Should the world be worried because of Russia setting its eye on Africa? Until not many years ago, the question was of little or no importance to geo-political and economic analysts.
“Russia is interested in developing economic relations with Africa, but does not have much to offer”, University of KwaZulu-Natal professor Irina Filatova said, for instance, in 2012. “And what it does have to offer, it does not quite know how to”, she added. Almost three years later, she could not have proved to be more wrong.
Russia’s economic, strategic and commercial interests in Africa, indeed, are not comparable to those of China, the US, or even some European countries such as France and the UK, but Moscow’s presence on the continent is undoubtedly on the rise. This has been demonstrated in recent years by Vladimir Putin’s visits to Egypt, Algeria, South Africa (to Cape Town in September 2006, the first of a Russian head of State in sub-Saharan Africa) Morocco and Libya. Also Dmitri Medvedev, who replaced – due to constitutional provisions – Putin as president from 2008 to 2012, visited Nigeria, Angola, Namibia and Egypt in April 2009. These choices reflect some of the Kremlin’s African priorities, but Russian action in the continent is guided by a wide range of interests which might even increase in the light of recent developments such as the Ukrainian crisis.
The events in Kiev, in Crimea and in the east of the country have left Moscow isolated, sanctioned by both the EU and the US and in need of allies within the international organizations. So, for Russia, boosting its relationship with as many African countries as possible, means building a ‘reserve’ of votes at the United Nations and in other international forums, states that can back Moscow on issues such as the Ukrainian conflict or the war in Syria. Even more importantly, setting foot in Africa – as many global actors have understood – is an essential step to gain (or regain, as in the Kremlin’s case) the status of global superpower: Africa hosts some of the fastest-growing economies in the world. In a medium term perspective – and in some cases even in the short term – these states can turn into strategic allies, but first of all they are potential markets, almost-virgin soil for commercial expansion.
Moreover, they hold important natural resources that complement those of Russia.
Unlike China or India, in fact, Russia does not need Africa’s hydrocarbons to support its growth: nevertheless it does have a critical shortage of certain raw materials, including aluminum, chrome, manganese, mercury, and titanium, and is rapidly running out of copper, nickel, tin, and zinc. Russia already imports 100 percent of the manganese it uses, 80 percent of its chrome, and 60 percent of its bauxite. Exploiting Africa’s vast deposits of these minerals turns out to be more economic than investing in domestic mines, which would ave to be opened in remote parts of Siberia, where conditions are extreme.
A major stage in what can be called the Kremlin’s scramble for African resources has been the already mentioned 2009 Medvedev visit. On that occasion, the then president was accompanied by some 400 businessmen, including the executives of the largest state-owned enterprises: Gazprom (natural gas), Lukoil (oil) and Rosatom (nuclear energy). The impact of the visit went well beyond the deals that were signed at the time (such as the ones with Nigeria). In fact, it was also interpreted as a sign that Russia – which up to that point had focused on North Africa and especially on Egypt and Morocco, was willing to act on the sub-Saharan scene as well. The main achievements of these strategies so far are the $3 billion deal signed by Russia last September with Zimbabwe to create the largest platinum mine in the country and the launch, the previous July, of the Dian-Dian bauxite project in Guinea, in which $220 million will be invested for the first phase alone.
What should be noted is that the economic benefits of such initiatives are not one-sided, mainly because of the embargoes imposed on Russia following the Ukrainian crisis, which forced Moscow either to find new commercial partners or to strengthen existing relations: among the African beneficiaries of such choices are Morocco (for fruit and vegetable imports, which grew by 40% between 2013 and 2014 and are expected to rise further due to the western-imposed sanctions), Senegal (talks are underway to increase fishing quotas) and Mauritius. Also the Indian Ocean island, together with Mozambique, will in fact provide larger shares of fish to the Russian market.
These are only some of the moves which Moscow relies on to further increase the share of Africa on its overall trade: at the moment, according to the latest data (those for 2013), it constitutes less than 2% of Russia’s total exchanges, despite a steep rise from about $1 billion in 2000 to $11 billion in 2012. One of the instruments that can be used to improve these figures is undoubtedly the BRICS cartel, which since 2010 includes South Africa, the most important (even if no longer the biggest) economy south of the Sahara. This year Vladimir Putin will chair the group and prepare its seventh summit: in the Russian government’s view, this can also be regarded as an opportunity to improve its involvement in continental matters, maybe with an eye to what they used to be in the past. (D.M.)