On 23 October 2019, the Russian Federation organised the Russia-Africa Summit to initiate greater cooperation between Russia and the sovereign states of Africa. The summit established a formalised partnership to strengthen existing and potential political, security, economic, legal, scientific, technical, humanitarian, information and environmental cooperation. The Russians argued that this cooperation provided a way for African states to affirm their sovereignty and resist European and American coercive diplomacy.
Larger states tend to act as champions for the commercial interests of the businesses of their nationals, whether those businesses are state-owned enterprises or private companies headquartered within that state’s boundaries. This reality makes it difficult to discern the boundaries between political and economic interests and motivations. As a practical fact of analysis, we learn to view current affairs through the lenses of political economy and geopolitics.
Of the great and near-great powers, China has the largest footprint in Africa. China’s dollar trade volume with the continent is around $200bn compared with the United States at $60bn. The European Union as a whole does approximately $300bn worth of trade with the continent. Russia and Japan’s trade with Africa hovers around $20bn each. The relatively small stake the Russians have in the continent’s affairs is concentrated in the strategically important security and energy sectors, giving them more influence than their stake would indicate.
The Americans and the Europeans view the Russians as a malignant force in the continent’s politics and have not welcomed their forays into the political economy of the continent. The sales of Russian arms, the operations of Russian private military companies, the opaque business practices of Russian companies and the dissemination of information that sullies the reputations of the Americans and the Europeans are viewed as particularly disruptive. Russian strength in the nuclear energy sector, and the oil and mining sectors, are viewed as similarly problematic. Few states welcome competition in developing the supply chains necessary to feed their economies.
Unlike the leaders of the United States and the European Union, the leaders of African countries easily appreciate the interest and resources the Russians are supplying the region. In ethnically divided countries, security and regime stability are by no means a given. Purchasing cheap and reliable Russian weapons is one way to circumvent the Western sanctions imposed on African leaders who violate human rights in their efforts to preserve control of power. Nigeria and Ethiopia – both accused of human rights abuses by the United States and facing sanctions – have recently signed security cooperation agreements with Russia and are negotiating to procure arms needed to deal with domestic insurgencies. The Russians have over 20 such agreements with African countries.