Russia’s push to Africa: Cooperation or competition?

Russia’s push to Africa: Cooperation or competition?

As Russia continues its fight against Syrian elements, it has begun to engage more globally in the fight against terrorism, including Boko Haram.

In the wake of the recent ISIS-led terrorist attacks, global attention is shifting to another terrorist organization, Boko Haram, which operates in West and Central Africa and is even deadlier than ISIS. As Russia re-enters Africa—most recently through pledges to help Nigeria and Cameroon fight against Boko Haram—questions loom about political and commercial interests. And as Russia’s push to Africa advances, competition with the US and China over spheres of influence on this resource-rich continent intensify.

Damaged by a struggling economy and western sanctions, Russia’s involvement in Africa is fundamentally driven by the push for economic opportunity. Indeed, over the last decade, Russia’s trade with the continent has increased ten-fold. In terms of investment, energy is a key driver of Russia’s African pivot. Russia is interested in oil and gas, where it has been a market leader.

A recent deal by Gazprom to acquire Cameroon’s liquefied natural gas, and a burgeoning relationship with Nigeria’s new president, Muhammadu Buhari, who formerly served as Chairman of Nigeria’s Oil and Gas Corporation, point to this interest.

With low barriers to entry, Russia is also interested in minerals to help fuel its economy at a time when critical minerals are prohibitively expensive to mine in Russia.

Politics also drives Russia’s African pivot. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Russia is no stranger to Africa’s leaders and issues, particularly those that relate to the Security Council Agenda, the majority of whose items, in 2015, related to Africa.

After years of diplomatic decline, Russia has revived its presence in Africa, with diplomatic missions now established in 49 of the 53 countries in Africa.

Russia’s renewed diplomatic presence drives a revived political engagement that has helped Russia drum up new alliances with key countries, notably in resource-rich countries of West and Central Africa, where it appears to be seeking a first-mover advantage in the extractive industries, as its relations with the West have taken a nosedive. As a result—at a time when the West speaks of an isolated and increasingly broke Russia—these new alliances have helped Russian leaders retake an almost Soviet-era like sense of prominence on the world stage, with some countries, such as Sudan (which buys arms from Russia) firmly standing behind Russian actions at the UN.

While Russia’s superpower status may still be tarnished, its renewed engagement in Africa is critical to the Kremlin’s ability to maintain a sense of global engagement that engenders domestic public support for Russia’s leaders and Russia’s place in the world. Russia’s Africa pivot may, too, help boost its ailing economy.

As the U.S., China and other major powers expand their operations in Africa, Russia’s has also positioned itself through military engagement on the continent. Russia continues to be a major supplier of military equipment and arms in Africa. With one of the world’s highest military budgets and with military expenditure rising, the sale of equipment in Africa can help Russia offset manufacturing costs at a time when Russia’s GDP is expected to contract.

As Russia continues its push to Africa, business, security and diplomacy will further converge on this resource rich continent.  A strong sign of this convergence is the decision of Russia to train Nigerian forces against Boko Haram.

After the U.S. refused to deliver Nigeria with requested military helicopters, Russia swiftly provided fighter jets in a lucrative deal. As Russia continues to court President Buhari in Nigeria and President Biya in Cameroon, it remains to be seen if a larger pay-off in the extractive industries is around the corner.

About Author

Marina Peunova

Marina Peunova is an analyst with expertise in Europe and Russia. She has written extensively on Russian foreign policy, Islam in Russia, the rise of the Russian and European Far Right, as well as global migration. Marina holds a master’s degree in International History and Politics from the University of Geneva’s Graduate Institute of International Studies and a bachelor’s degree in History from Georgetown University.