espite Russia’s ambitions to strengthen its presence in Africa, Moscow’s influence in the continent remains rather limited. The recently held Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg has clearly shown that the Kremlin cannot count on African nations’ support when it comes to the war in Ukraine, and that the Russian Federation will have a hard time achieving its economic goals in Africa.
The event was held on 27-28 July 2023 in the former capital of the Russian Empire. Yet it took a week for the Kremlin to publish a joint statement on Ukraine by Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leaders of the African Peace initiative, even though Putin held a meeting with them on the sidelines of the forum. The document calls for “specific steps to remove obstacles to Russian grain and fertilizer exports,” but does not explicitly support Russia’s actions in the Eastern European country. The fact that African leaders refused to side with the Kremlin indicates that Russia’s influence in the region is not nearly as strong as pro-Kremlin propagandists try to portray it.
All countries in the world, including African nations, are very cautious when it comes to developing bilateral relations with Russia. Given that the Russian Federation has become a “global pariah,” it is not surprising that only 17 African leaders attended the summit in St. Petersburg. In 2019, when the first Russia-Africa Summit was held, 43 presidents or prime ministers of African states came to the Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi to meet with Putin. The Kremlin, however, blames the West for its own debacle, claiming that the United States and its allies have pressured African states not to participate in the St. Petersburg summit.
In an attempt to buy African nations’ loyalty, Putin promised to provide Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Central African Republic, and Eritrea with Russian grains free of charge. Eritrea is the only African state that supported Russia at the United Nations General Assembly in March 2023, and refused to vote for a resolution that called on the Kremlin to “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.” Thus, Moscow’s decision to send free grains to Asmara could be interpreted as a reward for loyalty.
Although Zimbabwe boycotted the vote, which means that it did not explicitly side with Russia, Putin offered a helicopter to the southern African nation’s President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa. The fact that Harare still did not accept Moscow’s offer to get Russian wheat free of charge suggests that the Kremlin may have a hard time increasing its influence in the southern African country.
It remains to be seen if Somalia, an East African nation that has received a debt relief package worth $684 million from Russia, will follow Eritrea’s footsteps and start voting in favor of Russia at the UN General Assembly. But even if Mogadishu preserves its current foreign policy course, and continues abstaining from votes, Moscow can always turn a blind eye to such an action, or simply claim that the West has pressured Somalia to give up on its support to Russia.
For now, the Kremlin will likely continue using grain as an instrument to strengthen its positions not only in Somalia, but also in several other African states. But that could be easier said than done. Compared to China and Western countries, Russia’s economic presence in Africa is rather small. Isolated and sanctioned by the West, Russia will have a hard time expanding its economic cooperation with African nations.
In 2019, Moscow had ambitious plans regarding Africa. At the first Russia-Africa Summit, Putin announced the need to increase trade between the Russian Federation and African states from $20 billion to at least $40 billion in the coming years. His plan failed. In the first six months of 2023 the trade balance between Russia and Africa reached only $4.5 billion, which is a drop in the ocean compared to China’s $282 billion bilateral trade with African nations. Russia cannot even reach the $20 billion in trade South Korea has with Africa.
That, however, does not prevent the Kremlin from portraying Russia as a significant geopolitical player in this part of the world. Sergey Mironov, leader of the pro-Kremlin political party A Just Russia, insists the Russian Federation should become “the main guarantor of peace on the continent” and “crowd the United States and China out of Africa.” In reality, what most African countries need is technology, factories, and investments—nothing of which Russia can offer.
It is rather questionable if Moscow, bogged down in Ukraine, is still in a position to preserve the role of a major weapons seller to its traditional clients such as Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, and Angola, especially given reports that Russia does not have enough weapons for its own military. What the Kremlin can do, though, is to continue sending Wagner mercenaries to various African nations, although such a strategy does not guarantee that those countries will automatically start pursuing pro-Russian policies.
Under the current geopolitical circumstances, Russia does not seem to be in a position to offer anything competitive and strategically attractive to African states. That is why Putin’s summit with African leaders looks like nothing more than an attempt to show both Russian and international audiences that he is not isolated in the global arena.