Russia bids for influence in Africa amid U.S. isolation rhetoric

Russia is the leading arms supplier to African countries. Now the Kremlin hopes to expand that power with the first Russia-Africa summit this week.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019. Russia is hosting the majority of Africa's political leaders this week in the first-ever Russia-Africa Summit.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is following China's lead and making a splashy bid for influence in Africa, hosting the continent's leaders this week in the first-ever Russia-Africa Summit. The Kremlin on Monday said 43 of the continent's 54 heads of state or government are expected to attend.

Russia is taking advantage of the Trump administration's seemingly waning interest in the continent of 1.2 billion people that includes some of the world's fastest growing economies and a strategic perch on the Red Sea.

"We are not going to participate in a new 'repartition' of the continent's wealth; rather, we are ready to engage in competition for cooperation with Africa, provided that this competition is civilized," Mr. Putin told Russia's Tass news agency Sunday.

Russia hopes to host such summits every three years, with foreign ministers meeting annually, said Mr. Putin's foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi is the co-chair this time.

Here is a look at Russia's growing military and business activities in Africa as it portrays itself as free from the past baggage of colonialism and slavery that haunt some traditional powers.

Why Africa now?

In addition to its booming youth population, growing middle class, and improving infrastructure as well as long-standing natural assets like diamonds, strategic minerals, and oil, Africa is also a place where Russia can grow its interests while avoiding Western sanctions imposed over its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Russia is trying to revive relationships forged during the more engaged Soviet Union era, when the USSR assertively backed countries across Africa in a Cold War of influence with the United States. While the generation of African leaders and officials who trained in the Soviet Union decades ago is aging, some such as President Joao Lourenco of oil-rich Angola are still in influential positions.

One such relationship has paid off in the past couple of years in Central African Republic, where ties with former president Michel Djotodia led to the arrival of Russian military and civilian trainers that alerted France and others to Moscow's growing interest in a continent it long had largely neglected.

"It will be naive to say Russia's return to Africa is not about geopolitics," Nigerian analyst Ovigwe Eguegu wrote Monday for The China Africa Project blog.

What can Russia offer? 

While Russia is years late to Africa in comparison to China, which has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in railways, airports, and other high-profile projects across the continent, it can build on what it has kept flowing for years: guns. Russia sends more arms to Africa than any other country and the supply is rising, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

"Weapons exports to Africa facilitate Russia's broader diplomatic efforts to cultivate military, political, and security ties, and expand its influence in Africa" to compete with the U.S., France, and China, senior fellow Paul Stronski wrote for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last week.

The experience in Central African Republic has shown that "Russia's relatively modest toolkit can have disproportionate impact with long-term consequences on fragile societies in or at high risk of conflict and with poor governance," he added.

Russia has signed military cooperation agreements with at least 28 African countries, the majority in the past five years, often using counterterrorism as a basis, according to an analysis published in August by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

Moscow can't bring as much to the table in terms of investment, humanitarian aid, or even soft power, but its assistance is free from conditions linked to human rights concerns, making Russia an attractive business partner for other countries chafing from Western sanctions, Mr. Stronski said.

One of them is Zimbabwe, whose President Emmerson Mnangagwa met with Putin in Moscow early this year and praised Russia for standing by during his country's long period of isolation. "You, as a senior brother, can hold my hand as I try to develop Zimbabwe," Mr. Mnangagwa said, according to the Kremlin's report. Mr. Putin is a decade younger than him.

Where is the United States?

While Mr. Putin and other senior Russian officials have visited African countries in the past few years, the U.S. under the Trump administration has shown little high-level engagement and Trump's dismissive comments about the continent haven't helped. Even the U.S. military's presence has been cut back, giving Russia and others room to assert their influence on multiple fronts.

Russia's trade with Africa almost tripled from $6.6 billion in 2010 to $18.9 billion last year, Judd Devermont, the director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, pointed out last week.

The U.S. has bristled at Russia's growing presence, accusing Moscow of "seeking to increase its influence in the region through corrupt economic dealings" while unveiling Washington's Africa strategy last year.

Mr. Devermont acknowledged that Russia's renewed focus on Africa threatens U.S. interests but he and other analysts say Washington should not overreact. "The Kremlin benefits when U.S. officials and international media frame its presence in Africa as a restoration of its status as a global superpower," Mr. Devermont wrote for the Lawfare blog.

Analysts say the U.S. and the West instead should focus on potential threats such as Russia-backed disinformation campaigns aimed at influencing African elections or attempts to launder money in countries with poor financial surveillance and controls.

The story was reported by The Associated Press. Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed.

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