Putin seeks to extend influence

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) gestures during an opening ceremony of a gravity-type base for natural gas liquefaction at the Novatek-Murmansk's Offshore Superfacility Constrution Center for the construction of large-tonnage offshore stuctures (CSMCS) of Novatek company on July 20, 2023 in the villiage of Belokamenka outside Murmank, Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) gestures during an opening ceremony of a gravity-type base for natural gas liquefaction at the Novatek-Murmansk’s Offshore Superfacility Constrution Center for the construction of large-tonnage offshore stuctures (CSMCS) of Novatek company on July 20, 2023 in the villiage of Belokamenka outside Murmank, Russia

When President Vladimir Putin opens the Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg on Thursday, the attendance cast list will be closely scrutinised – in Paris, Washington, London, and at United Nations headquarters in New York.

But Africans will view the event quite differently.

For Western foreign ministries fretting about the Kremlin’s declared ambition to expand its political, military and economic footprint south of the Sahara, the gathering is an indicator of how far Russia’s influence could now extend and where it will meet a friendly welcome.

Unlike the previous Russia-Africa summit in 2019, attended by 43 African leaders, this time only 17 are expected in St Petersburg .

But which of them will take prominent speaking roles in the summit? What deals will be struck with Mr Putin?

European and US policymakers until recently saw China as their main competitor in Africa – but now find themselves observing with deep unease Russia’s assertive return, epitomised by the presence of Wagner mercenaries in Mali, the Central African Republic (CAR), Libya and, briefly, northern Mozambique.

And of course, the invasion of Ukraine has dramatically heightened Western mistrust of Russia’s ambitions around the world.

Yet little suggests that African leaders share this perspective. Most countries on the continent, even those that have regularly voted at the UN to condemn the attack on Ukraine and its impact, do not want to get drawn into taking sides in a new “Cold War” or become pawns in a tussle for global influence and powerplays.

In any case, Russia is just one of several major actors now stepping up efforts to court political and economic influence in Africa – alongside not only China, but also India, Turkey, the Gulf states, South Korea and, of course, Western nations and Japan.

Having sometimes struggled in the past to mobilise international assistance in tackling their development and security challenges, African governments are not spurning these overtures.

And Russia knows this. In the run-up to the summit, its officials promised a new programme of support for the continent.

The summit agenda includes an “economic and humanitarian forum” and African business figures have been invited; the Kremlin promises a raft of agreements on trade, investment, scientific and technical cooperation. In pursuing this agenda, Russia may be able to build on the academic and research ties developed during the Cold War era, when many Africans studied at Soviet universities.

Whatever the presidential turnout, few governments will actually snub the summit.

But that does not mean most participants will approach St Petersburg with an uncritical mindset – even if diplomatic politeness prevents them from speaking frankly.

Last month’s African leaders’ peace mission to Russia and Ukraine was blunt in telling Mr Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky that the war should be ended, for the sake of the rest of the world.

And Moscow will hardly have bolstered goodwill by its decision to abandon the agreement for the safe export of both Ukrainian and Russian grain through Black Sea ports, even if Mr Putin has pledged to make up that shortfall.

That promises to drive up food prices in numerous African countries, potentially fuelling urban protest and political pressure on the leaders.

A protester throws stones to the riot police during the Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya protest over high living cost on July 20, 2023 in Nairobi, Kenya

The cost-of-living crisis has led to riots in countries including Kenya

Mali – a loyal ally these days, its ruling junta partially reliant on Wagner’s men to keep jihadist forces at bay – claims to be receiving a special shipment of Russian grain.

But it is hard to imagine that Mr Putin could provide such hefty bilateral help to more than a clutch of close allies.

Most African grain consumers will have to continue relying on the open world market – where supplies are now tightening and prices are on the rise.

Mr Putin is well aware of this diplomatic fallout. Could he be waiting for the summit to perhaps offer a supposedly magnanimously return to the grain deal, on slightly tweaked terms?

That’s not the only delicate issue on the agenda.

Displaced from Russia after his recent mutiny, Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin recently promised his men an expanded focus on African operations.

Despite his apparent falling out with Mr Putin, this would certainly help the Kremlin’s drive to extend its capacity to influence African events, particularly in the hugely fragile Sahel region – where Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum has been facing a fresh military uprising or coup attempt.

When Wagner moved into the CAR after President Faustin Archange Touadéra sought Russian help to overcome a UN arms embargo and rebuild his army in 2017-18, this at first looked like a bid for attention, aimed to send the message that “Moscow is back” after more than two decades of a low profile after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But by the time Wagner arrived in Mali in 2021, at the invitation of the soldiers who had seized power the year before, the role played by this private military contractor in Russia’s security agenda, was viewed with a good deal more mistrust.

Most other West African governments saw it as a direct threat to the security of their region. Their relations with Mali soured dramatically.

And the military coups that followed in Guinea and Burkina Faso, with pro-Russian youths cheering in the streets of the latter’s capital Ouagadougou, have only deepened elected African governments’ wariness of Moscow’s strategy.

But that does not mean they will disregard this week’s summit.

Instead, they will probably try to nudge the Kremlin towards a more conventional path of cooperative engagement, and away from support for the destabilisation of constitutional government and towards more conventional military partnerships through training and the supply of equipment and weapons.

And Russia will try to secure their goodwill through a continuation of its economic diplomacy.

A pro-Russia supporter wears a shirt promoting cooperation between Burkina Faso and Russia during a pro-Russia rally in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on March 27, 2022

Military regimes in West Africa are strengthening ties with Russia

While it lacks the resources to compete with the US, France, Germany and Japan or China as a bilateral development donor, Moscow does have some cards to play.

Last year it was probably Africa’s largest source of fertiliser, supplying 500,000 tonnes. It is also of course a significant power in oil, gas and mining.

But the critically urgent trade sector right now remains grain.

And it will be difficult for Russia to significantly help Africa with desperately needed extra supplies – and thus demonstrate its reliability as a partner – unless there is a restored Black Sea deal that also allows Ukrainian shipments to flow.

Earlier this week, Mr Putin claimed Russia had shipped close to 10 million tonnes of grain to Africa in the first half of this year and insisted that it was able to continue supplying the continent on both a commercial basis and free of charge.

A major boost in food aid would mark a sharp change of stance from a country that has been only a marginal humanitarian donor up to now.

However, even if arrangements to ship out safely from Black Sea ports are restored, there is little to suggest Moscow is really willing and organised to become a major food aid donor on a scale to compare with the likes of the European Union or the US.

The political context has dramatically changed since African leaders flew to Sochi for the first Russia-Africa summit back in 2019.

Over the past three years, apparently fuelled by a desire to unsettle France and other Western actors, the Kremlin has appeared at least tacitly sympathetic towards the military men who have seized power in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea and who are viewed by the leaders of neighbouring states as a threat to regional stability.

The Malian regime’s insistence that the UN withdraw its peacekeeping force, weakening the defence against spreading jihadist violence, has only deepened regional leaders’ concern – and their consequent wariness of Russian policy.

So even with a hefty goodwill boost to Russia grain shipments, Mr Putin may struggle to allay widespread West African mistrust, although his guests will be too discreet to express it.

Paul Melly is a consulting fellow with the Africa Programme at Chatham House in London.

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