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Russia’s Rhetoric-Reality Gap in Africa

Anas El Gomati
Delegates during plenary session at the Russia-Africa Summit held in Sochi, Russia
Delegates during plenary session at the first Russia-Africa Summit held in Sochi, Russia in 2019.

Russia's involvement in Africa has become a keen interest, particularly as the second Africa Summit unfolds in St. Petersburg this week. The summit aims to bolster economic, security, and political ties between Moscow and African nations. However, a substantial gap between Russia's rhetoric and its actual actions across the continent lies beneath the surface of grand promises and numerous agreements. Moscow's shiny claims of enhanced cooperation and prioritizing development stand in stark contrast to the reality of unfulfilled commitments and contradictory behavior. This divergence between words and deeds has been a defining feature of Russia's engagement with Africa over the last few years.

Even the first Russia-Africa summit in 2019 was marked by this say-do gap. The summit witnessed the signing of over 90 agreements and memorandums of understanding—valued at $12.5 billion. However, four years later, there is little to no evidence of these projects ever being implemented. Notably, the forum's own website fails to showcase any successfully launched initiatives to look back on, and  raising doubts about the summit's tangible outcomes since it first started. This year, only 16 African heads of state are attending compared to 43 leaders who participated in 2019, further underscoring the decline in tangible progress and engagement since the first summit. The gap between what was promised and what has been achieved continues to widen.

The disconnect between Russia's promises and its actions extends across various domains, from economics to security. 

Past proposals for Russian investment in African infrastructure and industry that would’ve propelled the continent have failed to materialize, leaving many projects awkwardly unrealized. Moreover, where Russia has invested in security through its discrete military support for authoritarian regimes and civil wars, it has exacerbated conflicts and boosted authoritarianism rather than fostering peace and security. The other grand pledges of friendship have yielded meager results for the African people. Russia's previous energy deals with African countries, such as the pledge to build refineries in Nigeria, also failed. Even where economic motivations drive engagement, implementation has lagged, and the reality has fallen drastically short and practically non-existent.

However, some of the most glaring examples of this disconnect have been Russia's deep involvement in the Libyan civil war. In 2019, the inaugural summit opened while Russian mercenaries were taking their first steps into Tripoli to back renegade General Khalifa Haftar's power grab turned assault on the country’s capital, a city home to millions of civilians that was brought to destruction. These actions, denied vehemently by the Kremlin at the time, contradicted Moscow's professed goal at the conference of fostering "peace and political cooperation" in Africa. They illustrated its active role in fueling conflicts and expanding its military presence across the continent rather than promoting peace. 

Further accentuating this irony today is Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to skip the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) Summit in South Africa to avoid a potential arrest warrant for war crimes due to the African nation’s membership in the International Criminal Court. This evasion of international law raises further doubts about Russia's commitment to peace and cooperation in Africa. Putin’s missed opportunity to visit the continent has heightened the summit’s importance to Russia as claims begin to be heard that if “Putin will not go to Africa. Africa will come to Russia”. Yet, the summit's postponement in 2021 and 2022 illustrate that African development has hardly been the priority it claims to be over the last few years, despite the Kremlin’s mercenaries plundering Sudan's gold and Mali's diamonds since the last summit took place.

For African nations, Russia's presence in sub-Saharan territories has yielded minimal benefits while exacerbating conflicts that have made the continent and its people poorer. Even for countries in Africa not directly affected by Russia’s wars across the continent, their citizens have failed to remain immune from the effects of wars in theatres far away. Russia’s invasion of the neighboring Ukraine disrupted African food supplies with wheat shortages and prices soaring as the war has stoked inflation and sent prices soaring across the continent.

Russia's expanding military presence has supported autocrats over citizens, undermining sovereignty, and enabling alleged human rights abuses. This pattern of patronage over partnership yields underwhelming results for African prosperity and democracy.

Moscow seeks new satellites, not genuine allies. Its growing military foothold in Mali, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere follows a pattern of propping up emerging autocrats, not empowering citizens. Rights groups accuse Russian mercenaries of abuses from torture to mass executions. Allegations of human rights abuses by Russian mercenaries add to the concerns, as this pattern threatens African democracy and sovereignty.

Africa needs partners which engage transparently and commit to long-term equitable partnerships, not mercenaries that seek to plunder or prop up strongmen.

The continent requires allies dedicated to sustainable growth, not enablers of conflict. At a time when the continent's food systems face challenges including  debt and climate change, reliable food chains are crucial, and politically motivated disruptions to essential food stocks are counterproductive.

As African leaders prepare to convene for the summit, they should approach these years of pledges with a healthy dose of skepticism and not take them at optimistic face value to be the guarantees for prosperity and cooperation they were once thought to be. Turning a blind eye to Russia's broken promises is one thing, but its active undermining of peace, rights, and development across the continent risks enabling poor outcomes when the agreements are announced and the ink has dried. 

Despite past disappointments, there is still potential for a constructive future in Russia-Africa relations if both parties prioritize mutual accountability and benefits. African nations must assert their sovereignty, strategic interests, and conditionality when engaging in partnerships, whether in Russia, the United States, Europe, or further afield. By doing so, they can foster relationships where actions genuinely match words. 

While Russia's intentions may remain uncertain, African leaders have the power to dictate the terms of cooperation, insisting on reciprocity and tangible progress for their citizens. As we witness the Russia-Africa Summit, the continent's leaders should critically evaluate Russia's promises and judge agreements based on outcomes that uplift its people rather than its powerbrokers. The opportunity for mutual gain exists, but it will be up to African leaders to decide whether such policies serve their people first and foremost. 

Anas El Gomati is the Director General and Research Director of Governance and Security at Sadeq Institute. The Sadeq Institute is a member of theSouthern Voices Network for Peacebuilding.

The opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of the Wilson Center or those of Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Wilson Center’s Africa Program provides a safe space for various perspectives to be shared and discussed on critical issues of importance to both Africa and the United States.

About the Author

Anas El Gomati

Anas El Gomati

Founder and General Director, Sadeq Institute

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more