Russia & Global South
Russia-Africa Relations:
All Bark and No Bite?
May 3, 2024
  • Konstantin Pakhaliuk
    Affiliated research fellow at the Post-Soviet Conflicts Research Program in Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies
Researcher Konstantin Pakhaliuk looks at Russia’s foreign policy in Africa, in particular how Russia is trying to take advantage of the wait-and-see attitude of African countries toward the war in Ukraine and prove that Russia is not isolated, scaring the West with a “global authoritarian coalition.”
The original article in Russian was published in The Moscow Times and is being republished here with their permission.

Back in the late 1990s, Moscow began cautiously criticizing the unilateral approach of American foreign policy. True, this was super pragmatic – to protect Russia’s markets. In 1996, Russia abstained from a vote by the UN Security Council (UNSC) to impose minor diplomatic sanctions against Sudan for harboring terrorists. In 1998, it opposed a US strike on a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum (Sudan), which allegedly produced chemical weapons for al-Qaeda but definitely produced a third of local medical supplies.

This all happened while Russia’s arms trade with the government of Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir was growing: according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), from 1997 to 2018 Russia received half of all Sudanese defense orders in money terms, approximately $1 billion, while Sudan accounted for a modest 0.6% of Russia’s total arms exports. This was mostly aircraft and some armored vehicles.

How the rhetoric of nonintervention turned into a political line

As a permanent member of the UNSC, Russia has increasingly blocked sanctions and other resolutions against authoritarian leaders, calling them international interference in national (internal) affairs. This line first emerged in the autumn of 2008, after the Russo-Georgian war, which caused the first split between Russia and the West. Later, Russia blocked sanctions against Zimbabwe, when a crackdown in response to civil unrest followed Robert Mugabe’s victory in a presidential election.
Protesters in Benghazi, Libya. February 2011. Source: Wiki Commons
True, Russia was still wary of using that tool with full force, preferring a double game: not interfering with the West at the UN while actively criticizing the West, playing on anti-Western sentiments. In early 2011, it supported a UNSC resolution on the situation in Ivory Coast, where civil war had broken out because the president refused to step down after losing an election. Yet France’s military intervention in support of the opposition was negatively judged by Moscow.

A few months later, Russia abstained on the UNSC resolution on Libya, thereby not interfering with the coalition’s intervention against the Gaddafi regime, which, however, did not prevent Prime Minister Vladimir Putin from sharply criticizing the actions of the West or Russia from profiting amid rising oil and gas prices. Despite the loss of certain investments, the crisis in Libya was beneficial to Russia: it increased the EU’s dependence on Russian energy and prevented the emergence of alternative trans-Saharan gas and oil pipelines.

After the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the political split with the West, Moscow’s line of supporting autocracies hardened. In May 2014, Russia blocked sanctions against South Sudan in exchange for purchases of Russian arms by the country.
“More telling are relations with two very specific regimes: Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda.”
In both cases, a certain economic relationship was established before the dictators would receive protection from Moscow when needed or they themselves would demonstrate political loyalty toward Moscow. The subsequent tightening of relations was picked up by Russian pro-government media, which created the illusion of a developing partnership, although in practice it was difficult to find mutually beneficial areas of cooperation.
Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni meeting with President Vladimir Putin at the Russia-Africa Summit in St Petersburg in July 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
Uganda: Friendship amid weak interests

Since 1986, Uganda has been ruled by Yoweri Museveni. His revolutionary left-wing populism quickly evolved into traditional authoritarianism, seasoned with the ideas of messianism and populism. His foreign policy was largely limited to Africa and included active military support to or even interventions in neighboring countries (i.e., DR Congo, Sudan and Somalia). Political repression inside the country made it a target of Western criticism, which only pushed the regime toward China and now Russia.

Uganda has been a stable buyer of arms since Soviet times: it has never been a major customer, but from the 1960s through the 1980s the USSR accounted for almost 50% of Ugandan arms imports in money terms, while over the next 30 years Russia took a more than 50% share. About half of these imports were aircraft, the rest being armored vehicles and ordinance for them.

Museveni made his first attempts to build up political relations with Russia in the late 2000s, but the turning point came only almost a decade later. In 2016, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs came out in support of him after his latest election victory, which came under criticism from the West. Projects to build a nuclear power plant and an oil refinery were discussed in the media and at the political level at the time but came to naught in the end. All that came out of this was a slight bump in trade (mutual supplies of agricultural products and Russian arms exports), together with modest charitable gestures by Russia: in 2019-20, under the auspices of the UN, it donated 54 trucks and $3 million to the country to deal with a drought.

Following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Museveni moved to reap the benefits of Russia’s isolation.

According to media reports, in 2023 Uganda continued arms purchases (helicopters and missile systems), with one of goals of relations being to turn Uganda into the center for the repair and maintenance of Soviet (Russian) aircraft in Africa.

On top of this was cooperation in the humanitarian sphere. The Russian propaganda channel RT bought airtime from one of the country’s main TV channels. In 2023, meanwhile, Moscow opened a Russian language center at Makarere University and provided funding for 50 students to study in Russia and 218 temporary internships.
Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe meeting President Vladimir Putin in 2015. Source: Wiki Commons
How Zimbabwe played Russia

Another such Russian ally became Zimbabwe.
Note that back in the 1990s, the Russian state company Alrosa gained a foothold in the country: through DTZ-OZGEO, a Russian-Zimbabwean company (registered in 1994), it began mining diamonds. Although Russia acted as a defender of Zimbabwe’s political regime in the autumn of 2008, it took almost four years to find new economic bases for relations.

In 2012, Moscow and Harare agreed that in exchange for helicopters, Russia would gain access to one of the world’s largest platinum deposits, Darwendal. At the end of the year, the parties even signed an investment protection agreement. On the Russian side, the participants in the Darwendal project were Vi Holding of Vitaly Maschitsky and the state company Rostec (run by Sergei Chemezov, a close Putin associate).

However, negotiations dragged on, as did the ratification of the investment protection agreement. Moreover, DTZ-OZGEO began to have problems with diamond mining, which was hampered by a new law prohibiting mining within 30 meters of rivers. Initially, Russia likely counted more on relations with Zimbabwe, since in 2012 Rosneft (right after Igor Sechin, one of the most influential officials of the time, was named the head of the company) announced its readiness to build an oil pipeline from Mozambique to Zimbabwe (via Zambia and Botswana); however, the plans were never realized.
In 2014, Zimbabwe was one of the few countries that voted against UN General Assembly resolutions condemning the occupation of Crimea.
Zimbabwe’s support was appreciated in Moscow, but the reaction was largely limited to symbolic gestures of Russian diplomacy and enthusiastic reports about Zimbabwe in the Russian media.

Among significant changes, trade did double from 2014 to 2021, albeit to a measly $43 million. Note that Zimbabwe joined the list of African countries where Russia buys more than it sells (South Africa has had a permanent spot on that list). Two thirds of trade represented the supply of coffee, tobacco and other agricultural products to Russia.

Progress on the large investment projects proved more challenging. In 2014, DTZ-OZGEO resumed diamond mining, but in 2017 it was essentially nationalized – sold, under government pressure, for $5.8 million to a new single state diamond mining company.

Negotiations regarding the platinum deposit were also difficult. In 2018, a bloodless coup brought to power Emmerson Mnangagwa, with whom Russia has built relations, with Russian political engineers (polittekhnologi) associated with Yevgeny Prigozhin contributing to his victory in a 2018 election. In exchange, Zimbabwe allowed Alrosa to begin diamond exploration and finally signed an agreement to develop Darwendal. By the summer of 2023, Alrosa had invested $15 million – so far without visible success.
Nor is there any to speak of at the world’s largest platinum deposit.

Rostec is faring better, having announced in September 2022 the delivery of the first Russian-made Ansant light helicopter to Zimbabwe; in the spring of 2023, a batch of another 18 helicopters arrived, with a total of 32 to be delivered.

In the Russian media, there are indications of the search for new areas of cooperation with Zimbabwe: in the summer of 2023 the countries signed an agreement on “atoms for peace,” followed in March 2024 by a comment by the Russian ambassador, who “did not rule out” holding the next Russia-Africa summit in the country. Still, there is much more political will to “do something” than tangible achievements.

Non-opponents of the war

The overall attitude of the leadership of the 54 African countries toward the Russia-Ukraine war is evidenced by four resolutions of the UN General Assembly adopted in the first year of the conflict: on “aggression against Ukraine” (ES‑11/1; March 2, 2022); to suspend Russia’s membership in the UN Human Rights Council (ES‑11/3; April 7, 2022); on the “territorial integrity of Ukraine” (ES-11/4; October 12, 2022); and on “principles of the Charter of the United Nations underlying a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in Ukraine” (ES-11/6; February 23, 2023).
The UN votes show that African leaders do not attach significance to the war in Ukraine.
Meeting of representatives of Mali and Russia in Moscow, March 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
Three key resolutions for Ukraine and its Western supporters (March 2, October 12 and February 23) received support from just over 50% of African countries (between 28 and 30 votes), while the call to suspend Russia’s membership in the Human Rights Council was supported by only 31% (19 African countries voted for suspension).

Of the states with which Russia had deep economic relations before 2022, only Egypt voted for the three main resolutions and abstained on the last one. Of the large, economically developed African countries, DR Congo, Nigeria, Zambia and Ivory Coast voted likewise.

Whereas in 2014 Sudan and Zimbabwe voted against the resolution on Crimea, now Eritrea is emerging as the most pro-Russian African country, voting no three times and abstaining on the resolution on the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

This is reminiscent of the situation eight years ago, when the local dictator demonstrated loyalty after economic cooperation had only just begun. The foundation of the alliance was Russian wheat: in 2021, Eritrea increased its purchases manyfold, which boosted bilateral trade from $0.4 million to $9.3 million. In 2022, it reached $13.5 million. At the end of 2023, Russia also sent 25,000 tons of free grain to Eritrea. If we do not take into account the interministerialactivity between the countries, then that is all for now.

Not a single African country voted against the resolution on the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and besides Eritrea, only Mali opposed the resolution from February 23, 2023, while Algeria, Zimbabwe, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Gabon, the Republic of Congo and Ethiopia voted against suspending Russia from the Human Rights Council.

Countries that did not want to support the resolutions targeting Russia preferred either not to participate in the vote or not to attend the meeting altogether. This is what Burkina Faso and Cameroon did (in three out of the four cases), for example.

The distant, wait-and-see position of African states is seen as an opportunity by Russian diplomats. In 2022, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Egypt, Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia, while last year he went to South Africa twice, Eswatini, Angola, Eritrea, Mali, Sudan, Kenya, Burundi and Mozambique.
In Russia’s latest Foreign Policy Concept, released in March 2023, Africa rose to the sixth place among foreign policy priorities, surpassing not only Latin America, but also – demonstratively – the collective West.
Russian policy in Africa and the grain deal

The turning point came in the summer of 2023, when Russia demonstrated that it was not isolated on the African continent.

During a June discussion of Russia’s possible withdrawal from the so-called grain deal with Ukraine (involving security guarantees for the transport of Ukrainian grain to the world market), leaders or representatives of seven countries (Comoros, the Republic of Congo, Egypt, Senegal, Uganda, Zambia and South Africa) came out with “peace initiatives” on the Russia-Ukraine war. There are two important things about this desire to be in the limelight: the closeness of the theses put forward to the previously voiced position of China, as well as the call for de-escalation and peace negotiations, which runs counter to the position of the US and the EU of unequivocal support for Ukraine.

Then, at the end of July 2023, the second Russia-Africa Summit took place. Whereas in 2019 delegations from all 54 states went to Sochi, including 43 heads of state, now 49 delegations with 17 leaders visited St Petersburg. Understanding the symbolic significance of this event for Russia and the opposition of the West to it, some countries demonstrated gamesmanship: for example, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune chose to come to Russia a month and a half earlier.

Domestically, Vladimir Putin often talks about Russia’s leadership in the fight against colonialism, but at the meeting with his African counterparts he did not proclaim this. He did speak about respect for sovereignty and the right of every country to live as it sees fit – in spite of the West’s attempts to force countries to respect human rights.
Moscow needs to demonstrate success in Africa to prove that Russia is not isolated and to scare the West with a “global authoritarian coalition.” In this context, in February 2024 United Russia held the founding anticolonial forum “For the Freedom of Nations!” Africa was represented by parliamentarians from Zimbabwe, Uganda, Djibouti and Algeria (as a major gas exporter, Algeria is one of the beneficiaries of the war in Ukraine), as well as the president of the Central African Republic, Faustin-Archange Touadera, who owes much to Wagner PMC. Nevertheless, as one Russian Africanist noted, Touadera was too embarrassed to advertise his ties with Moscow on Twitter.

This is understandable: most of the support for Africa’s development comes from the West. Its main trade ties are also the West, as well as with China and India, which buy quite a lot from Africa. Meanwhile, Russia’s offer of sovereignty for dictators and military services, though in demand in some places, is inferior to what other countries of the world have to offer.
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