March 13, 2014
Ukraine, Georgia and the Middle East are not the only places Vladimir Putin’s Russia has put a muscular foreign policy on display. Quietly, but with equal determination, President Putin has directed a robust strategic push into a region farther from Russia’s borders – Africa.

Talk of a “new Cold War” may be premature, but it should not be forgotten that, during the original Cold War, Africa was a major theater of the Soviet Union’s competition not only with the United States, but with the People’s Republic of China. And while Beijing’s burgeoning engagements across Africa have received considerable attention, the Kremlin’s reemergence as a significant power in Africa has gone largely unnoticed, unwittingly giving an increasingly assertive Russia a free hand in forging multiple economic, political, and military ties.

At a superficial level, Russia’s dealings with African states share many of the same characteristics as those of “new actors” on the continent. Unlike most of those countries,  however, Russia benefits from ties established decades ago by the assistance the Soviet Union provided to many African anti-colonial leaders and the governments they eventually headed. By the time the Soviet Union formally dissolved on Christmas Day 1991, more than 50,000 Africans had studied in Soviet universities and military and technical institutes and at least another 200,000 Africans had received Soviet training on African soil.

In contrast, the 1990s saw a massive Russian disengagement from Africa, with the mantras of “socialist solidarity” replaced by the spectacle of politicians ranging from President Boris N. Yeltsin to ultranationalist leader Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky blaming Russia’s economic ills on the cost of aid the Soviet Union had given developing nations in Africa and elsewhere.

Ever since Vladimir Putin succeeded Yeltsin as president on New Year’s Eve 1999, however, there has been a slow, but steady, renewal of Russian interest in Africa. A stream of African leaders has been welcomed in Moscow and Russia’s diplomatic presence across Africa has expanded commensurately. Underscoring Russia’s continuing interest in the continent, Putin waxed eloquent at the BRICS summit in Durban, South Africa, in March 2013, about Russia’s “friends and partners in Africa” (the visit itself was his second to South Africa).

Nor has Russia been shy about putting “boots on the ground” in Africa.

Putin has led Russia into an active part in United Nations peacekeeping in Africa, dispatching troops to operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Liberia, Sudan, South Sudan, and the Western Sahara. Currently Russia has more military personnel deployed with the blue helmets in Africa than France, the United Kingdom, and the United States combined.

At the same time, Russia is pouring resources into gathering information about Africa to better shape its policymaking. To cite just one example, the Institute for African Studies within the Russian Academy of Sciences now embraces thirteen research units, a working group, and an information center, employing a total of more than one hundred academic staff members—a substantial commitment of public resources to research that is unmatched by any other government.

All this attention and commitment of resources has a clear strategic rationale. The fifty-four African states make up the largest geographic bloc in any international organization in which they participate and represent a considerable potential political “reserve” for Russian foreign policy interests, especially in cases where Moscow chooses to take a stand in opposition to the Western powers—not least of which is the current standoff over Ukraine. Alongside its geopolitical import, Africa’s economic importance also has emerged as a major factor in the Kremlin’s engagement across the continent. Its economic interest is different from China and India, for whom access to Africa’s natural resources, especially its hydrocarbons, are a strategic necessity if they are to continue to sustain the growth of their economies.

Russia is a major producer and exporter of oil and natural gas and does not need new supplies of energy from the continent. Under Putin, Russia has attempted to increase its control over energy sources throughout the world as a means of strengthening its own economic and political power and has shown interest in gaining control over the supply of oil and natural gas from Africa to European countries. For example, in 2006, following a visit by Putin to Algiers, the Russian natural gas giant Gazprom entered into an agreement with the Algerian state gas company, Sonatrach, to cooperate in exploration, extraction, and production of liquefied natural gas of Africa’s second largest reserves. Just last month, Algeria invited Gazprom and Lukoil, Russia’s second-largest oil company, to tender for the joint development of 30 fields that together make up one-fifth of the North African country. Combined, a Gazprom-Sonatrach partnership would control nearly 40 percent of Europe’s gas consumption.

It cannot be overlooked, however, that Russia does have a critical shortage of certain raw materials, including aluminum, chrome, manganese, mercury, and titanium, and faces the depletion of its reserves of others, including copper, nickel, tin, and zinc. Russia already imports 100 percent of manganese requirements, 80 percent of its chrome, and 60 percent of its bauxite—much of the latter coming from Guinea, where Russian aluminum giant RUSAL’s operation has been beset by labor troubles. (While Russia does have deposits of some of these minerals, the bulk of them are located in remote regions of Siberia and thus they can be more economically extracted and transported from Africa.)

While it still represents a very modest proportion of Russia’s total trade volume, Russian-African trade increased more than tenfold between 2000 and 2012. According to the African Development Bank, Russian companies invested some $20 billion in Africa last year in projects ranging from energy production and mining to infrastructure and fisheries. Russian business interests across the continent are promoted by the Coordination Committee on Economic Cooperation with African Countries (AFROCOM), which brings together ministries and other government agencies as well as companies large and small. AFROCOM is headed by the chairman of state-owned Vnesheconombank (VEB), which created the Russian Agency on Insurance of Export Credits and Investments to facilitate the activities of Russian companies in Africa by protecting export credits and investments from political risk.

Russia has also used both debt relief—to date, some $20 billion—and arms sales as part of its campaign for access to African markets and resources. Some of the customers, like Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, are troubling to say the least. In 2001, Moscow signed a $120 million deal to supply Khartoum with ten MiG-29SE fighters and two MiG-24UB dual-seat trainers; the delivery of the dozen MiG 29s was accelerated in order to get them in early in 2004 before an arms embargo then being debated in the UN Security Council could take effect. The first batch of fighters was followed by an additional fourteen MiG-29SEs, delivered in 2006, and another dozen, delivered in 2008. In 2011, Russia signed a deal to sell two dozen Mi-24 attack helicopters and fourteen Mi-8 transport choppers to Sudan. The helicopters were delivered over the following two years and, according to human rights groups, already have been used against dissidents in the country’s restive peripheral regions, including Blue Nile and South Kordofan. From the Kremlin’s point of view, however, not only do sales like these help extend its influence in Africa, but they help the Russian arms industry at a time when sales to China, once the largest purchaser of Russian arms and now itself increasingly a significant exporter of weapons to Africa, are dropping off dramatically.

While the economic component is increasingly a significant part of Russia’s engagement with and investment in Africa, it is clear that the ultimate motivation for the Kremlin’s foreign policy, especially since the hydrocarbon-enabled resurgence under Putin, is strategic.

Moscow’s foray into the African natural gas sector is aimed at buttressing its ability to keep Europe dependent on Russian gas deliveries by undermining a viable alternative. Its investments in other natural resources on the continent are aimed both at cornering the world commodities markets and ensuring access to raw materials its industries need. Its arms sales and diplomatic support, often for rogue regimes, are aimed at restoring its influence in Africa and assuring a “reserve” of votes at the United Nations and other international forums—a point well understood in the Kremlin, which in the last two years has repeatedly dispatched its special envoy for Africa on shuttles across the continent to garner support for Russia’s position on the conflict in Syria and will, undoubtedly, be sending him around again to canvass for backing over Ukraine.

From the African perspective—at least that of the ruling elites—the relationship is largely beneficial. For many, it is not only that they dealing with a partner they are familiar with from the anti-colonial struggle, but Russia’s current actions enable them to diversify their sources of foreign investment so as to not become too dependent on the United States, France, China, Britain, India, or any other partner. Finally, and perhaps most attractively, the diplomatic and military support offered comes without the often noisome political conditions imposed by American and European governments who, in turn, will find their ability to impose reform agendas and apply other leverage greatly diminished.

In response to both the demands of its historic “Muscovite” political culture and the setbacks in the once-promising relations with the West, Russia finds itself seeking to construct a global system within which its “great power” status is recognized. To this end, the Kremlin can no longer ignore Africa states, not only because of their numbers but because their natural resource wealth complements that held by Russia. While the web of strategic access and other ties that the Russians have been reconstituting and expanding across the continent does not necessarily presage a return to the Cold War era’s often-tragic zero-sum competition, other international actors heavily invested there no longer can ignore Moscow’s resurgent interest.

J. Peter Pham is director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. This commentary is based in part on research for his earlier study, “Back to Africa: Russia’s New African Engagement,” which was published as a chapter in Africa and the New World Era: From Humanitarianism to a Strategic View, edited by Jack Mangala (Palgrave Macmillan 2010).