The verdict of Western observers on the outcome of July Russia-Africa Summit is that it was a failure, largely because of the smaller-than-expected number of heads of state in attendance.
But, according to Moscow, the conference rekindled the progress it had been making to strengthen relations with the African continent.
“We highly value the results of our joint work at the Summit. I am sure the achieved results are creating a good foundation for further deepening the Russia-Africa partnership in the interest of our nations’ prosperity and wellbeing,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a post-Summit speech.
One of the regions Russia has targeted is the Sahel, where it has promised to re-establish some of the diplomatic missions that had not been opened in 30 years during the era of the Soviet Union.
Seventeen heads of state attended the summit, down from 45 leaders who attended the maiden 2019 edition.
The significance of the low turnout of heads of state, however, wasn’t lost on the Russians themselves. The Kremlin blamed it on “sabotage” by the West, singling out the US and France for pressuring African leaders to boycott the summit. Notable attendees, however, were the presidents of Egypt, South Africa and Senegal.
“Virtually all African states have been subjected to unprecedented pressure from the US, and French embassies on the ground have not been sleeping either, along with other Western missions who are also trying to do their bit to prevent this summit from taking place,” Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Russian Presidency, told reporters.
The countries where these proposed embassies are located have not been named but discussions are underway. Russia is currently present in 37 countries on the continent, with 34 embassies.
Maria Zakharova, Spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said Moscow intends to open embassies in some new countries and increase its staff in some others where they already exist.
“Given that Russia is increasingly focused on Africa, President Vladimir Putin has set the task of building up Russia’s diplomatic presence in the continent, which implies opening new offices or increasing the staff at the existing foreign missions. The plan is to ensure Russia is represented to the maximum degree in Africa. I don’t want to jump the gun: we will certainly tell you when and where Russian embassies will start operating as soon as relevant agreements are reached and final decisions taken,” she said this week in a press briefing.
Two countries, Burkina Faso and Equatorial Guinea – are already confirmed to reopen Russian embassies in their capitals. These were among several African countries where the Soviet Union shut its embassies in the 1990s as it collapsed, and its republics splintered.
The other countries include Niger, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sao Tome and Principe.
Sierra Leone reopened its embassy in Moscow in 2009, after shutting it down in 1999, and it has been lobbying to have the Russians reciprocate since then. In 2021, Sierra Leone’s parliament ratified an agreement cancelling visa requirement for diplomatic passport holders visiting either country.
Prior to the Africa summit, Russia hosted the Army 2023 International Military Technical Forum, one of the world’s largest events showcasing innovations and modern military products. President Putin used the event to offer Russia’s military technologies to expand its ties with foreign countries.
“Russia is open to deepening its technological partnerships and military-technical cooperation with other countries on equal terms, and to working with all those seeking to assert their national interests and independent development path, all countries that believe that working together to build an equal and indivisible security framework is essential as a reliable safeguard for every state,” he said.
Putin pledged to send grain to six African nations — Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, the Central African Republic, and Eritrea. He also announced a debt relief of $684 million for the continent. These are also countries that have either had coups or are generally unstable.
The Russian leader also sought to exploit the rising Pan-African anti-colonial sentiments brewing in Africa, quoting icons like Nelson Mandela and citing the legacies of Egypt’s former president Gamal Abdel Nasser and the assassinated Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba.
Part of Moscow’s larger strategy in this new offensive in its war with the West in Africa is to take over where its rivals are kicked out after military takeover. This has been seen in Mali and Burkina Faso.
During last week’s pro-coup protests in Niger, the world saw a repeat of what happened in both countries — protesters waving Russian flags and chanting support for Russia.
This week, President Putin discussed the situation in Niger with Mali’s Transition President Assimi Goita, a fervent supporter of Russia-Africa ties.
During the telephone conversation, Goita initiated, Putin expressed opposition to a plan by the West African bloc to intervene militarily to reinstate deposed President Mohamed Bazoum of Niger. That move is significant given concerns about the likelihood of the involvement of the Russia-backed Wagner mercenary group in the brewing Niger conflict.
The Wagner Group is one of the key tools Russia has been using to expand its empire in Africa, as was seen in Mali and Central African Republic. The group has been accused of committing human rights abuses where it operates.
Burkina Faso hasn’t received the Wagners yet, at least not officially. But its leader, Ibrahim Traore, has repeatedly spoken highly of Russian ties with his country. The 35-year-old army captain, who came to power in October last year, was the star at the Russia-African Summit, where he linked beggarly African leaders to continued Western neocolonialism. He wore military fatigues.
Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo during a visit in Washington, as part of the US-Africa Summit in December 2022, claimed Traore had offered a mine to the Wagners in exchange for the group’s deployment to fight against militias within its borders.
Just three weeks in power, there have been reports that the Niger junta has also requested support from the group.
And Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is reported to have called on the Niger junta to call upon his troops if they needed help. “We are always on the side of the good, on the side of justice, and on the side of those who fight for their sovereignty and for the rights of their people,” he said in a message shared on Telegram.
Whether the Russians are in Niger or not, that it is yet to be ascertained. But the possibility of it happening in the open is in the horizon, especially after military chiefs from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) to which Niger belongs, agreed to contribute troops to a standby force to intervene. The subregional bloc has vowed to reinstate deposed President Mohamed Bazoum, still in detention since the coup on July 26.
Security analysts say any such intervention could further destabilise the Sahel region, where conflicts waged by groups linked to Al Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) have displaced millions of people over the past decade and fuelled a major humanitarian crisis. US troops have been supporting their Nigerien counterparts against the insurgents.
Last week, US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland travelled to Niamey and held talks she described as “difficult” with the coup leaders.
She was refused a meeting with either the deposed president or the junta leader, Gen Abdourahamane Tchiani.
While ruling out any involvement of Russia or the Wagner in the Niger coup, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week that the Russian mercenary group had taken advantage of the crisis to assert its influence in the region.
Curiously, the US is yet to declare the Military’s move in Niger as a coup, just terming it an illegal power takeover.