Russia’s global interests have become increasingly dependent on Africa. Its foreign policy on the continent centers on three themes: pursuing alternative economic partnerships, seeking geopolitical leverage, and promoting multipolarity.
- There is an evident opportunistic factor in Russia’s projecting interest and power in any region where it notices an opening.
- To grow its presence in the global arena and diversify its economic relations, Russia has been trying to increase its investments in Africa and establish partnerships with African states.
- Although Russia is no longer a superpower, it still has considerable sway in Africa. It has been seeking to strengthen relations with African states to increase its geopolitical leverage, primarily with the West.
- African countries and Russia usually share a normative vision of a multipolar world where the voices of neglected African nations will be heard and powers such as Russia will have a seat at the table.
Moscow’s Continent: The Principles Of Russia’s Africa Policy Engagement
By Vuk Vuksanović
Occasional Paper 341 – March 2023
In recent years, Moscow’s foreign policy has displayed increased interest in Africa, given its sizeable population and the economic growth of countries on the continent. This paper reflects on the increased importance of Africa to Russia’s global interests. It explores the critical drivers of Africa’s role within Russian foreign policy and argues that Russian foreign policy in Africa revolves around three themes: pursuing alternative economic partnerships, seeking geopolitical leverage, and promoting multipolarity.
In recent years, Moscow’s foreign policy has seen a significant pivot towards non-Western markets, partners, and international organizations. It is no wonder that Africa – which has a sizeable population and is one of the world’s fastest-growing regions – has re-emerged as part of Russia’s global agenda.
In recent years, Moscow’s foreign policy has seen a significant pivot towards non-Western markets, partners, and international organizations
Moscow has historical credentials as a great power in Africa, and the fact that it has no colonial past on the continent helps its foreign policy. It is important to note, however, that even before the European scramble for Africa in the 19th century, Russia had attempted to colonize parts of it, as exemplified by the failed deployment of an explorer group to Madagascar in 1723. 1
Imperial Russia made another attempt to establish a colony in Africa in late 1888 when Russian adventurer Nikolai Ivanovitch Achinov led a Cossack expedition and established a settlement in the village of Sagallo in present-day Djibouti. This colony lasted less than a month as the French dispatched warships in 1889, putting an end to the settlement after a brief fight. 2
It was not until Soviet times, especially during the Cold War, that the country’s policymakers would engage more actively with the continent. 3 During the decolonization period, the Soviet Union provided extensive support to African countries, particularly between the 1950s and 1970s.
After the end of the Cold War, Africa dropped from the radar of Russian foreign policy amid a sense of ‘Afro-pessimism’ among Russian elites. This distancing saw the closure of embassies and economic missions, the pullback of Russian companies, and the collection of debt from African countries. 4 This was the logical consequence of Russia’s lack of resources in the 1990s to maintain the Soviet Union’s influence and global presence, including in Africa.
The Russian annexation of Crimea and the fighting in Donbas in eastern Ukraine between 2014 and 2015 caused a breakdown in Russia’s ties with the West. This trend was amplified by the 2022 invasion of Ukraine and Moscow’s subsequent isolation from the West, including through wide-ranging Western sanctions. As a result, the country has tried to diversify its partners. 5
For the past 10 years, Moscow has accelerated efforts to reassert itself in Africa at every available opportunity, including through financial aid, political support, military sales, and security cooperation
For the past 10 years, Moscow has accelerated efforts to reassert itself in Africa at every available opportunity, including through financial aid, political support, military sales, and security cooperation. As a result, its diplomatic, security, and economic engagement with the continent has increased, enabling it to identify new opportunities for extracting natural resources and rebuilding alternatives to Western narratives. 6
Russia’s political motivations, seen through pragmatic engagements with a strong ideological undertone, characterize its presence and relationships in Africa.7 However, Russian efforts to engage Africa still pale in comparison with other countries’ involvement on the continent.
In 2021, the overall volume of Russia’s trade with Africa was calculated at slightly over $17 billion, with African exports to Russia just over $1.9 billion and Russian exports to Africa slightly over $15 billion. 8
In comparison, the continent’s overall trade with China in 2021 was just over $190 billion, with Africa’s exports to China being more than $74 billion and export slightly below $116 billion.9 Africa’s trade volume with the US in 2021 was more than $38 billion, with Africa’s exports to the US over $38 billion and US exports to Africa over $26 billion.10
According to the EU’s estimates, in 2021 the EU was Africa’s biggest trading partner, with overall trade exceeding $333 billion. Africa’s exports to the EU were just over $164 billion, with the EU’s exports to Africa more than $169 billion.11 Nevertheless, Russia remains a key player whose influence is increasing owing to its expansionist economic policies and military collaboration agreements with partner states on the continent.
This occasional paper reflects on Africa’s increased importance to Russia’s global interests. It is the product of policy research that methodologically analyzed both secondary source material and, more importantly, primary sources in the form of semi-structured interviews done online with Western and Russian experts.
As a result, this study provides insight into the policymaking process in the Kremlin. When analyzing Russia’s policies towards the continent, it is essential to understand the Kremlin’s interests and strategic considerations. An examination of the critical drivers of Africa’s place within Russian foreign policy shows that, despite its increased importance, the war in Ukraine will not make Africa a central priority for Russia.
The paper begins by exploring Russian interests and strategic considerations in Africa over the past decade. This section sets out Russia’s key principles of engagement and Africa’s overall position within Russian foreign policy. It also shows the complexity of the policymaking process that ranges from the Kremlin, across the Russian Foreign Ministry, and all the way to Russian oligarchs and businesses.
The paper then reflects on the key axes of economic ties between Russia and Africa, including specific country and regional focuses. This is followed by a reflection on the geopolitical positioning of Africa within Russian foreign policy. The paper concludes with a consideration of the role of multipolarity within Russian international engagements and how this has brought about points of synergy and convergence between African countries and Russia.
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- János Besenyő, “The Africa Policy of Russia”, Terrorism and Political Violence 31, no. 1 (January 2, 2019): 132–53.
- “Sagallo, Russia’s Short-Lived Cossack Colony in Africa”, Radio Free Europe, April 2, 2015.
- Maxim Matusevich, “Russia in Africa: A Search for Continuity in a Post-Cold War Era”, Insight Turkey 21, no. 1 (2019): 25.
- Natalia Piskunova (Researcher at the Institute for International Relations in Moscow), interview by Vuk Vuksanović, August 2022.
- Piskunova, interview.
- Nicholas Ross Smith, A New Cold War?: Assessing the Current US-Russia Relationship, (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2020), 44.
- Besenyő, “The Africa Policy of Russia”
- International Trade Centre, Trade Map, “Bilateral Trade Between Africa and Russian Federation”, https://www.trademap.org/Bilateral_TS.aspx?nvpm=1%7c%7c7%7c643%7c%7cTOTAL%7c%7c%7c2%7c1%7c1%7c1%7c2%7c1%7c1%7c1%7c1%7c1
- ITC, Trade Map, “Bilateral Trade Between Africa and China”, https://www.trademap.org/Bilateral_TS.aspx?nvpm=1%7c156%7c%7c%7c7%7cTOTAL%7c%7c%7c2%7c1%7c1%7c1%7c2%7c1%7c1%7c1%7c1%7c1
- ITC, Trade Map, “Bilateral Trade Between United States of America and Africa”, https://www.trademap.org/Bilateral_TS.aspx?nvpm=1%7c842%7c%7c%7c7%7cTOTAL%7c%7c%7c2%7c1%7c1%7c1%7c2%7c1%7c1%7c1%7c1%7c1
- Eurostat, “Africa-EU trade in Goods: €4 Billion Surplus”, February 17, 2022.