Fifty votes in the UN

Russia actively bolsters its clout in Africa

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine forces us to look more attentively at all aspects of life in that country, especially the ones that concern us directly or indirectly. This also applies to the place and influence of Russia in the world community and its active work to establish and expand the so-called “Russian World” because its expansion narrows our capacity to spread true information about events in Ukraine. Our mass media follow quite in detail what is being done in this field in respect of Europe and the US. In spite of all efforts, Russia has no major gains here. On the contrary, these countries offer ever stronger resistance to Russia’s intentions and become more and more aware of the ruinous consequences of its policy. But there is a region, where the intention of Russia to expand the “Russian Word’s” territory is producing certain results. This region is Africa, or, to be more exact, Sub-Saharan Africa. It is 50 countries, 50 votes in the UN. By contrast with European states, events in Ukraine have nothing to do with them geographically and therefore exert no direct influence on their policy towards Russia. On its part, Russia pursues a policy of purposeful economic and military expansion in these countries and is drawing them into the sphere of its influence. The knowledge of these processes ought to force the Ukrainian leadership to pay more attention to the African vector of Ukraine’s foreign policy.


To resume and bolster its clout in Africa, Russia uses a considerable scientific groundwork laid in the USSR era: the Institute of Africa of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Center for African Studies in St. Petersburg, and the journal Asia and Africa Today. The Foreign Ministry of Russia has the office of a roving ambassador to the Middle East and Africa, who spends most of his time in these regions. To coordinate the activities of Russian governmental and nongovernmental organizations, a nonprofit Afrocom was established in 2009 under the aegis of VTB Bank. This entity launched the “African Business Initiative” in 2016 in order to concentrate efforts exclusively on economic cooperation. Dozens of treaties have been signed with every African country, which lays the reliable legal groundwork for Russian companies in Africa. Seventeen intergovernmental commissions for economic cooperation are functioning. The abovementioned VTB has opened its branches in a number of countries and invested 2 billion dollars in Afroexsimbank. At the same time, Russia has written off a $20-billion-worth debt of African countries. As a result, in 2016 Africa was the only region with which Russia increased its trade turnover.


Of course, economic aid is the main instrument of influence in a given country. Russia is not a major player in this field in Africa. While trade of China with African countries in 2016 accounted for over 300 billion dollars and that of the US – 100 billion, it was 14.5 billion dollars in the case of Russia. But Russia is doing its best to make up for the Soviet-era influence. Here are a few examples. Russia is the No. 1 supplier of weapons and military hardware to African countries. It is building nuclear power plants in South Africa and Nigeria, is planning to build some in Sudan and helping to establish nuclear centers in Kenya and Zambia, and helped Angola launch the Angosat satellite from Baikonur Cosmodrome. Russia is developing the world’s second largest deposit of platinum in Zimbabwe. Thirty five Russian companies, including Rosoboronexport, Zarubezhgeologia, Inter RAO, and Russia Railways, have obtained licenses to work in Ethiopia. They are building a LED lamp factory in Burundi and a fish-processing plant in Senegal. Renova is extracting uranium in Namibia and manganese in South Africa. Rusal is developing a bauxite deposit in Guinea. Severstal is extracting iron ore in Liberia, and Alrosa controls the extraction of precious stones in Angola. Russian companies are prospecting for new deposits of mineral resources all over Africa. Lukoil is extracting oil in Equatorial Guinea and plans to get back to Nigeria. This list can be continued.


The national leadership’s active interest in Africa contributes to the successes of Russian companies in this region. Vladimir Putin has visited Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, and twice South Africa. Dmitry Medvedev, as president of Russia, was in Nigeria, Angola, and Namibia, and recently came back from Morocco. Putin has two advisors for African issues – Sergey Ivanov (worked in Kenya) and Igor Sechin (worked as translator in Angola and Mozambique). Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has visited South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Angola, South Sudan, Algeria, and Burundi, and planning to visit Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe again in the near future. There are 35 Russian embassies in the 50 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. Accordingly, 33 African countries have their embassies in Moscow, while there are only three embassies (the two of which represent pro-Kremlin countries) in Kyiv. Moscow always receives presidents, prime ministers, or ministers of one African country or another. Three years ago the Kremlin hosted a forum of the African alumni of Soviet and Russian higher educational institutions. The president of Russia made a speech to them. This activity considerably increased after sanctions had been imposed on Russia in response to aggression against Ukraine.

To make an integral picture of Africa as a region, it is worthwhile to say a few words about Northern Africa which is in fact part of the Arab world.

After seizing Crimea and reinforcing the naval base in Tartus (Syria), Russia is restoring its clout on Egypt: it holds joint military exercises, builds a military base on the border with Libya, is going to build a nuclear power plant, and has founded an Egyptian-Russian university. In Libya, the Russians control the largest battleworthy force commanded by General Khalifa Haftar, a graduate of a Russian educational institution, and print money for him. Algeria is traditionally the biggest buyer of Russian military equipment, which leads to certain dependence on Russia and irritates France. Hence, the Crimea – Syria – Egypt – Libya – Algeria chain makes Russia an influential player in the Mediterranean basin.

This activity of Russia bolsters its clout in the countries of Africa and shapes a positive attitude to it. This gives Russia a chance to strengthen its position in the US-Russia-China triangle.


What political dividends does Russia derive from this after all, on the example of concrete countries?

The ruling party of the South African Republic (SAR), the African National Congress, has officially recognized the so-called referendum in Crimea and regards the 2013-14 events in Ukraine as a coup d’etat. It consistently supports the Russian stand.

After an emotional speech of the former president of Ghana Jerry Rawlings on the rights of peoples to self-determination in March 2014, the SAR-based Pan-African Parliament supported the so-called “referendum” in Crimea.

Sudan’s President Field Marshal Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, is a personal friend of Putin. He often visits Moscow. They are negotiating a Russian military base in Sudan. He also regularly votes in support of Russia at all international organizations.

The recently overthrown Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe was also a personal friend of Putin and often visited him. He shared his experience of surviving in the conditions of sanctions. He and the former South African president Jacob Zuma were the only African leaders who attended the military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2015. They also regularly support Russia in the UN. Time will show what attitude the new leadership of Zimbabwe will choose to take.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni is actively imposing his friendship on Putin and has already visited Moscow at his invitation.

During a visit to Moscow, Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu “showed readiness to defend the position of Russia on international platforms.” His Tanzanian counterpart Bernard Membe said, also in Moscow: “Russia is a superpower,” and called for opening a representation of the African Union in Moscow. And it does not always sound so stiff and diplomatic. Their South Sudanese counterpart turned out to be a lyricist. “We always have good weather. The sun is shining, and the sauna is free of charge. Don’t sit here in Moscow, come to us.”

In Mali, when the situation in the north became tense, they gathered about 10,000 signatures under the letter to Putin, requesting him to come and help establish peace.

Equatorial Guinea is still sending its guys to Sevastopol to train as naval officers.

In Cameroon, postage stamps with a portrait of Putin were issued.

And, to crown it all, Russia signed a treaty on defense cooperation with King Mswati III of Swaziland.

This attitude to Russia affects the results of UN votes on the resolution about Russia’s violation of human rights in Crimea. While in December 2016 nine countries of Sub-Saharan Africa supported it, only three (out of 50) did so in December 2017 – Botswana, Liberia, and the Seychelles. (The Prosecutor General of Ukraine was absolutely right to choose the Seychelles for his vacation as a token of gratitude for their position in the UN.)

Not only Europe and the US is the battlefield for a place in the world. Russia is aware of this. It compensates the growing resistance to its policies in Europe and North America by bolstering its clout in Africa.

In all the years of independence, none of Ukraine’s presidents and prime ministers has visited a country of Sub-Saharan Africa. By all accounts, this region is absent in the foreign policy of Ukraine. There are only three full-fledged embassies functioning today – of Senegal, Nigeria, and Kenya. Their leaders bypass Ukraine, too.

Ruslan Harbar is director of the Center for African Studies