Russia and Africa: Navigating the Future
As relations between Russia and Africa were reset on a more solid track during the Second Summit in St. Petersburg earlier this year, Dr. Philani Mthembu is looking beyond the event in an attempt to envisage how the two may further navigate the fragmented geopolitical landscape.
At the Russia-Africa Summit held on 27-28 July 2023, representatives from 49 African countries descended on St. Petersburg to discuss and conclude agreements on a range of areas from economy, politics, security, and in advancing humanitarian cooperation. This came in a context of geopolitical tensions and ongoing pressure on Africa by the United States and its European allies to choose sides in the conflict in Ukraine. It is significant that countries that abstained and countries that have voted in favour of Western resolutions at the UN General Assembly saw it fit to attend the Summit, the second time it has been held after the first Russia-Africa Summit in 2019.
This year's Summit was larger than in 2019 in terms of the stakeholders involved, with multiple side events involving business, media, think tanks, political parties, and cultural programmes involving thousands of participants. It would appear that despite efforts to isolate the Russian Federation, Moscow has instead embarked on a diplomatic offensive of its own to pave the way for countries of the world, especially those of the global South to expand areas of cooperation and regularly converge in different parts of Russia.
The imposition of unprecedented economic sanctions and the issuing of an arrest warrant for President Vladimir Putin by the International Criminal Court (ICC) was aimed at isolating the Russian Federation, weakening the Russian economy and turning the country into an international pariah. However, Russia may be proving to be more resilient than previously thought. While President Putin has not been traveling out of Russia, instead sending Foreign Minister Lavrov as his representative to various gatherings such as BRICS in South Africa and the G20 in India, there has been plenty of diplomatic activity and summitry taking place in Russia itself, which has continued to involve multiple tracks of diplomacy. The mantra seems to be one of bringing the world to Russia.
While some have sought to play down its importance and impact, it is important to note that rather than being a narrowly defined meeting of heads of state, the second Russia-Africa Summit saw a broad-based participation of African and Russian state and non-state actors. It thus saw participation from government representatives, including their heads of state, political parties, representatives from the private and public sector, journalists, research organisations and think tanks. This was no doubt an acknowledgement that if relations between Russia and Africa are to deepen, especially amid geopolitical tensions, efforts would have to be made to broaden engagement within and beyond the state.
With the Summit having given Russia's relations with the continent a boost, organisers will be constantly seeking ways to ensure that the Summit is not a mere formality but delivers tangible gains. Russia has also sought to become more competitive on the continent, especially following a reduction of its footprint following the collapse of the Soviet Union. While not having a comparable presence such as key European countries and the US in terms of trade and investment, Russia continues to be valued as a partner amongst African countries seeking to maintain a degree of strategic autonomy in managing their international relations, especially with the great powers. It is also clear that owing to the vast development backlogs in Africa, there remains a lot more room for expanding cooperation in line with the development priorities of African countries as outlined through the continent’s Agenda 2063.
Speaking at the opening plenary of the Summit, President Putin sought to present an alternative to the Black Sea Grain Deal, stating that Russia is responsible for the export of 20 percent of grains globally & ready to expand its supply to the continent through commercial and non-commercial means. The remarks included an announcement that six countries would receive 25 000 – 50 000 tonnes of grain for free, including the likes of Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, the Central African Republic and Eritrea. This partly assisted in managing expectations between African stakeholders and their Russian counterparts on the future of the Black Sea Grain Deal, with Russia outlining grievances with the way it was being implemented. Some of those grievances included obstacles for Russia in getting its own grain and fertilizers shipped through the initiative, and the uneven distribution of grain that saw most of it heading towards advanced economies instead of reaching developing countries most in need. Moscow also outlined that despite assurances from the United Nations to assist in easing the barriers faced by Russia on its food and fertilizer shipments, restrictions on payments, logistics and insurance have continued to be an obstacle to its shipments. It was thus important to sensitise African counterparts to these dynamics while presenting an alternative in the interim. This was especially important given that the Black Sea Grain Deal also formed part of discussions related to the African Peace Initiative prior to the Summit.
Despite the challenges brought on by sanctions, it is notable that the relationship between Russia and Africa saw an $18 billion trade turnover in 2022, with the aim of increasing this to $60 billion by 2026. Efforts to reach that target will take place in a context of various obstacles presented by the unilateral sanctions and efforts to create alternative payment methods, including through the use of local currencies. It is thus notable that the trade turnover between Russia and Africa increased by close to 35 percent in the first half of 2023. It is in this regard that the recently concluded Russia-Africa Summit sought to adapt the relationship to contemporary dynamics amidst ongoing geopolitical tensions. Efforts to ensure alternative payment methods will have to be accelerated in order to get closer to the trade and investment targets outlined in the Summit.
In a volatile geopolitical landscape, Africa's interests can be better safeguarded by achieving a higher degree of strategic autonomy and policy space. It is thus not in Africa's interests to be forced to choose sides amongst the great powers. A massive task the continent faces is utilising relations with external powers to achieve Africa's own development priorities. To achieve their development goals, African countries will seek to not get drawn into taking positions that may backfire against their strategic interests. They will thus seek to work with all external actors wanting to forge ties with the continent, and Russia and its African partners will need to build on their comparative advantages, ensuring that the linkages forged in the first and second Russia-Africa Summit are consistently nurtured.
As an agricultural power, Russia and African counterparts could identify opportunities to boost Africa’s own production and enhance its food security. This would position Russia as a strategic partner in the pursuit of Africa’s agricultural sector targets and efforts to build a greater degree of resilience on the continent. This should continue to form part of ongoing cooperation initiatives as Africa will seek to become more self-sufficient in utilising its underutilised arable land. This becomes especially important with the backdrop of a Black Sea Grain Deal that recently came to an end.
Given its footprint in the mining sector, Russia could also work with African counterparts in the mining of potash in order to reduce input costs of African farmers due to rising fertiliser prices. This would be an important contribution towards ensuring that the declaration of the Russia-Africa Summit yields fruit over a sustained period of time.
There are also opportunities for cooperation in the security and energy sectors on the continent as demand for Russian arms and security services will likely remain constant while opportunities will grow in the energy sector with the discovery of more gas reserves across the continent.
However, in order to take advantage and sustain these opportunities over the medium to long term Russia and its African counterparts will need to identify opportunities to set up joint ventures in agriculture, mining, energy, and even in weapons manufacturing in order to go beyond trade and thus set up manufacturing activities closer to their markets on the continent. This will contribute to the development of regional value chains, leveraging from the comparative advantages of Russia and Africa.
With Russia set to host the BRICS Summit in 2024, which will see new membership participating fully, it will also create additional opportunities to complement agreements reached at the Russia-Africa Summit. This is especially the case with the invitation of Ethiopia and Egypt into the BRICS fold during the Summit in South Africa. Both countries bring large populations undergoing rapid urbanisation, fast growing economies, and strategic influence in their respective sub-regions of the continent. Alongside South Africa, they have also demonstrated an ability to exercise an independent foreign policy that will assist in strengthening relations with Moscow.