Russia has ramped up efforts in recent years to expand its role in Africa through investment, trade and military assistance. Moscow’s moves to expand its commercial and geopolitical interests on the continent culminated in October 2019 with the first Russia-Africa summit, held in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

President Vladimir Putin announced to the 45 African heads of state and government in attendance that fostering mutually beneficial ties with African nations “is now one of Russia’s foreign policy priorities”.

Advertisement

Following the event, 92 deals were signed between Russia and African countries with a total value of Rbs1000bn ($13.95bn), according to organiser Roscongress

However, increasing Russian military influence is fostering fears of heightened geopolitical tensions on the continent, while coronavirus disruption could hamper Russia’s ability to achieve its ambitions.

Smaller player

In 2019, Russia exported $13bn-worth of products to Africa, an increase of more than 40% since 2015, according to International Trade Center data. However, that pales in comparison to the $101bn of exports from China and almost $29bn of exports from the US.

Since 2003, Russia-based companies have also announced less than a quarter of the number of greenfield FDI projects made by Chinese companies in Africa, and less than 9% as many as US companies, according to greenfield investment monitor fDi Markets. 

Indeed, less than 1% of Africa’s total FDI stock ultimately originated from Russia in 2017, according to Unctad estimates. However, investment by Russian companies in Africa has increased in recent years, with a record 19 greenfield projects announced in 2019, according to fDi Markets.

Last year, Moscow-based foreign exchange broker Grand Capital led the way, opening 11 offices across the continent – including in Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Tanzania – while investment bank Renaissance Capital opened a new trading desk in Nairobi, Kenya. In March 2020, Grand Capital also opened its African headquarters in Namibia’s capital, Windhoek. 

Mining a rich seam

Though Russian companies in the financial services sector are becoming more active in Africa, the bulk of Russian state-backed commercial interests are in the natural resources sector.

The metals, coal, oil and gas sectors collectively account for 90% of the total Russian announced greenfield investment in Africa since 2003, according to fDi Markets estimates.

Kiril Dmitriev, the CEO of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, told fDi in an interview that Russia has “great cooperation in diamonds and other extractive industries with many African countries” and this will “definitely” increase in the future.

Russian mining companies have activities in at least seven African countries, including diamond giant Alrosa’s operations in Angola, Russia’s Vi Holding’s joint venture platinum mining project in Zimbabwe and Esimath’s gold mining operations in Sudan.

Meanwhile, Russian aluminium company Rusal owns and operates bauxite mines and an alumina refinery in Guinea, and has other operations in Nigeria.

Nuclear deals

Nuclear energy has also become a strategic sector for Russian investment in Africa, with at least seven sub-Saharan countries signing preliminary agreements with the country, according to the World Nuclear Association. 

Russia’s state-owned atomic energy giant Rosatom is also currently building Egypt’s first nuclear power plant in El Dabaa, with the Russian state extending a loan of $25bn to cover its cost.

Meanwhile, Russian oil and gas companies, such as state-owned Rosneft, Gazprom and Lukoil, are increasingly interested. Collectively, the three Russian firms have interests in countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Mozambique, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria and Libya.

Alongside the Sochi summit in October 2019, Russian state development bank VEB also signed a $2.2bn agreement to finance an oil refinery in Morocco.

Military interest

While most of Russia’s activity in Africa is driven by commercial interests, increased use of private military contractors, weapon sales and political strategy assistance has fuelled a debate over its real agenda in the continent. 

“It is difficult to draw a clear line between state and private interests in Russia’s engagement in Africa, or for that matter, commercial and political,” says Daragh McDowell, head of Europe and principal Russia analyst at global risk analysis firm Verisk Maplecroft. 

Since 2015, Russia has signed military cooperation agreements with more than 17 African countries, according to a Swedish Defence Research Agency report. In recent years, Russia has overtaken the US and China to become the largest exporter of arms to Africa, accounting for 49% of exports to the region between 2015–19, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute think tank.

Russian private military contractors (PMCs), such as the infamous PMC Wagner, have been reported to have had operations safeguarding industrial assets and supporting faltering regimes in countries such as Libya, Mozambique and the Central African Republic.

“In a number of cases, PMC Wagner appears to have taken on contracts for commercial purposes. The ‘official’ Russian state can then use these existing, commercially driven engagements to achieve diplomatic aims,” says Mr McDowell, who noted Wagner’s presence in Sudan prior to the 2018 revolution. 

Russian military and diplomatic engagement with Guinea intensified after Rusal invested heavily in the country’s bauxite reserves, with accusations that incumbent president Alpha Conde called on Mr Putin for help with his re-election. However, Namory Camara, the head of Guinea’s investment promotion agency, told fDi he didn’t understand why Russian investment was singled out, and that it is relatively small compared to investment from other countries. “We have a non-align policy and do business with every country.” 

A report published in March 2020 by the Kremlin-backed think tank the Russian International Affairs Council says: “The attempts to discredit Russia’s role in Africa must be counteracted… [and that] a substantive discussion needs to be held regarding which international partners Russia could cooperate with in Africa.”

Jideofor Adibe, a professor of international relations and political science at Nigeria's Nasarawa State University, believes these tensions may lead to a “second Cold War” if the US moves to stem Russian influence, but could equally present African countries with an opportunity. “If Russia’s involvement reawakens the interest of Africa’s traditional allies, then it presents the opportunity for [African countries] to extract concessions,” he adds.

Covid-19 effect

Paul Stronski, a senior fellow in think tank Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, says the ability of Russian state-owned enterprises to meet commitments of the summit will heavily depend on the health of Russia’s domestic economy and political environment in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, as the initial shock of Covid-19 subsides, some African countries are receiving Russian investor interest. “The Sochi meeting was an eye opener. If it weren’t for Covid, we would already be seeing much more results from our meeting,” says Dr Moses Ikiara, head of Kenya’s investment promotion agency, who says he recently received interest from a Russian investor that he had met in Sochi.

With the next Russia-Africa Summit already slated for 2022, and energy and mineral commodities key to Russia’s strategic goals, Russia is likely to continue to expand its engagement with Africa.

This article first appeared in the August - September edition of fDi Magazine. View a digital edition of the magazine here.