Last week’s Russia-Africa Summit in the Black Sea city of Sochi marked Moscow’s formal re-entry into the African diplomatic arena. The Russians put on a good show, promising Chinese-style “win-win” development and “no strings attached” aid, all of which was enthusiastically embraced by the 40 African leaders who attended the summit.
But something just doesn’t make sense here. While it’s evident that President Putin has a lot to gain from Africa, especially the continent’s 54 votes that often vote as a bloc at international organizations like the U.N., it is not immediately apparent how African governments stand to benefit from closer ties with Russia.
By almost any measure, Russia’s a small player in Africa and that will not likely change any time soon. The Russians aren’t going to buy African oil, nor will they spend a lot to build infrastructure, become a source of private-sector FDI and there won’t be a lot of aid coming from Moscow either.
It’s unclear how Russia’s commitments will measure up when put up against China’s deep foray into Africa especially over the last two decades. Ultimately, these Russia-Africa MOUs aren’t legally binding even if they do signal an intention to move forward with a contract.Journalist Joe Penney who covered the Sochi summit for Quartz
Mostly, Russia sells Africa weapons. A lot of weapons. Which is not exactly what a continent needs where many regions are struggling with civil war, religious extremism, and growing instability.
Furthermore, deeper engagement with Russia also risks alienating Africa’s primary international partners in Brussels, Beijing, and Washington, who unlike Moscow, do provide billions of dollars in badly-needed aid, investment and do considerably more trade with the continent.
So, what’s going on here? Why do African leaders seem so enamored with Russia given that it’s a potentially high-risk, low-return proposition?
Vita Spivak has been asking those same questions. Vita is the Analytical Project Head at the Moscow-based credit ratings agency Expert RA. She recently wrote an article published on the Carnegie Moscow Center website that explored some of these issues and the emerging diplomatic dynamic between Russia and China in Africa.
- Carnegie Russia Center: Russia and China in Africa: Allies or Rivals? by Vita Spivak
- Law Fare Blog: Russian Theater: How to Respond to Moscow’s Return to the African Stage by Judd Devermont
- Quartz: Vladimir Putin signed dozens of MOUs with African countries this week but can’t match China by Joe Penney
Vita Spivak is analytical projects head at “Expert RA” credit rating agency. Prior to that she worked as the Russia in the Asia Pacific Program Coordinator at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Her research interests focus on contemporary Chinese economy and foreign investment in the energy sector, the anti-corruption campaign in the PRC, and the development of the One Belt, One Road Initiative (OBOR). She holds a BA in Chinese history from Moscow State University, and an MA in economics from Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas. She also holds an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from the University of Oxford.