The Kremlin’s Return to a Tri-polar Africa

Decades ago Francis Fukuyama wrote his now (in)famous The End of History arguing that with the fall of Soviet Union, the world has become unipolar and the western liberal order has triumphed all else. 

Fast forward a few years and one realises that instead of the one pole Fukuyama envisioned, we are moving towards a multi-polar world order, thanks to the rapid rise of China and India, European Union’s clustering together, gradual self-isolation by the US and the reemergence of Russia. 

Ever since President Vladimir Putin came into power, he has actively tried to restore Russia’s lost prestige and regain what he believes is rightful place at the international stage

From the Georgian war to annexing Crimea, the Kremlin has increasingly looked beyond its post-Cold War borders. In the backdrop of an expansionist foreign policy, Russia is now making a comeback to another theatre. 

On October 23 and 24, Sochi hosted a summit of African leaders, featuring an impressive 43 heads of States, marking a symbolic return of Russia to a continent it had practically abandoned some three decades ago. It included business, cultural and trust-building programmes with discussions ranging from opportunities in housing and transport infrastructure of Africa to areas of humanitarian cooperation.  

The declaration signed at the end of the summit called for it to be convened every three years and the establishment of a Russia-Africa Partnership Forum. It also laid down areas of cooperation which spanned political, economic, humanitarian, scientific, security and environmental boundaries among other areas. The 47-point document touched on collaboration with regards to fighting terrorism, sharing, developing educational exchanges, expanding trade and transfer technology.  

For the new African generation, the Kremlin might be a nobody but decades ago, the Soviet Russia in its bid to expand communist ideology was often a preferred partner. That predisposition from local countries came from the fact that when colonised African states were fighting against western powers to gain independence, Moscow stepped up generously with military, economic and political support. Several African leaders had even trained in USSR and thus enjoyed a close relationship with Russia, which was free from the baggage of imperialism and even positioned itself to be the liberator. 

At the peak of the Cold War, the continent was a major hub for this ideological battle between the leftist USSR and the capitalist US. Both the powers tried to win over states through not only development aid but also weapons support and defence cooperation. But as the Soviet empire fell, delivering a severe blow to its economy, it wasn’t sustainable to keep pumping money elsewhere for a war that was already lost. 

Subsequently, the Kremlin hibernated the international stage, including Africa, and Washington became the sole player, before China emerged on the scene with its deep-pocketed investment projects. However, as Russia has tried to reestablish itself, most recently in the Syrian conflict and expanded role elsewhere, it was only natural to officially mark a return to Africa, where the polity of states and the need for development will have a few takers of Moscow’s role. 

Tools at disposal

Unlike the Cold War days, Russia has fewer tools available. Similar to other postcolonial states, the generation that oversaw the freedom movement is almost dead and is being replaced by an upcoming breed that has only known US as the world power or seen the spectacular rise of China. For them, Russia won’t hold the same degree of attraction as it did for the older leaders who were often even trained at Soviet universities or military academies. 

Where the US has established its cultural dominance through Hollywood, the appeal of its world-class universities, the American dream and China with its mega investment projects, Russia has lagged way behind with nothing of that sort to offer. 

Vis-a-vis western countries, the Kremlin has historically used the narrative of post-colonialism skilfully in partnering with African states but that trick won’t be particularly useful against China. The talk will have to match with actions and that requires money, which doesn’t seem to be Russia’s strongest suit. 

The competition is even more intense than the last time as Russia with its $1.66 trillion economy is up against China and the US, whose respective gross domestic products are estimated to be $14 trillion and $20 trillion. 

Despite all the hoo-ha of strong trade ties, data reveal the sheer lack of cooperation between African states and the Russian Federation. As of 2017, the former had exported goods worth $12.6 billion to the latter, accounting for a mere 3.68% of its total proceeds while its imports made up for only 1.12% at a meagre $2.53 billion. 

Bulk of that came from Egypt and Algeria, two North African countries often clustered with Middle East instead. Sub Saharan Africa’s statistics show its total imports and exports from and to Russia standing at a modest $2.49 billion and $608 million, respectively, giving an even bleaker picture of shared trade interests. In comparison, the region’s exports to India were $19.68 billion and China $17.33 billion in the same year. 

Not a zero-sum game

While most western experts and analysts tend to view any Russian moves vis-a-vis Africa as a zero-sum game, reflecting their Cold War-era thought process, it need not be the case for the states. For any developing country, investment and support is always welcome, no matter what source and the political ideology of the giver. 

The arrival of more players might create a healthy competition as major powers will invest from fear of missing out or one-upping each other, thus creating an influx of investments and opportunities for the local population. 

Beyond economic matters too, African states will find a lucrative partner in the Kremlin on which they can depend for building/upgrading their militaries, as Russian weapons are often cheaper than their western alternatives. With regards to fighting terrorism and other conflicts as well, Moscow would be a useful collaborator especially Washington seeks to turn inwards. 

Whatever partnerships do materialise in the end, we are however unlikely to see the partisan world of olden days where smaller countries would be mere pawns of the major world powers. With Chinese spending on mega projects, the other two players would also try to buy loyalties through investments rather than military.