Russia’s Scramble for Africa

  • Themes: Geopolitics, Russia

Intensified activity across the African continent is part of Russia's quest to construct a multipolar world.

Supporters of Capt. Ibrahim Traore wave a Russian flag in the streets of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, 2022.
Supporters of Capt. Ibrahim Traore wave a Russian flag in the streets of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, 2022. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Russia in Africa: Resurgent Great Power or Bellicose Pretender?, Samuel Ramani, Hurst & Co, £45

Vladimir Putin addressed the International Parliamentary Conference, ‘Russia – Africa in a Multipolar World’, on March 20. Emphasising that Russia considers co-operation with African states as one of the ‘unchanging priorities of Russian foreign policy’, he drew attention not only to a range of practical economic co-operation, but also to Russia’s political support for African independence and the struggle against colonialism. Pointing to the first Russia-African Summit in 2019, he stated that partnership between Russia and African states ‘has gained additional momentum and is reaching a whole new level’, including in the fields of technology, education, health and humanitarian assistance, and trade in agricultural products and energy. Significantly, he highlighted that the establishment of the African Free Trade Area will open up a continental market with a total GDP of more than $3 trillion, and his conviction that Africa will become one of the leaders of the emerging new multipolar world order.

This conference came amid months of intensified activity by Moscow, including a number of high-level meetings. Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova hosted Mabel Chinomona, the President of the Zimbabwean Senate, in late March, to discuss healthcare and education. Sergei Lavrov has already visited Africa twice in 2023, for instance, and Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Russian Security Council, visited Algeria in February. In part, this activity relates to what might be called ‘immediate’ purposes – both in preparation for the second Russia-Africa summit, scheduled for late July this year, and also seeking to shore up international support while Moscow continues to wage war against Ukraine and faces sanctions from the Euro-Atlantic community.

In fact, this recent activity is reflective both of Moscow’s wider global strategy to establish Russia as a power with ubiquitous interests, attempting to gain footholds in important regions across the world, and also a persistent, longer-term effort by Moscow to develop relations more specifically across the African continent. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has accelerated this dual process, serving to weave these two threads closer together. Russian officials argue, for instance, that the war is consigning the ‘unipolar moment’ to the past and leading to the birth of a genuinely multipolar world, in which Moscow seeks to position itself as a leader against Western ‘neo-colonialism’ in support of the sovereignty of African states and the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of others.

Such views will appear preposterous to western audiences, and illuminate just how far apart Western and Russian views of evolving international affairs have become. Yet not only are they an important reminder of Moscow’s view that the fighting in Ukraine is just one part of a wider global contest, but they also appear to chime with some African audiences, who have been reluctant to condemn Russia. Numerous African states have abstained or not voted in United Nations motions condemning Russia’s invasion, for instance, and many do not support the sanctions against Russia, continuing to buy Russian energy products.

Moreover, the practical aspects of Moscow’s strategy are indeed underway, not only including military exercises and the deployment of private military contractors but also quite substantial economic investments. To be sure, not all of Moscow’s efforts have met with success: some economic agreements have fallen through and accusations of war crimes by Russia-linked forces are undermining Russia’s image as a positive influence in the region. But others, notably arms sales and a substantial increase through the last decade in agricultural exports, especially to North Africa, reflect some noteworthy successes for Russia.

Beyond some headlines and policy papers offering snapshots of specific aspects of Russian activity, Moscow’s efforts to develop relations with Africa have not yet received sustained Western analytical attention. Most observers emphasise that Russia’s power in Africa is comparatively weak – China, the United States, and the EU all have much more substantial presence across the continent – and the opportunistic nature of Russian interests and interventions.

The first book-length examination of this aspect of Russian foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, Samuel Ramani’s Russia in Africa: Resurgent Great Power or Bellicose Pretender? corrects this. Across ten substantive but concise chapters (backed up by some 90 pages of well-sourced endnotes), Ramani, who teaches politics and international affairs at the University of Oxford, shapes a coherent and persuasive argument that through an incremental resurgence, Russia has transformed its position in Africa and become a ‘virtual great power’ in the region. His point about Russia’s ‘virtual’ power indicates the failures to convert all the rhetoric – and often unrealistic objectives – into practical results. But he argues that despite growing direct competition, Moscow is unlikely to abandon its footholds across the continent, and its influence in the region will likely survive the damage caused to its international reputation by its war against Ukraine. Russia therefore has all the trappings of great power status, but occupies only a second-tier role on the continent.

Ramani builds his argument across three main themes. First, he emphasises – correctly – that Moscow’s resurgence in Africa is not a recent phenomenon; it has been underway since the 1990s. In the introduction, he traces Soviet views of Africa and relations with it, especially the colonial and post-colonial eras after the Second World War. He then sets out a chronological foundation in the first three chapters, looking at the 1990s, the ‘dawn’ of Russia’s resurgence in the 2000s, and then the Medvedev presidency, during which Moscow sought to consolidate its role in the region.

This substantive historical foundation not only sets up his subsequent argument about the thematic aspects of Russian activity in Africa, but is a valuable contribution in its own right, helping to frame the longer-term trajectory of Russian strategy. It clarifies both that Moscow’s activity is neither merely a recent, short-term burst, nor simply a response to the sharp deterioration in relations with the Euro-Atlantic community since 2014, but a persistent effort, founded on what Moscow considers to be its own national interests.

It also sets a good basis for his second main theme: Russian policy towards Africa is not monolithic, revolving around Putin’s personal vision, but the result of a wider, multiple actor approach. Again, this is a valuable contribution, introducing important but often overlooked individuals, such as Mikhail Bogdanov, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Presidential Special Representative for Africa and the Middle East. This also allows Ramani to explore the bureaucratic difficulties and complexities that persistently bedevil Russian strategy-making, not only in terms of rivalries between ministries, but also the problems Moscow faces trying to coordinate the activities of state businesses.

The third theme, that Russia’s approach to Africa is not merely transactional and bereft of strategic foresight, is also an essential contribution. This allows him to explore not only the economic and military aspects to Russian activity, but also the non-material and political motives discussed above, such as attempting to establish Russia-Africa cooperation as part of what Moscow hopes will be a bulwark against a US-led unipolar world. This allows him to situate Moscow’s activity in a  wider approach to international affairs – intensified activity across the African continent is part of a greater quest to construct a multipolar world.

Ramani could perhaps have pushed this latter point about Russian strategy and foreign policy a little further, illuminating Russia’s wider strategic thinking and agenda, and even some of the forecasts and scenarios behind Moscow’s strategic foresight about how the world is changing and what it will look like in 2030. But his argument is well-made, and is essential reading for those who seek to understand Russia’s international activity and strategy. It should also set a mark for those writing about Russian strategy and international activity both as a whole and in other specific regions.


Andrew Monaghan