In hosting the first Russia-Africa summit on October 24 in its resort city of Sochi, Russia became one of the last major countries to hold an event in this format: similar forums devoted to Africa are already held by the United States, the EU, China, Japan, India, and Turkey, while Brazil will host one in November. 

Despite this tardiness, the summit was a success: 43 heads of state attended, along with delegations from all 54 African nations. In comparison, the U.S. event in 2014 attracted 34 heads of state, and the only country to have hosted more than Russia was China (with 48), whose involvement in the African economy is currently incomparably greater than Russia’s.

The summit showed that demand for Russia is growing in Africa: demand that has been stirred up by international media, which have for a whole year now been publishing frightening articles and investigations about how Russia plans to take up practically the leading strategic position in Africa. As is often the case, these alarmist publications about a ubiquitous, all-pervasive Russia have had the effect of increasing its power in the eyes of interested parties in Africa. In actual fact, Russia’s ambitions in Africa are for now fairly modest, and its plans still undetermined.  

Russia’s pivotal participant in the business section of the forum was the Russian Export Center—a subsidiary of Russia’s state development corporation VEB—and the most active participants were Russian exporters. Producers of fertilizers, grain, confectionary, weapons, equipment, and transport used the event to promote Russian products that are either already sold in Africa, or could potentially be in demand there. The forum venue was surrounded by an exhibition of Russian manufacturing technology, and the political agenda was markedly tied to the economic one. The same applied to all of the bilateral meetings. 

Unlike China or the EU, Russia managed to hold a summit with African countries without announcing long-term aid programs. The excitement over the writing off of $20 billion of African debt was unmerited. Russian President Vladimir Putin probably intended this announcement as a reminder to Russia’s African partners of Russia’s goodwill, and, furthermore, of the role played by the Soviet Union in Africa’s development. But no decisions to write off debt were made especially for the forum. Most of the writing off was done in 2006–2007 in connection with liabilities Russia had taken on as part of initiatives by the G8.

The African countries showed themselves to be ready for a pragmatic approach, and by the time of the summit, none of its guests were under any illusion that they could get grants, long-term loans, or billions of dollars in investment in exchange for voting with Russia at the UN.

On one key issue for Russia—denouncing Western sanctions—African countries already support Moscow. The restrictions put on Russian companies by the United States and the EU create significant difficulties for trade with Africa, so African leaders need no extra incentives to criticize them. 

Russia’s African partners expect that cooperation will help them to build self-sufficient, sovereign systems of state management oriented on the interests of the local population and elites, rather than on preserving ties with former colonial powers. For African leaders, sovereignty is the chance to use African solutions for African problems, and not only rely on Western standards and values. In this respect, Russia is ready to support Africa. 

Russia’s experience in state-building may see demand in Africa. In areas such as ecological and technological oversight, the digital state, and approaches to antimonopoly regulation, African countries hope that the Russian experience will be more relevant to them than the advice of their previous colonial powers. 

Although the idea was discussed at the forum of using the surplus in Russia’s National Wealth Fund to issue loans at discounted rates to foreign buyers of Russian machinery and other non-energy commodities, few concrete projects emerged from the forum. Presidential adviser Anton Kobyakov announced that agreements had been signed at the forum worth more than 800 billion rubles (about $12.5 billion), but it’s not at all clear which agreements he had in mind. A project to build a pipeline in the Republic of Congo has been under discussion for more than ten years, and still only a memorandum has been signed. The same applies to a planned oil refinery in Morocco. Both projects are still at the paperwork stage, and no final decisions on allocating funds have been made. Other projects are even less certain.

Russian exports to Africa are far less amorphous. Their value exceeded $17 billion in 2018, and continues to grow, mainly as a result of non-energy exports (Africa accounts for the biggest proportion of Russian non-oil exports in the world). In other words, almost everything that Russia sells to Africa is not energy commodities.

Russian exports to Africa totaled about $100 billion in 2009–2018. Of that, 68 percent was generated by just two countries: Algeria ($25.8 billion) and Egypt ($37.5 billion). This imbalance reveals both risks and opportunities for export growth via new African markets. In 2018, about 80 percent of the goods exported fell into just five categories: those marked with a secret code, mainly signifying arms (25 percent); grain (23 percent); oil products (17 percent); ferrous metals (8 percent); and ships and other floating structures (5 percent).

Since no new breakthrough trade or investment contracts were agreed in Sochi, the forum was really just an opportunity to tick off certain key rituals. The continent’s leaders gathered at the summit and received assurances that Russia’s intentions are serious, and that private initiatives by Russian companies in Africa can count on state support. Considering the authority that Russia and Putin wield in Africa and the role of the state in the Russian economy, such assurances are important.

Interest among Russian companies in exporting to Africa is determined by a combination of circumstances: African markets are growing faster than others, new market gaps are still appearing there, and Africa buys just what Russia sells, or what it believes it can sell.

Since 2000, Africa’s total annual imports have quadrupled in absolute terms, from $130 billion to $536 billion. During that time, China has increased its exports to Africa by 19 times, India by 11 times, and Russia and Turkey ninefold. For Western countries, it’s a different story: in those same nearly twenty years, the United States has seen growth in sales to Africa double, while French exports grew 1.7 times, and British sales 1.6 times. In the next decade, Africa will use more and more energy commodities, fertilizers, agricultural raw materials and food products, medicines, healthcare services, and educational services.

Putin spent two days at the summit and held sixteen bilateral meetings. If for the Russian side the cornerstone of the agenda was business, for many African leaders it was image: Putin is often more popular with voters in their countries than their own national leaders, and any meeting with the Russian president leads to a boost in ratings, ensuring that competition for Putin’s time was fierce. 

At the summit, it was decided to establish a permanent format for dialogue, and the Russia-Africa summit will now be held every three years. Overall, it seems that both Russia and its African partners are satisfied with the summit’s outcome. Plans and expectations have been ascertained on both sides, and the political framework for cooperation was agreed. With heads of state in attendance and a declaration signed, it was undoubtedly a success for Russia’s Foreign Ministry. As for an institutional economic framework for what is being billed as “Russia’s return to Africa,” it’s still early days. 

  • Andrey Maslov