Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took to the road at the end of July in a bid to build closer ties with non-aligned countries and defy the crushing sanctions imposed on Russia by the West over its invasion of Ukraine.
Lavrov wasn't met with open arms, but he was greeted with sympathy. Russia has a lot of friends in Africa.
Moscow opposes a unipolar world based only on Western interests and is promoting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vision of a multipolar international order, which has long been a centrepiece of his foreign policy.
Lavrov’s tour of Egypt, the Republic of Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia comes as African countries struggle with soaring food and fertiliser prices due to supply chain disruptions, which Moscow blames on the sanctions, as Washington does on the Russian invasion and blockade of Ukrainian ports.
The looming threat of a food crisis against soaring prices, also for fuel and fertiliser, could spark social unrest in Africa. Indeed, countries like Ghana, where annual inflation accelerated to 27.6% in May, an 18-year high, already saw riots in July over the cost of living, with basic foodstuffs out of reach of the poor.
Russian company Uralchem, among the largest global producers and exporters of nitrogen, potassium and complex fertilisers, announced on July 28 it will supply its products (urea or compound fertilisers) to Africa on a free-of-charge basis. The project at this stage provides for humanitarian delivery of the first batch of 25,000 tonnes to Togo.
Russia already enjoys close ties with many African countries, having built on relations that were cultivated during the Cold War era. And many if not most African countries already see Russia as an ally and supplier of food, commodities, nuclear power technology and arms amongst other things.
Those relationships were made clear during the UN voting to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March. As bne IntelliNews reported, about half of Africa abstained from condemning Russia in that vote, although only Eritrea actually voted against the motion.
About half the countries in Africa abstained from voting to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine. (Use the pulldown feature to see the results of a vote to expel Russia from the UN Human Rights Council and the combined results).
And even more African countries abstained in a second vote in April to remove Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, with eight countries voting against the motion completely.
Those votes do not appear to have influenced Lavrov’s choice of itinerary. Egypt voted to condemn Russia’s invasion, but the Republic of Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia all abstained.
Nevertheless, Russia and Egypt retain warm relations. Egypt depends heavily on Russian grain imports and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was a guest of honour, joining Putin in his plenary session at this year’s St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF). Egypt was also the only country to set up a pavilion at this premier Russian investment event.
In the vote to expel Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, Egypt and Uganda abstained, while the Republic of Congo and Ethiopia voted against it.
The UN voting patterns paint a picture of many non-G7 countries trying to sail a delicate path between maintaining good relations with the West, but at the same time not damaging their relations with the Kremlin.
Breaking out of isolation
Russia has been preparing the ground for a break with the West for several years and has launched a diplomatic drive to improve its relations in the non-aligned and Global South countries. It has invested heavily in improving ties with the Middle East, focusing on Syria and Iran, but has always enjoyed good relations with Israel as well.
China has been the keystone of its relations in Asia, but relations with countries like Vietnam have also significantly improved, with the help of arms exports.
But it is probably in Africa that Russia has made the most progress. In 2019, Russia launched the Russia-Africa summit that saw leaders from 49 of Africa’s 54 countries attend. The next two summits were cancelled due to the global pandemic, but the following summit was due to happen this November in Addis Ababa, until Russia postponed it until 2023 because of uncertainties owing to the war in Ukraine.
The first summit was a great success, co-hosted by Putin and Egypt’s el-Sisi. The Russian-Africa summit has become even more significant as Russia turns to the Global South for deeper ties. The event was likely cancelled as African nations still need to play their balancing game between East and West, and making long-term policy commitments while Russia is still in a proxy war with the West would be very difficult for most African leaders.
The West has sought to isolate Moscow and make it a pariah following the latter's attack on Ukraine and Lavrov’s tour is designed to show that Russia still has friends, especially in the Global South. The welcome he received on his tour has shown the strength of the Kremlin’s influence on the continent, where many countries are interested in the material help Moscow can offer them.
Moreover, as bne IntelliNews has reported, the prevailing attitude outside the developed world is that the conflict in Ukraine is a clash between Europeans that has little to do with them. On top of that, the decision by Washington and Brussels to weaponise both money and trade in the conflict has unsettled the emerging markets leaders, who see Russia as a useful counterweight to the US, should they ever clash with the US themselves – a feeling that is particularly poignant in the Middle East, which has been a target for US missiles on occasion in the past.
Lavrov was warmly received by the Republic of Congo’s long-time leader Denis Sassou Nguesso on Monday, July 25 as well as by Egypt’s el-Sisi a day earlier. He was playing to a willing audience and during his meeting with Demeke Mekonnen, his Ethiopian counterpart, he told Izvestia that the ministers had discussed the impact of the food crisis on Africa and had promised to work together to find a solution.
In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni was also seeking to play Russia off against the US to the country’s advantage, but this is a game that the Russian veteran foreign minister knows very well, and Moscow is in the mood to haggle as it works to shore up non-aligned support to defy sanctions.
And Uganda is definitely interested in the goods Lavrov was purveying: Museveni said that Uganda is seeking Russia’s help in building a nuclear reactor. As bne IntelliNews has reported, Russian nuclear power exports are booming and earning the country hundreds of billions of dollars.
Museveni said that people with “limited understanding” want African countries to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine but argued that Moscow had “stood with Africa for the last 100 years” as part of the continent’s anti-colonial movements.
(Hours after Lavrov departed from Uganda, Washington announced that the US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, will be in Kampala next week for a two-nation visit to the continent, with Ghana being her other destination.)
Meanwhile, Egypt has broken ground on the construction of another nuclear power station at El-Dabaa, 300 km northwest of Cairo, that will come online in 2030. Egypt and Russia signed a deal to build the facility in 2015, and Moscow is reportedly lending Cairo $25bn for the project, covering 85% of the cost, which Rosatom director-general Alexey Likhachev called the "largest project of the Russian-Egyptian cooperation since the Aswan High Dam".
Africa has only one commercial nuclear power station, South Africa's Koeberg plant near Cape Town, but several other countries have plans in the works. Nigeria – Africa's largest country by population and biggest in terms of GDP – opened the bidding in March for a 4,000-MW nuclear power plant (NPP), and Ghana plans to choose a site for a new nuclear facility by year-end. Rosatom has already signed co-operation agreements with both countries, as well as Ethiopia and Zambia, which also have nuclear ambitions.
Russia had successfully reactivated old Soviet-era ties from a time when Moscow was viewed as more sympathetic than many Western capitals to the cause of liberation struggles in Africa.
Lavrov ended his tour in Addis Ababa, where he spent time with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Ethiopia has emerged as a particularly close Russian ally in Africa and was due to host the second Russia-Africa summit this November, which has now been postponed until next year.
Ethiopia is also seeking to balance different power blocs, experts say. Russia’s war with Ukraine has provided Ethiopia with an opportunity to play Russia off against the US, which imposed sanctions on the country last year in response to a war in Tigray, and Lavrov’s visit provoked a follow-up meeting by Mike Hammer, US special envoy to the Horn of Africa, slated for a week after Lavrov leaves.
In addition to commerce, Russia has used its military to support several struggles in Africa, including sending the military forces of the nominally privately owned Wagner group to the Sahel and mining groups to the likes of Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR).
With multiple wars running in Africa, Russian arms sales are a key plank for relations. However, the war in Ukraine is expected to reduce Moscow’s ability to supply arms as it rapidly burns through its own stocks. Russia accounts for a fifth of the world’s arms trade and generates about $15bn a year from sales. It competes with the other major arms producers of the US, France and Germany, and has a 20% market share, second only to the US ($37bn).
Russia’s arms sales to Africa have increased by a quarter over the last four years. In fact, Russia accounts for nearly half of major arms exports to Africa, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, with Algeria, Egypt, Sudan and Angola as the biggest customers (all of which, except Egypt, abstained in the UN vote to condemn Russia). And all across Africa, Russia has military trainers on the ground who are supporting the sales of the popular Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters and other equipment, according to US intelligence reports.
But Lavrov’s main message during his tour was to combat the idea that Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine had led to higher food and fertiliser prices. Russia has been emphasising that it has done nothing to stop Ukraine from exporting grain, insisting that it has been Ukraine’s decision to mine the sea off its coast that has prevented shipments.
In this context, the timing of the Istanbul grain deal on July 22, just days before Lavrov left for Africa, is significant, as much of the grain that is about to leave Ukraine is destined for customers in Africa. Putin’s decision to loosen the noose around Ukraine’s grain exports is partly motivated by pressure on Russia to supply its friends in Africa.
The chair of the African Union, Senegal’s president Macky Sall, travelled to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin last month. “President Putin expressed to us his readiness to facilitate Ukrainian wheat exports,” he wrote on Twitter after the meeting.
Russia supplied about 32% of Africa's wheat worth $3.7bn between 2018 and 2020, according to the United Nations, with Ukraine accounting for another 12% worth $1.4bn. However, even if deliveries of grain resume, after prices rose 45% this year due to the war disruptions, Africa is also asking for price relief, as expensive food is almost as big a problem as no food. The biggest importers are Egypt ($3.23bn) and Nigeria ($556mn).
Lavrov’s visit to Africa has been mirrored by trips by other political luminaries, as the race to secure relations in the new geopolitical set-up is on.
French President Emmanuel Macron also toured francophone Africa in the same week as Lavrov, trying to shore up relations as some of the countries there are actively embracing Moscow – partly as a rejection of their former colonial master. The military junta in Mali recently expelled the French military and replaced it with Russian private military company Wagner in its struggle against jihadist terrorists. Macron also visited the West African countries of Benin, Cameroon and Guinea-Bissau.
In May, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz flew to Senegal, Niger and South Africa to do arms and energy deals. Germany is the fourth-biggest exporter of arms to Africa, and Berlin is keen to source gas from Africa via a proposed pipeline from Nigeria to Europe via Niger and Algeria. Scholz also invited the South African president to attend the G7 summit in a show of solidarity among “democratic countries” against Russia’s aggression. The Indonesian president was also invited to attend for the first time.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also been making inroads into Africa as part of his ambitions to make Turkey a regional leader.
He was on a four-day diplomatic tour of the West African states of Angola, Nigeria and Togo in October, partly to sell Turkey’s increasingly famous Bayraktar TB2 military drones. He followed up with another four-day tour in February to Central and West Africa that included Senegal, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Guinea-Bissau. Turkey already does half a billion dollars of trade with Senegal, and Erdogan said he hopes to increase that to $1bn.
US President Joe Biden has also been trying to shore up US relations in the non-aligned world with his first visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in July to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MbS). The US has been putting pressure on the prince to increase oil production to bring oil prices down, but the trip ended in failure after MbS refused. Relations between the KSA and Moscow have become noticeably warmer in recent years; they have been working more closely together after Russia joined the OPEC+ extended cartel to control oil prices.
The US is also pushing back in Africa and planning a summit of African leaders in Washington in December, the first of its kind since former president Barack Obama convened one in 2014.