more mobilized by Moscow. With its 25 million Muslim citizens, Russia plays the card of Islam (it is an observer at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Last May, the Russian city of Kazan hosted the international economic forum “Russia – Islamic World” in which Senegal participated, alongside the Gulf countries and North Africa in particular.

Finally, in Africa as elsewhere, Russia’s foreign policy makers tend to view crises and conflicts in terms of the balance of power in which Russia is engaged with the Euro-Atlantic community. This is the so-called “Western prism” of Russia’s foreign policy. In other words, Russian initiatives in Africa are being implemented as part of Vladimir Putin’s global power policy. This policy now involves a posture of confrontation below the threshold of conflict with the West.

From a field of competition between Russians and Westerners, Africa is about to turn into a field of confrontation, through the risk of importing the Russian-Western conflict. This conflict is expressed in Ukraine, and elsewhere, where Russian and Western interests collide.

Russia’s “return” to Africa therefore remains incomplete and retains a part of versatility insofar as it remains dependent on the Russian side, on largely extra-regional dynamics.

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