Behind lofty summit declarations, several bilateral agreements and thousands of decade-old undelivered pledges, Russia has been stacked due to the “special military operations” it began late February in Ukraine. It has achieved little these few years after the symbolic summit held in 2019. With preparations for the next African leaders summit, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov plans to undertake two African tours during the first quarter 2023.
At the heat of the Russia-Ukraine crisis and within the context of the current geopolitical and economic changes, Lavrov made a snapshot trip to four African countries July 24-28 this year. The four African countries on that travel agenda: Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Republic of Congo.
In January-February 2023, Lavrov will first focus on North Africa. Why the Maghreb is a strategic region for Russia? It is true that despite the appearance of competition between Europe and the United States, between Russia and China as well as the Gulf States, Russia has intensified its relations aims at raising its influence in the Maghreb.
Worth noting that Egypt already has significant strategic and economic ties with Russia. With the geographical location of Egypt, Lavrov’s frequent visits there has some tacit implications. Last July trip, for instance, concretely aimed at explaining the perspectives for Russia’s actions in neighbouring Ukraine, to frame-shape its geo-strategic posture in the region and solicit support from the entire Arab world. It followed U.S. President Joe Biden official visit to the Middle East. Biden visited Israel, the Palestinian territories and Saudi Arabia.
Reports from Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs this week indicated that Lavrov plans to undertake two “coordinated working visits” and first trip will focus on Arab-speaking North African region popularly referred to as Maghreb. For several decades, the Maghreb region has been a multifaceted conflict region, in fact one of the most volatile geopolitical frontiers, and which includes Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. This vast area inhabited by some 120 million people – 80 per cent of them in Algeria, Egypt and Morocco – is landlocked between the huge Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara Desert.
Historically, Russia has had long-standing good political relations not only the North but also with sub-Saharan Africa down to Southern Africa since Soviet times, provided tremendous support for liberation movements that culminated in decolonization and ultimately the rise of the economies in Africa. The continent is rife with rivalry and competition, attracting foreign players especially this time of emerging new global order.
According to official reports, Russia is interested in expanding multifaceted cooperation, and making feverish attempts for a collaborative mechanism to upgrade its relations. It seeks to work closely in developing a new architecture necessary for participating in development projects, promote infrastructure, trade and other viable economic ties. It held the first Russia-Africa summit three years ago, signed many bilateral agreements and issued an impressive joint declaration as a roadmap for the future directions.
On the agenda for the second Russia-Africa summit scheduled to be held in St. Petersburg, there are matters relating to building a new global architecture in the context of strengthening multi-polarity and the international security, food and energy security, healthcare and humanitarian cooperation, education, science and culture.
With rafts of sanctions imposed on Russia, it becomes expedient for both Russia and Africa to find alternative ways of collaboration (between Russia and Africa) that do not rely on Western currencies or sanctions policy. Of course, illegal sanctions imposed on Russia continue to have a negative impact on foreign economic relations, necessitating an urgent reconfiguration of strategies for pushing further cooperation.
The reports always note that Africa is one of the most important and fastest growing region for Russian producers. Moscow understands the significance of engaging and achieving sustainable development there. For example, Russia faces the challenge to promote the creation of a reliable infrastructure for the production and transportation of African energy products and the development of domestic markets. It faces the challenge of setting admirably its economic influence in the continent.
That however in November 2021, a policy document titled the ‘Situation Analytical Report’ presented at the premises of TASS News Agency was very critical about Russia’s current policy towards Africa. While the number of high-level meetings has increased, the share of substantive issues on the agenda remains small. There are little definitive results from such meetings, according to that authoritative report researched and put together by 25 Russian policy experts headed by Professor Sergey Karaganov, Chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.
The report pointed to the lack of coordination among various state and para-state institutions working with Africa. For the past three decades, Russia plays very little role in Africa’s infrastructure, agriculture and industry. Many bilateral agreements, at the top and high political levels, have still not been implemented. A lot more important issues have received little attention since the first African leaders summit held in Sochi.
Our monitoring shows that the Russian business community hardly pays attention to the significance to, and makes little efforts in leveraging unto the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) which provides a unique and valuable platform for businesses to access an integrated African market of over 1.3 billion people.
Nevertheless, Russia brings little to the continent especially in the economic sectors that badly need investment. Undeniable fact is that many external players have also had long-term relations and continue bolstering political, economic and social ties in the continent.
Of course, Russia aims at restoring and regaining part of its Soviet-era influence, but has problems with planning and tackling its set tasks, lack of confidence in fulfilling its policy targets. The most important aspect is how to make strategic efforts more practical, more consistent and more effective with African countries. Without these fundamental factors, it would therefore be an illusionary dream considering multifaceted partnership with Africa.