Who did the Russia-Africa summit benefit?

Beyond Moscow attempting to rally sympathetic voices, there were very few tangible takeaways for any of the attendees

Russian President Vladimir Putin, African leaders and heads of delegations at the second Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg on Friday. AFP
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The Russia-Africa summit held in Saint Petersburg on Thursday has served as a morale-booster for Moscow. The Kremlin gathered heads of state and officials representing several African countries in the second edition of the summit focused on bolstering Russia’s bilateral relations with the continent. However, the summit’s impact on the strategic balance of power will be limited, considering the global turmoil caused by the war in Ukraine has left the international order lost without direction.

One of the main concerns for the African leaders is Moscow’s bid to bypass western sanctions and western presence in Africa, given the American and European determination to crack down on any circumvention of their measures.

During the summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to provide free grain shipments in the coming months to six nations: Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Eritrea, Mali, Somalia and Zimbabwe. This move comes amid African concerns over Russia’s exit from the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a move Moscow attributed to western policies, as it accused the West of hindering the deal despite Russia’s commitment to it. The fact, however, is that it is Russia that refused to extend the agreement, which was sponsored by Turkey, triggering concerns of a global food crisis that would primarily affect Africa following the cessation of grain exports from Ukraine.

Moscow’s pitch at the summit did not include measures to protect African countries from sanctions imposed on Russia. Indeed, it is unable to provide such guarantees, given that the West would pursue and punish anyone who deals with Russia.

Moscow seeks to showcase to the world that its 'special military operation' in Ukraine has not diminished its global standing

On Thursday, Mr Putin said: “Russia was one of the first countries to respond positively to the initiative to grant the African Union full membership in the G20. We expect this decision to be taken as early as September during the G20 summit in New Delhi.” The question, however, is whether the African Union’s membership will hold significance in the G20, due to the western alliance’s growing strength in recent months.

The tools with which the Russian government can exert influence in Africa are limited, too.

Some western governments have alleged that the private Wagner Group has played a crucial role in certain African countries on behalf of Moscow. If this is indeed the case, it is hard to say how much influence the militia will continue to wield following its mutinous advance towards Moscow in June.

Last week’s coup against Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum, who has been largely aligned with the West, will be followed with keen interest by all the stakeholders. This is particularly the case as the Sahel has for years been subjected to competition between Russia and the West. Niger, it is important to point out, is rich in uranium and, therefore, important for the French nuclear industry. Following the coup, the EU and France cut off financial support to the country, with the US threatening to do the same.

Moscow seeks to showcase to the world that its “special military operation” in Ukraine has not diminished its global standing. However, the reality of the war has forced it to reduce its global military and economic presence elsewhere.

In Syria, for example, Moscow’s overt role to keep the Assad regime in power has waned. Iran, Damascus’s other ally, is meanwhile putting its “soft diplomacy” to the test after its recent Chinese-brokered rapprochement with Saudi Arabia.

The US’s military build-up in Syria worries Russia. The risk of an aerial clash between American and Russian aircraft and drones is present but not imminent, as both parties are determined to avoid direct confrontation. However, they are also determined to assert their presence in Syrian airspace and on its territory, and the shoring up of American military presence in the country has led Moscow to consider the drawbacks of reducing its military footprint there.

Russian diplomacy is now attempting to reassert itself, as it feels the need to rally sympathetic voices in forums such as the UN. That is why the Russia-Africa summit is important for its government, not only because it was held on Russian soil but also because it sets the stage for the upcoming UN General Assembly in September.

Russia’s promises to its partners in Africa and elsewhere are sincere, but they are likely to collide with a bitter reality – that today, it is unable to provide expansive aid, weaponry and finances to its friends, as it once could, due to western sanctions.

While free grain shipments may provide temporary relief (if they are delivered within the coming months), the repercussions of exiting the Black Sea Grain Initiative, as well as the consequences of the Ukraine conflict, are far more significant than any short-term remedies.

Published: July 30, 2023, 2:00 PM