Over the past several years, international policymakers, primarily in the West, as well as journalists and commentators have frequently called attention to Russia’s renewed interest in expanding its footprint in Africa. These discussions of “Russia’s return” to Africa are usually couched in a fearmongering, manichean framework of competition, ostensibly within what are regarded as Western spheres of influence in Africa. They also frequently feature calls for Western policymakers to “counter” Russia’s activities in Africa, bolstered with references to the malevolent ways Russia exerts influence among governments and publics on the continent, including—but by no means limited to—disinformation campaigns, arms sales, diplomatic support for autocratic regimes and the use of private military companies in the security arena.
In recent times, West Africa has become something of a poster child for these alarmist narratives, amid a renewed round of debates about the relationship between nations in the region and France, the former colonial ruler of most of them. With France and Russia said to be engaged in a geopolitical contest for influence in Mali, in particular, many commentators blame everything from popular support for the country’s transitional military regime to widespread public opposition to France and its policies in the Sahel on Russian disinformation intended to expand Moscow’s influence there and elsewhere across Africa.
In neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso, where recent confrontations between citizens and French troops have turned violent and even deadly in the case of the former, Paris and its network of defenders have similarly blamed conspiracy theories about France working with extremist groups, which are commonly heard in the region, on Russian disinformation.
All of that makes it worthwhile to examine Russia’s “return” to Africa and its current footprint on the continent, as well as what Africa’s contemporary relations with Russia actually entail, more closely.
The Soviet Union’s prominent role in Africa throughout much of the Cold War—during which Moscow supported independence and liberation movements across the continent and provided newly independent African states with economic, diplomatic and military assistance—is well-established. The Soviet Union also implemented educational programs to provide higher education opportunities for African students in a range of fields, including health care, engineering, science and technology, which more than 50,000 African students benefitted from. And even though that robust engagement waned after the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, its broader legacy has generally stood the test of time. African students continue to seek educational opportunities in Russia and other parts of the former Iron Curtain. African militaries continue to use Soviet and Russian military hardware. And energy cooperation between Russian companies and energy-rich African countries continues to be considerable.
While it has not reached the levels seen during the Cold War, Russian diplomatic engagement with Africa has also picked up some steam since 2006, when President Vladimir Putin made a historic visit to South Africa. Through the United Nations and other multilateral fora, diplomatic links between Russia and Africa have increased, with Moscow regularly courting African votes on the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. General Assembly. In 2013, Russia signed a comprehensive strategic partnership with South Africa. And in 2019, Putin hosted 43 African heads of state and government at the first-ever Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, with a follow-up gathering expected to happen this year.
The inaugural edition of the summit spawned more than $12 billion in business deals, largely—and unsurprisingly—in arms and grains. Russia is a major supplier of weapons to Africa. According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia was the single largest arms exporter to Africa between 2016 and 2020. Africa accounted for 16 percent of Russia’s major arms exports, although of that, 80 percent went to one country, Algeria. Nonetheless, Russia has signed weapons deals with countries ranging from Nigeria and Sudan to Angola and Equatorial Guinea, with these governments turning to Moscow in large part because their attempts to acquire more sophisticated weaponry from Western suppliers were frustrated due to human rights considerations and higher costs.
Moscow must demonstrate that it can be a productive actor on the continent in ways that African citizens desire. So far, it has not managed to find a compelling way to do so.
Mercenaries from the Wagner Group, which is closely tied to Russia’s military intelligence agency, have also been deployed in Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mozambique, where the shadowy group has been accused of supporting violent reprisals against protesters, extrajudicial killings and even war crimes. Most recently, a French defense official claimed that up to 400 Russian mercenaries are operating in Mali, even as Bamako insists that the Russian security presence in the country consists only of military trainers.
Moscow also has clear economic motives for engaging with African countries when it comes to natural resources. Russian state-owned energy companies—including Gazprom, Lukoil, Rostec and Rosatom—are active in Africa, with key investments in the oil, gas and nuclear sectors in Algeria, Egypt, Uganda and Angola to mention a few examples. And in Guinea, Russia has extensive interests in the country’s mining sector, particularly its gold and bauxite reserves, a development that featured prominently in coverage of the recent coup in that West African country.
Clearly it would be simplistic to say that Russia is not part of the growing trend of outside powers competing for geopolitical influence in Africa. That said, Russian engagement with Africa also has a logic of its own. And the fears of a purported Russian “return” to Africa are overblown. Russia’s footprint on the continent as a whole pales in comparison to that of China, the United States and the European Union. According to the African Export-Import Bank, bilateral trade in 2021 between Russia and Africa stood at $20 billion, compared to the approximately $185 billion between China and Africa. Even compared with U.S.-Africa trade, which itself has declined considerably in recent years, total trade with Russia makes up a small fraction of Africa’s trade volume.
Meanwhile, Russia’s engagement at the multilateral level notwithstanding, bilateral relations with African governments remain scattershot and confined to a handful of client states and a narrow range of priority issues, namely security and energy. Few African governments, however, look to Moscow for robust diplomatic engagement to the degree that they do to London, Paris, Brussels, Washington or even Beijing.
As for Russia’s perception among African publics, there is little evidence there of a positive trajectory either. Only 9 percent of Africans placed Russia at the top of their list when it comes to outside powers’ positive image according to a 2021 finding, down from 14 percent the year before. And though only three African countries were polled as part of a similar 2019 Pew Research survey, it’s nonetheless noteworthy that a minority of respondents in all three—Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa—have a positive image of Russia. Russian public diplomacy and soft power in Africa is weak and uncoordinated, and like China, Russia is susceptible to a perception problem and messaging disadvantage, shaped to a considerable extent by the dominance of Western media and technology. Allegations of human rights abuses by Russian mercenaries and reports of racial discrimination in Russia against African migrants and Russians of African ancestry also do Moscow no favors.
Put simply, the story of Russia’s “return” to Africa is much less than the sum of its parts. This does not mean that Russian engagement on the continent, even in its more realistically appraised dimensions, does not present risks and problems for Africans. But it does suggest that there is much less to it than meets the eye, at least when compared with Western powers that possess broader and much deeper political, diplomatic, economic and cultural linkages to Africa.
Russian officials, like their Soviet predecessors, often use the language of anti-colonialism and self-determination to build inroads on the continent. As useful an icebreaker as that tactic is, the onus eventually falls on Moscow to demonstrate that it can be a productive actor on the continent in ways that African citizens desire. So far, it has not managed to find a compelling way to do so.
Nevertheless, it clearly serves the interests of Western powers to undermine Russian initiatives on the continent. After all, such is the nature of geopolitical competition. And if Russia’s renewed interest in Africa awakens the United States’ waning interest in the continent, it could present opportunities for the continent—but also risks. African countries would be wise to anticipate them, and maximize all the diplomatic opportunities they can get.
*Editor’s note: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Putin was the first Russian leader to visit the African continent. Boris Yeltsin became the first post-Soviet Russian leader to visit Africa in 1996, with a visit to Cairo, Egypt. WPR regrets the error.