Russia planned its version of Washington’s ‘pivot to Asia’ after the conflict in Ukraine in 2014 and its relative isolation from Western institutions such as the G7. In spite of Moscow’s wishes, the relationship with China is skewed in favor of Beijing where the former is regarded as a ‘junior partner’ due to the latter’s overwhelming economic power. Therefore, the Kremlin is investing in relations with relatively weaker countries on the African continent. Moscow’s ‘base of conduct’ with these states is cooperation in its areas of expertise such as energy, security, and diplomacy.
Although trade with Africa has grown from $5.7 billion in 2009 to $20.4 billion in 2018, these numbers are dwarfed by China’s $2 trillion in investments and construction in the region since 2005. Moscow, however, has some advantages in its dealings with African countries. 1st, Russia acts as an alternative partner for diplomatic support in the UN security council. 2nd, it has an experienced state-run energy sector which, besides oil and gas investments, is providing nuclear knowhow to technologically deprived states. 3rd, Moscow offers military cooperation and relatively cheap arms to countries with small purses but big security issues.
According to Jacob Hedenskog, a researcher at the Swedish Defence Research Agency, “Russia’s interest, like those of other major powers in Africa involves arms exports, import of natural resources, and the projection of power.” During the Cold War, Moscow maintained strong relations with countries embroiled in anti-colonial conflicts such as Angola, Mozambique, and Algeria. Russia's strategy in regaining its position vis-á-vis Africa partly revolves in reinvigorating these existing relations.
Moscow nuclear technology is also put on sale: Egypt has ordered a $29 billion power plant, Nigeria has a deal with Rosatom for a nuclear reactor, and several other countries have signed an MoU regarding nuclear cooperation such as Uganda, South Africa, and Ghana. Russia stands to benefit financially from long-term payback periods for its investments and dependence on Russian technology due to refueling and technical assistance necessities. In many cases, mineral and fossil fuel deposits are agreed as collateral for financial risks.
However, Africa’s acquiescence to Russia’s overtures isn’t only to the benefit of the latter. Moscow can position itself as an alternative to Chinese money, and Western meddling. If African countries act prudently, they could play the involved parties against each other. Djibouti, for example, is hosting Chinese, French, and American military bases which provide the country a strategic and financial advantage.
Furthermore, Russia provides high standard arms which are relatively affordable compared to American made weapons. In other cases, countries can avoid Western sanctions and still acquire weapons by turning to Moscow. Russian private military companies, PMC, such as the Wagner Group are active in training and supporting African forces such as in the Central African Republic.
Africa is not indispensable in Russia's case when it comes to its military and economic interests. Moscow, however, needs to strengthen its position and establish strong relations with the continent to acquire the global power status it's aiming for.