The head of Russian diplomacy, Sergey Lavrov, will make two official visits to Africa in January and February next year, according to his number two, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, in statements reported by the Sputnik agency. It will be his second continental tour in less than a year, aimed at gathering diplomatic support for the Kremlin and reinforcing Russia's growing influence in Africa.
The veteran Foreign Minister is scheduled to visit eight countries on the continent. Morocco is so far the only country confirmed on the itinerary by Lavrov's ministry. There is also "bilateral communication with the Foreign Ministers of Arab countries, including, of course, the Arab countries of North Africa", said Bogdanov, so the tour could be extended to the Middle East.
Lavrov already visited four African countries in July with the aim of gaining diplomatic support for Russia in the midst of the invasion of Ukraine. The Russian diplomat landed in Egypt, Congo-Brazaville, Uganda and Ethiopia, and according to Institute for Security Studies in Africa (ISS) analyst Peter Fabricius, he seemed to be "well received". "Not only with the leaders of the four carefully chosen destination countries, but also in Addis Ababa, where he met with the ambassadors of several other countries".
The Kremlin will devote January and February to organising the second Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg, scheduled for July 2023.
The resort city of Sochi hosted the first summit in October 2019, which was attended by 43 heads of state and government. That multilateral meeting, co-chaired by Russian and Egyptian presidents Vladimir Putin and Abdel Fattah El Sisi, served to bring the two sides closer together and strengthen cooperation at various levels. Putin intends to repeat the feat three years later with the aim of sending a message of strength and repairing his global image, which has been heavily damaged by the aggression over Ukraine.
"We have sent invitations to all the participants [of the last summit], but the main task is to achieve a productive meeting. Of course, we are counting on the representative participation of the highest-level African delegations," said Ambassador Oleg Ozerov, who heads the secretariat of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum. He added that the agenda for this second edition will include issues related to political, trade, economic, investment, scientific, technical and humanitarian cooperation.
But the Kremlin wants to focus the conference on food and energy security. "Russia has something to offer: both cereals and fertilisers... In addition to energy, there are other sectors in which Russia can offer its expertise: oil and gas, transport infrastructure, aviation and automotive, information technology and agriculture," Ozerov explained.
The Russian diplomat in charge of relations with Africa said that most countries on the continent perceive Moscow as "an ally fighting against the neo-colonial domination of the West", as well as an "alternative market" to the United States and the European Union.
After several decades of absence, Russia made a strong comeback in Africa just over three years ago, coinciding precisely with the first Sochi summit. In this period, the Kremlin has successfully infiltrated the continent through three main tools: colonial heritage, military strength and alternative information channels.
The former Soviet Union's support for African post-colonial movements in the midst of the Cold War has an influence today. As Centre for Global Development (CGD) analyst W. Gyude Moore reminds us, the political subjects that came to power during the decolonisation period in countries such as South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe are still in power and, moreover, see Russia as the natural heir of the USSR.
"The second reason is that a considerable number of African countries buy arms from Russia, depend on these supplies, and therefore do not want to upset Moscow. The situation in many of them is unstable, it is extremely important for them to have reliable access not only to arms, but they may need foreign military advisors that Russia is willing to provide," explains W. Gyude Moore in an interview for Radio Free Europe.
The influence of the Wagner Group stands out here. The private military company, owned by controversial oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, has deployed tens of thousands of mercenaries in more than a dozen African countries with the connivance of the authorities. From Libya to Mozambique, Sudan to the Central African Republic. Mali was the latest to join this list.
But Russia has further strengthened its presence on the continent through alternative media and information channels. Also through social networks, where it has been able to install a corrosive narrative against the West that has been gaining traction as the war in Ukraine has progressed. The Kremlin has been able to take advantage of the sharp rise in fuel and food prices to promote the false narrative that blames Western sanctions for the food crisis.
Russia does not even offer humanitarian aid in return to African states. The Kremlin's interest lies in the exploitation of natural resources, a goal for which it uses Wagner's Russian mercenaries.
Washington has beaten Russia to the punch and will host the US-Africa summit in mid-December. US diplomacy has issued invitations to almost all African countries, with the exception of Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan and Guinea, four countries that have recently experienced military coups against democratic regimes. The Biden administration wants to underline its condemnation of such actions and send a message to the rest of the continent.
The summit was announced a year ago, but Russia's invasion of Ukraine has prompted US diplomacy to make some adjustments to the script. Many African countries have shied away from condemning Russia's aggression. Twenty-eight of the 54 African states signed the resolution condemning Moscow at the UN General Assembly, the rest chose to abstain or not to vote. Only Eritrea, the African North Korea, was the only one to vote against. To put it in global terms, more than half of the group of 50 countries that did not condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine were African. These numbers give a good indication of Russian influence on the continent.
But the US move is not in line with the Kremlin's strategy, whose representation in Africa is even smaller than that of Turkey. Washington is focusing its efforts on countering China's advance. The Asian giant has focused its investments in Africa on building infrastructure to facilitate the supply of raw materials. The United States will now have to carve out a niche for itself.