Chapter 13. Russia and Africa: Not Only Grain, Oil, and Tanks

April 15, 2024

Relations between Russia and African countries are centuries long. During this time, the periods of increased interest in the region were followed by the decades of neglect and oblivion. This was the case at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries when the Russian Cossacks tried to establish Russian military presence in the Red Sea, and Russian volunteers participated in the Anglo-Boer War on the side of the Boers;  as it was in the 1930s, when the Communist International (Comintern) supported South African communists and in the 1940s when Soviet Prime Minister Vyacheslav Molotov at post-war conferences declared that the USSR  needed “a corner in the Mediterranean for its merchant fleet”[1] meaning Libya. The cornerstone of Soviet policy in Africa remained an outright rejection of colonialism and apartheid and consistent opposition to it. The USSR’s efforts made a significant contribution to having 1960 be declared the Year of Africa. So far, the most intense period of relations between the Soviet Union and Africa have been from the 1960s through1980s.

Soviet policy in Africa was contradictory. On the one hand, it was an attempt to build socialism in individual countries, and to this end significant political, financial and military efforts were made (in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia etc.). As is the case for countries, the USSR sought to develop relations purely in the trade area (Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal) on a mutually beneficial basis. The period after the collapse of the USSR was marked by a sharp decline in cooperation in all areas: several embassies were closed, and the implementation of projects started by the Soviet Union was stopped halfway.

Russia and Africa: ups and downs

One has been talking about Russia’s next return to Africa for almost over a decade already. At first, this trend was marked by analysts and international relations experts, and then followed by the Russian authorities. In fact, it is not the first time since the collapse of the USSR that Moscow has made attempts to return to Africa: separate initiatives, that did not receive any substantive continuation, were undertaken at the very beginning and at the very end of the 2000s. Attempts aimed at developing relations at that time were unsystematic and sporadic (such as Dmitry Medvedev’s[2] tour of African countries in 2009), and in general Russia-Africa relations were then confined to individual investments by Russian mining companies, arms supplies, debt issues and the cooperation under the auspices of G8.

Now, despite the criticism of Western analysts that Russia’s approaches to Africa are unsystematic and opportunistic[3], every year the contours of a long-term and strategic partnership are becoming clearer. Despite the loss of momentum in Russia-Africa relations because of the COVID-19 pandemic and with international pressure mounting after the start of the Special Military Operation in Ukraine, Moscow managed to successfully host the 2nd Russia-Africa Summit in Saint Petersburg in July 2023. These achievements demonstrate that the first summit held in 2019 and its success was not a one-time political and propagandistic victory for Moscow but laid the foundation for a long-term partnership.

Map 8. Vladimir Putin’s Contacts with African Heads of States and Governments in 2023.
© Compiled by PIR Center based on Official Website of the Russian President 

More and more new tools and institutions are being established for interaction with African countries. The role of Africa in Russian doctrinal documents has been increased as well. For instance, in 2023 there was only one paragraph dedicated to Africa at the very end of the Russian Foreign Policy Concept (as it was in 2016, 2013, 2008), while now it has been replaced by entire six paragraphs. Moreover, Africa is given more weight in the Concept than Latin America, Europe, and the Anglo-Saxon world.

The current Russian Foreign Policy Concept contains five priority goals for Africa:

  1. support for the sovereignty and independence of African countries;
  2. assistance in conflict resolution;
  3. expansion of Russia-Africa cooperation (including under the framework of the African Union);
  4. development of trade and economic ties;
  5. humanitarian cooperation. 

The main principles that guide Russia when building relations with African states are the following ones:

  • the Soviet legacy;
  • support for the principle of African problems – African solutions;
  • non-interference in internal affairs and common views on a multipolar world. 

Based on 2023 Russian Foreign Policy Concept
Source: Russian Foreign Ministry

Russia, Africa, and their neighbors

The argument that Russia is long overdue[4] and not able to compete with the players already established in Africa – China, the EU, the USA, and India – has never been defended. On the contrary, Russia has managed to occupy certain niches almost without competition, not displacing, but rather complementing other extra-regional players. In general, in Africa Russia is trying to move away from great power confrontation (unlike, for example, the United States). Even the strengthening of Russia’s position in West Africa and the ousting of France from there was the result not of Moscow’s proactive foreign policy but of systemic mistakes made by Paris when building relations with the region. Moreover, African countries have already gained enough sovereignty, so that one can talk about Scramble for African attention rather than a new Scramble for Africa.

The previous decade consolidated two main trends in the balance of power in Africa. The influence of the West is slowly but surely declining, while the influence of the Global South, on the contrary, is growing. Not only China, India, and Türkiye but also the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and many others are developing relations with African countries. However, despite it, it is too early for the radical anti-Western public to rejoice at the West’s exodus from Africa. Over 200 years of their presence in Africa, Western countries and businesses have gained a significant and systemic level of influence on the countries of the region (down to power plug types and consumer habits). The systemic influence on legislation, management systems, technical and phytosanitary specifications accumulated by the former metropolises on the continent will allow them to retain the main markets in the long term, while taking much less effort compared to new players. Thus, any even radical political turbulence will not be able to instantly oust the West from Africa. More than that, this is not necessary. The United States and Europe will remain in Africa. Moreover, their interests in the region must be considered in order to prevent the great power confrontation from spilling over to African territory among other things.

Since the second half of the 2010s Europe and the United States have shaped a certain specific view on the Russian presence in Africa: the focus of Western experts and analysts has mostly been laid on private military companies (PMCs), political strategists, arms supplies and Russian mining companies. This approach has taken hold and has been mainstreamed in the West and is noticeable in the majority of publications then flowing into the media. In the watershed years of 2021-2022, there emerged in several works on the Russia-Africa relations a new thesis that boils down to a simple maxim: Russia’s interest in Africa is the destabilization of the continent.

For example, Joseph Siegle’s[5] article The Future of Russia-Africa Relations[6], published by the Brookings, states: “Russia’s opaque engagements are inherently destabilizing for the citizens of the targeted countries, resulting in stunted economic development, human rights abuses, disenfranchisement of African citizens, the perpetuation of illegitimate governments, and social polarization”[7]. The article suggests that the author drew conclusions based on the analysis of Russia’s presence in Libya, Mali, Sudan, and the Central African Republic.

Another article with similar conclusions was published in February 2022 in Foreign Policy magazine, namely Russia Has Big Plans for Africa by Samuel Ramani[8]. Among other things, Ramani notes: “…the United States and Europe should benefit from the differences between Moscow and Beijing. In fact, the two powers are at odds over the key issue of African stability: China’s Belt and Road Initiative needs a calm Africa, while Russia has a fondness for disruption”[9].

In 2022, Western analysts reengaged in earnest with the issue of Russian presence in Africa. Major analytical platforms have been regularly publishing materials on this topic, and with the start of the Russian Special Military Operation in 2022 in Ukraine and the intensification of the US search for allies among neutral developing countries, Russia-Africa relations track has become even more relevant.

Russia’s stance on regional security issues

Indeed, in the second decade of the 21st century the number of armed confrontations increased significantly. The total area of ​​zones outside the control of governments is steadily growing, new pockets of instability are emerging, for example, in East Africa around ​​the Ruvuma River (northern Mozambique and southern Tanzania) – as a rule, new zones are also connected to existing ones by the corridors through which illegal movement of weapons, armed groups and preachers of radical ideologies take place. It is typical that destructive forces operating in isolation (for example, in the Niger Delta) tend to form such corridors and to establish links with long-existing entrenched zones outside the state control, often despite religious or political differences.

Among the reasons for the expansion of zones of instability is the institutional weakness of African states, the lack of strong and combat-ready security forces, as well as the tools for solving social and infrastructural problems outside capitals and economic centers. Trying to find the hand of Moscow behind every conflict unfolding in Africa, Western analysts proceed from a simple logic that their countries have used more than once. They posit that Russia per se is not interesting for the current political elites of African countries, and for that reason the Russian policy to expand its presence on the continent is mostly aimed at toppling disloyal regimes and creating pro-Russian elites. This premise is wrong. Concentrating on individual controversial cases (Central African Republic, Libya, or Guinea, where corporate interests of certain Russian businessmen play much greater role than of the official Moscow), they ignore Russia’s successful experience in the developing relations with Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, and South Africa, the established economies, which either take an independent line or gravitate towards the Euro-Atlantic bloc.

Russia is interested in African countries becoming independent players, with their strong institutions, their own view of the world and committed to developing relations with Russia based on their own national interests. Now when the European markets are closed for Russian exporters, the latter will have to fight for the African markets of petroleum products, grain, and machinery, in the stable growth of which they are now even more interested than before. The vote at the UN General Assembly on Ukrainian resolutions showed that Africa is neutral to Russia. Moscow doesn’t need anything more.

In general, Russia does not need to support or cultivate the so-called pro-Russian elites. There are only a few countries left in Africa that are clearly oriented only to the West and are not interested in the development of contacts with Moscow. For most African countries partnership with Russia is a natural choice, along with partnerships with other centers of power – from Washington and Brussels to Beijing and Tehran. The political elite of African countries is very heterogeneous, and different groups are oriented to different directions, organically complementing each other, and shaping a diversified and balanced foreign policy line.

Russia is now working to expand the institutional framework for cooperation, including capacity-building in the field of information and analytical competencies, personnel training, and the development of peacekeeping infrastructure. These measures will allow Russia not only to make a more tangible contribution to peace and stability on the continent, thereby demonstrating in practice its capabilities as a champion of peace, but also to participate in the future in the formation of a transparent and regulated security architecture.

By and large, Russia has fulfilled the task of gaining a foothold and staying in Africa. Relations with most African countries have been tested by the pandemic, energy, and food crises. Moscow has managed to lay the foundation for a long-term partnership – to double the number of African students enrolled at Russian universities (to 35 thousand in 2022)[10], to become one of the key guarantors of food and energy security and to form the doctrinal foundations of the partnership.

Now Russia faces a new arduous task in Africa: to move from the so far predominantly trade model of relations to a deeper partnership that meets, on the one hand, the interests of Russia’s development (the implementation of national projects, achievement of technological sovereignty, etc.), and, on the other hand, – the interests of African countries (for example, their aims within the Agenda 2063, the set of initiatives put forward the African Union, UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), national strategic goals, etc.).

Africa: area of growth or critical disbalances and challenges?

Africa is a region of catching-up development and will remain to be it for a long time to come, however, this lagging behind the developed world provides several advantages, including allowing Africa to learn from previously made mistakes or even skip the entire periods of industrial development. For example, cellular communication on the continent has not replaced landline telephone networks but have arisen from almost out of nowhere. Also, most African countries do not need to deal with the problem of coal-fueled power plants now: they simply do not have it. The lack of traditional infrastructure (schools, hospitals, roads, power lines) opens up the opportunity to start immediately with advanced technologies: from distance education and telemedicine to smart networks and distributed generation. Also, banking cards will most likely remain unfamiliar to most of the continent’s population:  immediately from in-kind exchange and cash payments there will most likely be the transition to using mobile phones as a means of payment.

It is no exaggeration to say that the main challenge threatening African countries now is security – not only physical, but energy, food, climate, biological, and informational. Contrary to the general trend of the increasing interstate contradictions which is gaining ground in many regions, Africa, fortunately, remains aloof from them. The last major interstate conflict in Africa ended more than 20 years ago, and we have just recently marked ten years without full-scale interstate violence in Africa. Nevertheless, the number of intrastate conflicts, zones beyond the control of central governments, is growing. Moreover, these conflicts often affect several countries at once and are internationalized. Another alarming trend is that the most unstable and fragile countries (Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Sudan), which have experienced coups d’état, are being isolated by their neighbors, their membership in regional organizations is suspended, sanctions are imposed on them, and it does not at all lead to a change in domestic policy and democratization but leaves them alone with internal problems.

Social issues, lack of basic infrastructure, conflicts over access to resources (not cobalt or platinum but drinking water and arable land) underlie almost all conflicts in Africa which most often pass off as so-called ethnic or religious conflicts. Many conflicts in Africa have existed for centuries, taking different forms and under different brands. For example, the centuries-old herder-farmer confrontation in northern Nigeria, currently being escalated by the desertification, in the 21st century has taken the form of radical Islamism and jihadism under the banners of Boko Haram[11] and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)[12].
The growth of Africa’s population makes it possible to mitigate these risks. The population growth, among other things, leads to urbanization, increased consumption, market growth, investments influx in infrastructure, as a result many necessary intra-African projects, which are now less profitable than export-import deals will become more attractive to investors. But at the same time, the population growth will increase pressure on social infrastructure, provoking social instability and surge in violence. Finally, it is now generally accepted that the more people there are in Africa, the more Africa will import, implying the long-term attractiveness of the countries in the region as markets. However, it remains out of the question that many African countries are already living with a chronic trade deficit, covering it through external borrowing, increasing external debt, or forex, which are gradually declining. Most of the African countries whose economies had grown the fastest over the past ten years (Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia) found themselves in debt with a negative trade balance of 10 billion dollars annually.

With China abandoning its model of lending to African countries[13], it could lead to a new debt crisis in Africa, a whole series of defaults and economic turmoil. The only possible solution for African countries here may be to reduce imports through the localization of production and import substitution. In turn, localization and import substitution will first require an increase in imports, but a different degree of it: seeds and agricultural machinery instead of grain and semi-finished products, distillation columns and pipes instead of diesel and gasoline, machine tools and induction furnaces instead of rolled steel and steel ingots. This will also require the import of services.

African countries will have to abandon or reduce the export of energy resources, foster domestic consumption, invest into the construction and development of sustainable energy systems (Africa will need many additional gigawatts (GW) in any case, the demand for them cannot be satisfied by renewables only) – without this, the industrialization will be impossible. The development of agriculture, irrigation systems and arable land areas will require the creation of integrated systems to monitor climate change, soil conditions, river flows, desertification dynamics, animal migration, and livestock numbers. Such systems should be based on a developed and independent information and communication (ICT) infrastructure (own data centers, cables, satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), etc.). With regard to technology, one may distinguish a number of key industries, the development of which will dramatically change Africa: critical minerals, energy, ICT, space. In all these sectors, Russia has accumulated a wealth of experience, which may be in demand in Africa at various stages.

Technologies and knowledge in Africa: state of affairs and possible future trends

Critical minerals and energy

Africa has already secured its participation in global value chains in the high-tech industries of the future. The production of microchips, processors and batteries is impossible without critical minerals Africa is rich in: cobalt, chromium, manganese, tantalum, titanium, lithium, copper, platinum, palladium, etc. Africa, despite the fact that from a geological point of view it remains poorly studied, accounts for 30 percent of the world’s natural resources and ranks first in reserves of manganese, chrome, bauxites, and cobalt. It is the second largest in terms of reserves of copper, asbestos, uranium, and beryllium, and the third – in terms of oil, gas, mercury, and iron ore reserves. Although traditionally uranium is not classified as a critical mineral, it can also be considered along with others, since recent trends in global energy markets allow us to talk about uranium as a new critical mineral.

Figure 16. Reserves of Natural Resources: Africa and the World.
© Compiled by PIR Center based on United Nations

Competition for Africa’s critical minerals is growing every year, and the battle between Western and Chinese investors for mines is growing fiercer. While these markets are still emerging, African countries are developing regulatory frameworks for the operation of these industries, and the list of foreign investors changes every year. At this stage, it is important for African countries to avoid mistakes made in the oil and gas industry. Its experience shows that the window of opportunity for structuring the industry is quite small, and once developed rules and norms are extremely rigid and practically impossible to change (the oil and gas industries of Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, to a greater or lesser extent, still function according to the rules established at the end of colonial era).

African countries are taking steps aimed at developing their own processing industry in the field of mining: Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and others are introducing direct bans on the export of ore requiring at least its partial beneficiation on their own territory. Such requirements ensure sustainable development of the mining sector, diversification of the economy, and attract modern technologies, foreign investment, and knowledge. Unfortunately, due to many reasons (primarily energy shortages), complete localization of value chains is not yet possible in Africa. But African countries can use the explosive growth of the market for critical minerals to their advantage through the development of infrastructure, transfer of knowledge and technology. The regulatory framework that African governments should elaborate will play a key role in this, which in turn will require retraining of civil servants and the development of long-term industry strategies.

Energy deficit is one of the main obstacles to the sustainable growth of African economies, therefore African governments are placing emphasis on the growing demand for any solutions in energy sector, and for this market there is a struggle between corporations from the USA, EU countries, Japan, China, India, Türkiye, UAE, etc. Companies from these countries are involved in developing strategies for the development of all the sectors of economy, corporations, regulatory frameworks, and finally, companies from the former metropolises rely on the solid basis laid in the colonial times.

In the medium term, the energy sector of Africa will develop based on gas/hydroelectric power plants as the main source of electric power generation, as well as on renewable energy sources to supply energy to certain remote agricultural areas. It is possible that coal-based power generation will retain its place in the energy mix (to balance out the demand and meet power needs during peak periods). However, in the long term a number of large African economies may be interested in nuclear energy (which still remains too expensive and requires significant political and regulatory efforts for development). So far, African countries have been showing, rather, a political interest for nuclear energy. However, its high cost and the politicization of projects play against the translation of political declarations into reality.

In Africa, and especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, there are few countries that have several dozens of billions of dollars to build a nuclear power plant. Moreover, many countries depend on the loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which will undoubtedly prevent an increase in budgets burden (and particularly because a nuclear power plant is associated with Russia), and promote solutions based on renewable energy sources instead. When assessing the prospects for nuclear power plant construction in Africa, other risks should be considered, such as insufficient level of development of electrical grid infrastructure in African countries, security risks and personnel shortages. Given the challenges in food security and health care, nuclear technology has great potential in these areas in Africa. In any case, Africa requires preparatory infrastructure for the development of nuclear sector: training, development of industry (energy) strategies, legal and regulatory framework.

ICT and space

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0) implies a widespread introduction of the Internet of things, digitalization of most services in the sphere of public administration and control, the introduction of blockchain technologies, distributed data storage, and so on. And this industrial revolution could be the first in which Africa plays a prominent role, not just of a resource base. African states are at the initial stage of developing many basic institutions. The vacuum of state power is still filled with traditional management systems and networks of informal economic relations. Digitalization gives African states the opportunity to form a governance architecture without destroying traditional ties but relying on them and through them getting access to continental integration platforms. Big data is becoming increasingly important. Digital platforms are penetrating key areas of public administration, voter registers, electronic passports, land passports, registers of licenses, natural resources, industrial and infrastructure facilities, etc. are appearing everywhere. In the future, distributed data storage and transaction processing systems, geographic information systems, and unified public service portals will become the main components of public administration.

The formation of sovereign information and communication systems, among other things, will require African countries to increase the number of satellites. This is a growing market, for which there is already a struggle between Chinese and European companies. Russia is still lagging behind in this race; its image was also tainted by unsuccessful launches of Angolan and Egyptian satellites, the contact with which was lost almost immediately after the launch, but it is not too late to catch up. More than 20 African countries already have their own space programs. The number of African satellites in orbit is growing every year. As of 2023, there were 53 African satellites in orbit[14]. A total of 15 countries in the region have their own satellites, with South Africa (12) and Egypt (10) leading in terms of their quantity, with six satellites launched in the interests of Algeria and Nigeria[15]. So far, satellites have been used by Africa to solve primarily two key tasks – to monitor the Earth’s surface and provide satellite communications. To the extent the digitalization, the population and the threat of climate change increase, Africa will require more and more owners in orbit that rely on their own data storage and processing systems.

Sustainable relations for many years to come

The role of Africa in the global economy and international relations has been growing progressively since at least the 1960s and will continue to grow in the foreseeable future. In the long term, Africa should be regarded as a region with a significant potential for growth, consolidation, and development. Africa is spoilt for choice and is becoming a more selective and demanding partner. For Russia, Africa has become, firstly, a promising market for its goods and services, the cooperation with which allows to contribute to the formation of a fair multipolar world order. None of the African countries perceives Russia as an enemy, a former colonial power, or a potential hegemon. On the contrary, Moscow, unlike most others global players, is perceived as a partner capable of strengthening African sovereignty, agency, and independence.

Russia’s interests in Africa can be narrowed down to two interrelated tasks:

  1. export of sovereignty, that is supporting the strengthening of African states and state institutions;
  2. trade development.
Figure 17. Trade between Russia and African Countries (as of March 2022).
© Compiled by PIR Center based on Federal Customs Service of Russia

Despite the growth in the previous decade, most African countries remain institutionally dependent on external partners. In terms of state-building, legislative work, and strategic planning, they have been used to relying on foreign partners and consultants – European, American, Japanese, and in recent years Chinese.

In order to enter African markets and gain a strong foothold in them, Russian companies and government institutions should participate in creating an environment favorable to cooperation: for example, propose government initiatives, programs, strategies, and conduct relevant research jointly with the African side. Russia building its long-term partnership with Africa should better understand the challenges facing the region, consider African approaches and views when putting forward any large-scale initiatives, should coordinate and work through them with African counterparties. By and large, the technology transfer and capacity-building should be the basis of Russia-Africa partnership.Disruptive technologies (space, ICT, critical minerals, etc.) are the ones that are likely to determine the economy of the future and, accordingly, the architecture of international relations. Africa has missed the cycle of transition from coal to oil, from industry to services, remaining largely hostage to the vested interests of other countries and critically dependent on foreign knowledge and technology. Changes in the economy and world politics provide an opportunity for Africa to strengthen its economic sovereignty, and Russia should remain ready to facilitate this process precisely to the extent that Africa needs it.

[1] Африка в судьбе России. Россия в судьбе Африки / ред. А.С. Балезин [и др.] ; Ин-т всеобщей истории РАН, Отдел регион. исслед., Центр африканских исслед. – Москва : РОССПЭН, 2019. – 605 с. URL:

[2] President of the Russian Federation from 2008 to 2012. – Editor’s Note.

[3] Kalika A. Russia’s “Great Return” to Africa? / Russie.Nei.Visions, 2019. № 114 // French Institute of International Relations, April 2019. URL:

[4] Stronski P. Late to the Party: Russia’s Return to Africa // Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 16, 2019. URL: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is included by the Russian Ministry of Justice to the register of foreign agents. – Editor’s Note.

[5] Dr. Joseph Siegle leads research and strategic communications program of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS). ACSS is an academic institution, part of the US Department of Defense and funded by the US Congress.

[6] Siegle J. The Future of Russia-Africa Relations // Brookings, February 2, 2022. URL:

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ramani S. Russia Has Big Plans for Africa // Foreign Affairs, February 17, 2022. URL:

[9] Ibid.

[10] В России учатся порядка 35 тысяч студентов из Африки, сообщил Путин // РИА Новости, 24 июля 2023 г. URL:

[11] The organization is recognized as terrorist in the Russian Federation. – Editor’s Note.

[12] The organizations is recognized as terrorist in the Russian Federation. – Editor’s Note.

[13] Since 2016, the volume of loans provided by China to African countries, according to the Chinese Loans to Africa Database, has been consistently decreasing: in 2016 – 28.5 billion dollars, in 2017 – 15.9 billion dollars, in 2018 – 14.8 billion dollars, in 2019 – 8.5 billion dollars, in 2020 – 2.1 billion dollars, in 2021 – 1.2 billion dollars, in 2022 – 0.9 billion dollars. See:  Chinese Loans to Africa Database // Global Development Policy Center. URL:

[14] See: Spacehubs Africa. URL:

[15] Ibid.

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