Opinion| Lavrov’s visit to Africa announces awakening of the Russian Bear

Marwa El- Shinawy
7 Min Read

A few days ago, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov went on an African tour, beginning with a visit to Cairo, which he described in his statements as Russia’s leading and first partner in Africa.

This visit comes immediately after the Jeddah Summit for Security and Development, which included the participation of US President Joe Biden and the leaders of the Arab Gulf’s states, along with Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. A meeting which Biden returned from empty-handed.

The results of this visit made it clear to the whole world that the US no longer enjoys a strong influence on the countries of the world as it used to.

It is also remarkable that this visit included Ethiopia and Uganda, whose relations with the west have recently been strained, in addition to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Ethiopia’s relations with the west soured after the outbreak of conflict in its northern Tigray region in 2020, especially when the EU suspended budget support and prompted the US to suspend an important trade agreement that gave Addis Ababa preferential advantages in access to markets.

Relations between oil-rich Uganda and the west have also been strained by allegations of human rights abuses by state security forces and electoral violence.

Thus, it seems clear that the conflict between Moscow and the west in general and the US in particular that is currently taking place in Ukraine has been transferred to Africa with military and economic tools.

In fact, Africa, since the Cold War, has been one of the subjects of the bipolar conflict between the US and Russia, and the competition for it continues beyond the Cold War era.

However, after the deterioration of Russian relations with the west in 2014, Russia began to diversify its contacts in the fields of foreign policy and trade to include Africa. Thus, Russian foreign policy changed with Putin’s rule, especially in recent years, as Russia began to invest in its relations with Africa.

The most prominent feature of this change in Russia’s foreign policy towards Africa was in late October of 2019, when Russian President Vladimir Putin chaired the first Russian-African Summit in Russia’s Sochi on the shores of the Black Sea, and it was clear that Moscow is seeking to extend its influence in a continent that has been absent from for several decades.

Russian interest in Africa was insignificant over the past three decades, with the total volume of trade exchange between Russia and Africa in 2018 amounting to a little more than 20 billion dollars, even though Africa was the only continent that increased the proportion of its imports of Russian products after western sanctions imposed on Moscow over the annexation of Crimea.    

For this reason, in Sochi, Putin announced investment projects worth billions of dollars in several African countries, and it appeared that he was indeed interested in the prospects there, even though he had made only three visits to the south of the continent during his twenty years of rule.

He also did not stop at financial investments, but went beyond them to defence, military, and security cooperation, especially since Africa has become an attractive area for armed violent groups, and many expect the emergence and rise of ISIS and Al-Qaeda once again there. 

Russia also seeks to impose itself as a major source of Russian weapons in Africa — especially Egypt and Algeria — as well as in the field of investments and economic projects, as the most important thing for Russia is to increase government support for the business sector and to increase the investment of Russian companies in African countries, including Rosatom, Gazium, Roosevelt, and expanding partnerships with North African countries, such as Egypt, Algeria, and Libya, who are among Russia’s most important allies.    

Furthermore, the Russian presence in Africa is not limited to the military and economic fields only but has expanded to include the intellectual and cultural field, as Russia has 40 embassies in Africa and has begun to establish many intellectual cultural centres again, sending its elites to teach the Russian language.

Russia has also provided many educational scholarships to students from Africa.   

Indeed, it is currently difficult to compare the Russian presence in Africa with Africa’s traditional partners, such as the US, the UK, and France, or with other emerging powers, such as China. But Russia still has strong advantages that make it a strong and competitive partner on the continent.

Among the most important of these advantages is that Russia is ready to play an important role in resolving outstanding crises in Africa, such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam dispute. Russia can also play a major role in postponing or reducing some debts of African countries such as Angola, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Zambia in light of its distinguished relations with China, who is currently a major lender to 32 African countries, according to reports.    

Most importantly, politically, African countries and Russia are similar in their pursuit of a multipolar system as an alternative to the current world order.

Non-interference in internal affairs is also a very important issue for African countries that have long suffered from neo-colonial policies.

In general, African countries look with satisfaction at Russia because of the historical support for its decolonisation — a point that Lavrov focused on in his visit to Africa, where he said: “We have always helped African countries solve their problems, allowing them to live the way they want.”

Thus, it seems that Russia has many cards that enable it to fight a strong and balanced competition in the arena of international conflicts in light of the new world order that has already begun to emerge.

* Marwa Al-Shinawy is an Assistant Professor at the International American University for Specialised Studies (IAUS)

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