Is Russia Winning the Battle for African Support?

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s charm offensive in Africa this week, part of efforts to rally support in the face of growing isolation, has prompted fresh Western hand-wringing. Is Moscow gaining ground in the emerging world? Why can’t African nations see that Russia is waging a war of conquest? On the other side, predictably, it fed propaganda bombast. “Russia is winning the fight for Africa,” one state television presenter told viewers. “The tour has turned out to be a triumphal march.”

Both are wide of the mark.

Since its invasion of Ukraine in February, there’s no question that Russia has found more friendly, or outwardly neutral, partners in the Global South than the West would like. Kenya gave a rousing speech at the Security Council laying out the dangerous implications of Russian irredentism, but when the 193-member General Assembly voted on a resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine, 35 countries — roughly half from Africa, including South Africa and Senegal — abstained. Others, like Ethiopia and Morocco didn’t vote at all.

Soviet-era, anti-colonial ties work to Moscow’s advantage here, along with a widespread distrust of the West, nurtured by expanding Russian disinformation campaigns framing the war as the rich world against the rest. No less crucially, there are defense and security links — what the Kremlin lacks in investment capacity (and it doesn’t come near China’s billions for infrastructure) it makes up for in weapons sales and private military contractors, no awkward questions asked. Russia is also a key exporter of grain and fertilizer to a vulnerable region badly in need of both. Nations like Egypt, the first stop on Lavrov’s tour, need little reminding of the dangers of soaring food inflation.

Still, his destinations — Egypt, Uganda, Republic of Congo and Ethiopia — say a lot about the limits of the Kremlin’s endeavor. Russia’s constrained means (and Africa’s patchwork of political systems) force it to take a selective approach. There are no flashy cash promises from a nation struggling to expand its own sanctioned economy, and while Egypt is a significant trade partner — there’s a reason its leader made a virtual appearance at President Vladimir Putin’s Davos-lite gathering in June — others are less so. None of the stops feature high up in democratic rankings either, so it’s been less a triumph than a round of autocratic nations happy to get a boost from a like-minded government.

The trouble is that’s been enough. Too few African nations have seen the benefit of getting off the fence, and that’s as much about nonaligned traditions and Russia’s historic might as it is about Western disengagement. It’s not that Europe and the United States are absent — French President Emmanuel Macron has just completed a tour of Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau — but they have proven easily distracted by other demands. They tend to portray Africa as a geopolitical battleground, and their investment priorities do not always align with the continent’s own. After a diplomatic retreat during the Trump years, US embassies remain understaffed, and a US-Africa leaders summit announced last year (the second, after a first in 2014) has only just been scheduled for the end of 2022. Not to mention the blunder of attempting to portray the crisis in Ukraine as a war of values to a continent that has seen plenty of evidence of Western hypocrisy.

To help Africa and squeeze Russia, that must change.

It’s clear what Russia, in need of friends and trading partners, gets out of Africa. It’s a resource-rich region that Europe sees as its backyard, with often-weak governments that make it relatively inexpensive to advance Moscow’s interests (and those of close Kremlin associates benefitting from resource and security deals).

But what’s in it for the vast majority of Africans? Russia amounts to a sliver of foreign direct investment into Africa, less than 1% in 2020, and its stagnant economy is not going to thrive any time soon, as the Kremlin prioritizes Putin’s imperial delusions over growth. Import restrictions, Moscow’s removal from international payment systems, a lack of innovation and research make it an unlikely partner in anything other than resources, which have long accounted for the bulk of Russian greenfield investment into the continent, when Africa needs technology instead. Russia accounted for 44% of weapons sales to Africa in 2017-21, but even that will pull back as import restrictions bite, and Russia scrambles to resupply its own armed forces.

Allied governments, eager to sustain support for Ukraine as the war drags, should seize the moment. First, they must recognize today’s food-security concerns, particularly with generous financial and logistical support for nations dependent on food and fertilizer imports and generously support the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Import Financing Facility and other mechanisms. 

Europe and the United States must also recognize that compounding crises — climate, fuel, security, agriculture — demand long-term solutions that include a dramatic increase in renewable-energy generation, more sustainable fertilizer production and use, more resilient crops, plus improved infrastructure to limit the amount of food wasted. Private companies can and must be crowded in.

Then, there’s the need for long-term diplomatic engagement and communication. Staff embassies and invest in the sort of media and education partnerships that China has used to good effect. It isn’t enough to wring hands in Brussels and Washington when the head of the African Union makes misleading comments on Western sanctions and plays into Putin’s hunger games. By then, it’s far too late.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Putin Shows Food Is Becoming the Ultimate Weapon: Hal Brands

• To Save the Planet, Poor Nations Need to Get Paid: Mihir Sharma

• US Should Challenge Tunisian Leader’s Power Grab: Bobby Ghosh

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

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