The heightened interest in this year’s Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg last week is not hard to explain. The fallout from the fighting in Ukraine has had serious consequences for Africa, the most obvious being the disruption to grain exports via the Black Sea (before the war, fifteen African states received more than half of their grain imports from either Ukraine and/or Russia).

African countries have also been affected by rising energy prices triggered by Western sanctions on Russian oil and gas exports. This in turn has fueled inflation on the continent and, in tandem with the deteriorating external economic situation, dealt a blow to financial stability. Some African countries have seen credit rating downgrades and significant increases in borrowing costs.

It’s also important to remember that Africa is one of the largest regional voting blocs at the United Nations. While some UN resolutions may seem insignificant, they will all play a role in any eventual peace process in Ukraine. African leaders—both individually and collectively—could also be mediators between Moscow and Kyiv.

It’s no coincidence that Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba recently made his third visit to Africa since the start of the war. His talking points were alternative supply routes for Ukrainian agricultural goods following Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea grain deal (which had allowed ships to export Ukrainian grain from Black Sea ports for over a year) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s vision for peace.

For his part, in his keynote speech to the Russia-Africa summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin not only promised free grain shipments to Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, the Central African Republic, and Eritrea, but portrayed Russia as an ally of African nations and as a country that represents the interests of the Global South.

Earlier this year, Russia published a new Foreign Policy Concept filled with theses about “Western hegemony” and portraying Russia and Africa as both struggling for the goal of a “more equitable polycentric world and elimination of social and economic inequality.” Similar priorities for the relationship were laid out in Putin’s article published ahead of the summit: a new world order (“more just and democratic”), a “non-discriminatory” agenda, and logistics chains and financial partnerships that are “free from unfavorable external impacts.”

It’s stating the obvious to point out that these are all issues far more applicable to Russia—isolated by sanctions and indirectly battling the West—than Africa itself. But they do fit with Russia’s rhetoric about promoting the interests of the developing world.

The Ukraine war and its consequences mean that for Moscow, this year’s summit was a relic of better times. In the early 2000s, and even after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin’s efforts in Africa were logical and looked like they could yield results. The only other such summit, which was held in 2019, was widely seen as the jumping-off point for Russia’s return to Africa, enabling it to take a position alongside other important regional powers and promote its interests amid its global confrontation with the West.

Back then, Russia really did have major leverage on the continent: the country’s human capital and ties forged during the Soviet period; a reputation untarnished by historical trauma; and expertise in crucial spheres like security, healthcare, and education.

It was no surprise, therefore, that leaders from as many as forty-five of Africa’s fifty-four nations attended the 2019 summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Back then, Putin said Russia and Africa would try to double their trade volume in the next four to five years, and the organizers subsequently boasted of dozens of agreements and memorandums of understanding that were signed, worth an estimated $15 billion.

Four years later, however, even political experts loyal to the Kremlin have concluded that the positive boost to Russia-Africa relations in 2019 has not been realized. Trade volumes have not only not doubled, they have actually decreased. And Russia’s direct investment in Africa is currently about 1 percent of the total inflow.

Moscow has also managed to damage its own reputation. This is clear from polling in Africa and by voting patterns at the UN. The cause is not only Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, but also the controversy surrounding the Wagner mercenary army, which is active across the continent. Wagner has regularly been accused of human rights violations and of seeking only to protect the African business interests of its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Indeed, Prigozhin’s activities in Africa increasingly resemble those of a military-trading company from the eighteenth or nineteenth century, combining military power with a nominal loyalty to its mother country while exploiting accessible material riches. Wagner’s modus operandi and the imperial nature of Russia’s war in Ukraine devalues Putin’s rhetoric about the fight against neocolonialism, and discredits Russia in the eyes of many Africans.

In other words, since the last summit in 2019, Russia’s economic ties with Africa have frayed and Moscow has begun an unsuccessful war that means it is unlikely to be able to preserve its status as a regional power, let alone a global one.

The Kremlin has little time for Africa right now, and it looks like Africa doesn’t have much time for Russia either. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov was forced—rather unconvincingly—to explain that the lower headcount of African leaders at the summit this year was a result of “Western pressure.” Only twenty-seven countries sent top political figures to the summit, compared with forty-five countries in 2019.

In addition, the event’s program was obviously drawn up to align with Putin’s pet preferences. It’s no secret, for example, that the Russian president has been angered by the disqualification of Russian athletes from international tournaments. As a result, there were discussions with African officials about a possible “Friendship Games” as an alternative to the Olympics. 

Almost all the issues in which Putin is known to be interested were the subject of panels: neocolonialism, “Russophobia,” “illegal” sanctions, import substitution, and “traditional values” all featured.  

What was lacking at this year’s summit was anything of real political or economic significance. Still, if Putin wanted to hear about how Russia was not alone in an unjust world,  and how he still had a few allies in his struggle against Western hegemony, then the gathering served its purpose. To have expected anything more would have been naïve.

  • Vadim Zaytsev