Emile Ameen

Russia and Africa… Concealed Pragmatism

With the Russia-Africa Summit in Saint Petersburg having drawn to a close, many fundamental questions remain unanswered. First and foremost: “Did Tzar Putin manage to win over the African leaders in one go, or did the talks definitively dispel illusions that Russia operates differently than the US, affirming that both are caught in a deadly cycle of pragmatism, even when the lives of other nations and peoples are at stake?”

The second summit was held amid a very different global climate to that of the 2019 Sochi Summit. Indeed, a battle that has yet to be decided began a year and a half ago, splitting the countries of the world into two camps: those who are with Putin and those who oppose him. It should be noted that his supporters are very few. He can only count on the support of China and a few African countries where Russia maintains some influence, be it inherited or newly established. Russia’s recent decision to withdraw from the grain deal dealt a major blow to the countries of Africa, especially the less fortunate ones.

The first thought that comes to mind regarding the summit is the difference in attendance as compared to the 2019 summit. Indeed, no more than 27 heads of state flew to Saint Petersburg, far fewer than the 43 who attended in 2019. This raises questions about the effectiveness of the US and European effort to break the ties linking Russia and Africa together, or perhaps whether African leaders are apprehensive about Russia’s future. In fact, Moscow has already accused the United States of trying to undermine the summit.

Russia finally seems to be in need of a revitalization of its global diplomacy. Renewing its old friendships and even making new ones has become particularly pressing in light of the effort to impose a suffocating blockade on the country.

It seems that they can plausibly build influence on the African continent, where Russia is trying to exploit the vacuum left by Washington, which is busy facing off with China, as well as the waning influence of Europe. Indeed, it was hard to believe our eyes as we saw France’s recent losses in Niger.

One might wonder, “Are Russia and Africa singing a duet to the tune of self-interest shaped by global politics?”

This seems likely. First and foremost, Russia is keen on gaining access to the natural resources on the continent. Second, it wants to sell its weapons and bolster certain governments that the West labels authoritarian. Moreover, the Wagner Group - the militia arm of the Russian army, so to speak - is expanding its sphere of operations, to say nothing about the infrastructure contracts it has acquired in countries that need decades to rebuild.

On the African side, there is a similar keenness to reap personal benefits. Evgeny Minchenko, the director of the International Institute for Political Expertise think tank at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, has said that “Africans seek to benefit from the clash between Russia and the West, as well as the actions of other countries that have not openly entered the conflict but are nearby.”

If material interests are driving their behavior, we can definitively conclude that most African countries do not see Russia as the ideological leader of a new world. Moscow is not exporting a theory for the third world as it had during the Soviet era. This raises a question: “Why is Putin betting on a breakthrough in Africa?”

Putin certainly did not build his network of relations in Africa from scratch. Indeed, he is building on the deep roots the Soviets created in the continent between the 1950s and the 1990s, offering ideological scientific support (by, for example, drawing its brightest minds to prestigious Russian universities) and, subsequently, fortifying trust through the efforts of Soviet intelligence agencies.

As for Putin, he managed to build, in the 2000s, unprecedented relations with African republics that had been considered exclusively European spheres of influence, including Francophone states. Then Wagner stepped in.

Russia continues to make the contentious claim that it supports African unity against former colonial powers. Indeed, this claim is far from straightforward given the repercussions of Russia’s withdrawal from the grain deal, which has more significant and dangerous implications for human and economic development in many African countries that depend on grains imported from Ukraine for nutrition.

Commenting on the ramifications of the grain deal’s collapse, Putin tried to downplay its impact on Africa, claiming that it had not offered the Africans much in the first place.

However, his opening remarks at the summit seemed evasive, especially to those familiar with Russia’s political playbook. Many were particularly alarmed by his claim that Moscow could supply African countries with grain and wheat and that it might offer these grains for free over the next three to four months to six of the poorest African countries.

Putin’s speech alarmed UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who hit back saying that an agreement that had allowed the export of millions of tons of grain could not be replaced with promises of meager donations.

Do the Africans now see the Russian ruse for what it is?

Some have begun to suspect that Russia is weaponizing grain against the hungry, using it to demand loyalty, fealty, and a greater presence in Africa.

Their actions are not very different from those of the US. The latter dumps millions of tons of wheat into the ocean to prevent prices from dropping, while Russia is bombing Ukrainian wheat silos and threatening to destroy the infrastructure that the West seeks to use to export Ukrainian wheat.

The summit left perplexing questions about the Africans. The most prominent among them are: “Is Putin still the only man in charge of Russia? And how could Prigozhin, whose mutiny supposedly led to his exile to Belarus, make a presence in the corridors of the summit?”

The conclusion... Pragmatism builds short-lived ties in the world of international politics as, sooner or later, ordinary citizens will inevitably rise up.