Covid-19: A test for Russia’s African ambitions

Even as the African Union announces that it is about to receive a huge consignment of medical equipment from Chinese businessman Jack Ma, Russia has not provided such support to African countries so far

Kremlin CC BY

On 28 April, Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced in RIA Novosti that 12 countries from the Middle East and North Africa had asked for Russian assistance in the fight against the coronavirus. “All these requests are currently being examined by relevant Russian governmental authorities,” said the ministry. It issued a similar statement to TASS press agency on 21 April. However, a week later, Moscow has yet to provide such assistance. This is in stark contrast to China’s prolific coronavirus diplomacy in Africa.

Russia has already provided medical aid to Serbia, Belarus, Armenia, and Ecuador. Italy, meanwhile, received 122 Russian military doctors, along with protective equipment and ventilators labelled “From Russia with love”. However, the gestures seem more about polishing Russia’s image than providing substantial support: Italian newspaper La Stampa claimed that most of the equipment sent by Russia was useless – prompting accusations of fake news from Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.

In late March, Russia’s negotiations with Algeria, which today accounts for the highest number of covid-19 related deaths of any African country (419), appear to have been fruitless. The Russian International Affairs Council argued in a policy paper published on 9 April 2020 that Russia should send support to the continent – even if it is only symbolic. However, the authors of the paper also pointed out that the pandemic would likely force Russia to “adjust the ambitious cooperation plans voiced at the first Russia-Africa summit held in Sochi in October 2019”.

Indeed, Russia is facing a double crisis at home: in addition to the difficult healthcare situation, the collapse of oil prices has placed a huge burden on its economy, which heavily relies on exports of natural resources. For now, it is unclear whether Russia will be able to afford to display its soft power in Africa by supporting the continent’s fight against the pandemic.

Russia’s marked absence in this area follows several years in which it became increasingly involved in the affairs of the continent. Everywhere from Egypt to Libya and the Central African Republic, Russia has tried to establish itself as an essential security actor, using military cooperation to create economic ties and gain geopolitical support.

During Soviet times, Moscow backed many African countries’ struggle for independence, inviting thousands of African students to study in Russia. Some of them became high-ranking officials in their respective countries and still have contacts in Moscow today. Nonetheless, the fall of the Soviet Union largely collapsed Moscow’s relationships with African capitals. Russia only initiated its return in the mid-2000s.

Today, Russia has far closer long-term partnerships with Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco than other African countries. These relationships are built on arrangements such as arms sales, the construction of nuclear power plants, oil and gas projects, and agricultural exports.

More recently, Russia has stepped up its involvement in the conflict in neighbouring Libya: Russia supports General Khalifa Haftar in his war against the Government of National Accord – which, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, is recognised by the United Nations and supported by Turkey. Russian private military company Wagner has reportedly deployed several hundred contractors in support of Haftar’s troops. In early January 2020, Russia worked with Turkey to push the Libyan leaders towards a ceasefire agreement, to no avail. The Berlin conference on Libya, hosted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UN Secretary-General António Guterres on 19 January 2020, did little to interrupt the fighting in the country.

Russia is facing a double crisis at home: in addition to the difficult healthcare situation, the collapse of oil prices has placed a huge burden on its economy. 

Russia’s return to the continent is also palpable in Sub-Saharan Africa: Moscow has signed military cooperation agreements with 20 national governments in the region since 2017, compared to just seven between 2010 and 2016. Ten of these more recent deals were Russia’s first with the countries involved.

Meanwhile, Wagner mercenaries have been active in Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Mozambique. And Russia has used traditional and social media to promote its actions in Africa, tapping into strong anticolonial sentiment to discredit its rivals.

This political show of force is particularly targeted at Western countries. Moscow is trying to gain new allies, aiming to position itself as a great power in a multipolar world. It has also taken the opportunity to challenge European former colonial powers in countries they sometimes still consider to be within their sphere of influence. However, Russia’s economic investment in Africa remains limited in comparison to other powers that are increasingly assertive there, such as China and Turkey.

Moscow’s international response to the coronavirus crisis is very telling of its foreign policy priorities. Russia chose to showcase its support for Italy, seizing the opportunity to depict itself as a great power that had come to the rescue of a weakened Europe – at a time when Russia was less severely affected by the virus than many European states. Today, Moscow’s cost-benefit calculations seem to have at least temporarily shifted against the provision of aid to Africa: the virus has begun to affect Russia more severely, and the Russian government sees Africa as less of a foreign policy priority than Europe. The pandemic may, therefore, force Russia to put its African ambitions on hold.

Poline Tchoubar is an independent journalist.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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