Putin’s Africa Game

What does Vladimir Putin want in Africa? Dr. Edgar Githua offers his views.

Opinion by

This article is sponsored by Dr. Edgar Githua

President Vladimir Putin is a man on a mission to re-claim and re-build the lost glory that Russia enjoyed under the former Soviet Empire during the cold war. But this is a different Russia altogether.  While some may say that Soviet Union ethos was noble in its cause that communism creates a level playing field for all, the Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin is clearly using Soviet-era sentiment to offer a completely different proposition.  

In his quest for geo-political influence and grandeur, Putin is determined to ally himself with Africa as a hero, and the Russian Federation as a saviour. Nothing could be further from the truth. In his mind Africa represents a region that is not only geo-strategically important, but is full of potential in the grand scheme of global power politics. Putin wants to not only compete, but also surpass the influence that China, and the United States of America have historically enjoyed on the continent. The Russian premier is hell bent on creating a new ally for Africa, and this after historically showing little to no interest.   

Putin’s renewed interests in Africa are also chiefly driven by his desperate need to secure Africa’s approval and support as he pursues his agenda at the United Nations. Africa represents a solid voting block that has 54 votes at the United Nations. However, despite the inroads that Russia may have made within the African continent, during the United Nations General Assembly Resolution ES‑11/1 in 2022, that condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 19 African countries supported the resolution while only 1 country opposed. 17 African countries led by South Africa abstained from voting in a resolution that was overwhelmingly supported by 143 countries. This goes to show that even in Africa, Russia has an uphill task in gaining allies within the continent. 

In trying to further pursue the African continent, the second Russian Africa Summit was held in July 2023 in St Petersburg. This forum provided a platform for Putin to pitch his Russian agenda and endear himself to African leadership. This Summits’ agenda was contextualized around the themes of Food Security, Promotion of a Multipolar world, Debt Relief, and the need to restore relationships that had waned over time. However, if we look back to the 2019, prior to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, the Russia Africa Summit had a staggering 43 African countries represented. If we fast forward to the 2023 Russia Africa Summit, only 27 African countries were represented. This clearly indicates Africa’s conundrum in reference to alignment.  

It is also important to note that Food security remains a huge factor in global geo-politics especially in the wake of the Covid -19 pandemic and the subsequent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine are among the world’s largest grain producers. The war on Ukraine disrupted global food chains and Africa has been caught in the cross-fire of this conflict. Ukraine’s grain exports dropped by over twenty-nine percent hence affecting global food prices with Africa directly feeling the repercussions of this war. 

To contextualize the gravity of this dire situation, Putin’s pledge to supply grains to vulnerable food insecure African nations is not only opportunistic, but calculated to cultivate loyalty within the continent. In line with promises made during the Russia- Africa Summit, on November 17th 2023, Russia dispatched free grain shipments to Burkina Faso, and Somalia totaling 200,000 tons, with a further promise to dispatch more to Mali, Eritrea, Central African Republic (CAR), and Zimbabwe. However, if we look back to 2022, this is a drop in the ocean to Russia’s promise of 60 million tones in 2022. It is still not clear however, whether any of the grain has actually been delivered.   

In his pursuit for the realization of a multipolar world, coupled with the need to present an alternative influential voice that can engage with Africa on global issues, Putin has continued to parade the agenda of BRICS. Russia’s influence is BRICS, a body that comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, is immense, and the inclusion of South Africa in this influential body can be viewed in the context of Russia endearing itself to the continent, and through South Africa gaining more footing in Africa. Putin has further voiced support for Africa’s pursuit for a seat at the exclusive United Nations Security Council, and inclusion into the G20. Putin’s agenda in this quest is simple, he knows that Africa would forever be indebted to Russia for such support were Africa to gain the UN Security Council seat, and would prove to be a strong ally in monumental decision making where Russia’s interests are at stake.

Could this be because Russia itself is isolated and it’s leader, Vladimir Putin, even more so? BRIC’s as an idea is a solid one, but in execution it is relatively ineffective. Add to this the fact that the Putin himself cannot travel to meetings, and the entire BRIC’s setup appears to be more of a challenge than a powerful coalition.    

Russia under Putin has continued to pursue interests across the continent with renewed vigor. Russia has expanded its military presence in Africa, providing arms sales and military training to several African countries. Interestingly, in 2022 Russia overtook Beijing as Africa’s largest supplier of weapons and military hardware in the Sub Saharan region. Furthermore, the political instability occasioned by the coups in West Africa and parts of Central Africa created an opportunity for Russian officials from the Ministry of Defense to visit the Central African Republic, Mali, and further contact the leaders of Burkina Faso. In all these overtures, Putin is seizing an opportunity on the continent he aims to replace western influence with Russian influence in what will unfortunately lead to a new form of ‘Russian neo-colonialism” on the continent. In short Putin is capitalizing on these incidences to entrench Russia’s influence on the continent.  

If we dissect where Russia, the Wagner Group or Africa Corps as they are known now are showing interest, then we cannot ignore the natural resources available in all of the key geographical locations.  This must be a concern for the countries themselves and for the International Community. Putin has clearly set his sights on Africa’s energy reserves with Russian companies investing in oil and gas exploration and production in countries such as Nigeria, Angola, and Algeria. Russia has been keen to also access new markets for its vast energy sector as it also shores up its reserves by investing in Africa’s energy. This has the potential of creating a dependency syndrome that will ultimately dis-advantage the continent. In other words, Africa will have replaced the old colonial masters with a new albeit subtle one. 

While Russia’s use of Private military and security companies, particularly the Wagner Group or Africa Corps has shown nothing but destruction and human rights abuses which are evident and documented in countries like the CAR and Mali. It is the PMSC as the face, but it is clear that it is Putin and the Russian Federation pulling the strings. It is all about exploitation and taking advantage of some of Africa’s most fragile democracies.  

Putin is on a mission and Africa is one of the stones he will use, and step on as he attempts to position himself as a global leader and re-establish Russia as a global powerhouse.