The Return of the Bear: new perspectives on Russia’s economic and security presence in Africa

Simon is an MA student currently studying Intelligence and International Security. In this article, he examines the geopolitical risks posed by increasing Russian involvement in the African continent. 


In the last week of October, the large-scale, multilateral summit between Russia and Africa that took place in Sochi has been put centre stage in global geopolitics. The event has gathered the vast majority of Africa’s political and economic élite. With the presence of 45 heads of state, the meeting in Sochi has seen the direct engagement of all 54 African States, international and regional interstate organisations and hundreds of private firms. A considerable effort for the Russian diplomatic machine, who claim it as an unequivocal success; something entirely new, and of great interest, in terms of global projection of the Russian state.

The Sochi Summit is the first event of this scale in the history of the Russian-African relations. Its success is the result of years of diplomatic effort in the economic and political fields, and the great media attention testifies the importance of the event for the Russian foreign agenda. The protracted negotiations preceding this forum included a large number of visits of African leaders in Moscow and one trip of Putin to sub-Saharan Africa. As a further indication of the centrality of the summit for Moscow, the organising committee of the forum includes apical figures of the Russian government. That is the case of Yuri Ushakov, former US ambassador and Assistant to the President for foreign policy, who served as chairman of the committee[1], with a specific role of coordination and delegation relay.

While a lot of geopolitical analysis indicates the modest reality of relative Russian strength, this summit will remain as an undisputed success, at least in the short term. The strategy of the Russian administration is focused into building a new image towards the African countries. The diplomatic agenda of the Kremlin aims to recover the ancient bonds from the Cold War era, largely abandoned in the first twenty years of the 21st century. At the same time, it tries to strengthen the alliances with new partners in the region. The claim made by Putin about the Soviet’s historical role in the continent, of having “helped the Africans to protect their independence and sovereignty”[2] has to be interpreted not only as a revendication of the historical Soviet intervention in the area, but also as a direct attack on Western policy towards Africa, pictured as neo-colonialist and based on unequal and unbalanced relations. Russia’s new approach tries to promote discontinuity in the diplomatic asset by fostering a renovated multilateral and multisectoral engagement.

However, Moscow’s new strategy for Africa is influenced by the different scale of capability and resources compared to the Soviet era: less ideological bonds and fixed diplomatic assets, more flexibility and a specific focus on the multiple, temporary opportunities to be taken in the different parts of the continent. A mere reestablishment of the ancient bonds is judged impossible, due to the lack of resources and the radically changed geopolitical context. Looking beyond the traditional asset of engagement inherited by the Soviet Union (Angola, Ethiopia, DRC) appears as a necessity in terms of strategy over the next few years.

This new approach started in the early 2000s with a deeper involvement in South Africa and in the African Union’s affairs[3] and developed progressively over the years by expanding into new regions and fields. The broad program of interventions agreed during the Sochi summit illustrates specifically this dimension. A lot of general objectives are enunciated in the vast majority of sectors. The official press agency claims agreements for a total worth of 15,8 billion dollars[4]. These agreements cover all sort of fields, from trade to legal cooperation, from agriculture and environmental protection to defence, security and counterterrorism[5]. In addition, cultural cooperation is also promoted, following the same trajectory of the already active Russia-Qatar cultural Programme[6].

But the analysis of Russian penetration in the continent would not be complete without considering the vast network of defence partnerships set up in the military and warfare sector and in the intelligence cooperation. The presence of Sergey Dyachenko and Roman Zhilenkov, deputy directors respectively of the Russian Security Service and the Russian Intelligence Service[7], on the board of the Sochi summit, enlightens the priorities of Russia in its new cooperation with the African Region. Moscow promotes multilateral commitments, but also seeks bilateral defence agreements, in order to diversify its assets. The training missions organised last month with the South African government[8] are a clear signal of this approach, as much as the exponential intensification of the relations with the Central African Republic. After the deployment of a Russian PMC (the “Wagner group”)[9] in Bangui, international media have associated the recent talks to the possible direct installation of a Russian military base in the country[10]– an unprecedented move in the African military context.

In terms of trade, Russia already has a significant and consolidated role as the arms supplier for the African continent. In the last five years, despite a generalised reduction of Russia’s world gunfire exports, 49% of the arms in North Africa has been imported from the Federation[11] with the persistence of traditional ‘special relations’ with Algeria, which imports 66% of its weapons from Moscow. During the same period, almost one third of the imports of Sub-Saharan states have come from Russia (who has become the leading exporter, ahead of China and Ukraine)[12]. An enormous potential market for the Russian defence industry, but in the medium term, also a strategic asset to lay deep roots in the region and gain geopolitical influence.

The collaboration does not seem to stop to the military side. A specific section of the forum discussion is dedicated to the development of nuclear technology for civil use, traditionally one of the main areas of expertise of Russian industry. New partnerships with 11 African States[13] have recently integrated previous bilateral agreements on this matter (notably the one, currently at a stall, with South Africa). These agreements involve both the expertise on reactor design and investments on the safety of the plants. Worth billions of dollars, they will make of Russia the first partner of Africa for the nuclear energy sector, way ahead of China (4 partnership currently active: Kenya, Sudan, Uganda)[14].

The potential friction between Russia and China in the region is a geopolitical issue that will grow in importance over the next years. As now, the relations with the People’s Republic seem oriented to peaceful coexistence. Officially, Russian analysts seem to consider the current African market big enough to guarantee an area of influence for both countries. But a more in-depth analysis reveals how, until recent years, the Russian economic penetration in Africa is still extremely limited. Moscow is just the 7th commercial partner of the Sub-Saharan Countries, with a trade flow eight times smaller compared to China, and five times lower than the American one, too slight to represent a threat in the short term. The immense Russian effort to gain positions in the continent can be explained, therefore, as the attempt to abandon the role of outsider. Russia is still too weak to contend for the leadership against the other global powers, but it’s strong enough to concentrate the effort on its points of strength and use them as a force multiplier in a fluid, multipolar environment.

Future developments may change this scenario. For the time being, the Russian penetration effort in Africa has to be considered as based on the use of the diplomacy of discontinuity (strictly related to a fierce anti-colonial narrative)[15] rather than on an integrated, vast plan of investments – an approach currently beyond the financial capacity of the Russian state. The three main exceptions to this state of affairs are (and will remain) arms exports, energy investment and security and military development. The importance of these sectors in the definition of a state’s international position is the best leverage for the Russian government in order to impose its presence in the continent. As demonstrated by the Sochi summit, multilateralism is the key to gaining relevance in Africa. Russia’s renewed attention for the continent will only lead to long-term results only if it is associated with a flexible and opportunist plane of action. The hunt for favourable conditions will be crucial to determine the success, or failure, of the Russian-African relations in the years to come.

[1] Organising committee

[2] Putin’s Interview to the Kremlin press agency, Moscow, 21 October 2019

[3] Paul Stronski, Late to the Party: Russia’s Return to Africa, Carnegie endowment for international peace, 2019

[4] Outcomes of the first Russia–Africa Summit and Economic Forum

[5] Declaration of the first Russia–Africa Summit, Sochi, 24 October 2019:


[7] Ibid.


[9] Ibid.


[11] SIPRI Fact Sheet, trends in international arms transfers, 2018, p8:

[12] Ibid.

[13] World Nuclear Association, Emerging Nuclear Energy Countries, October 2019,

[14] Ibid.

[15] Paul Stronski, Late to the Party: Russia’s Return to Africa, Carnegie endowment for international peace, 2019

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