In this briefing, Matthaeus Piatti explores the topic of Russia-Africa relations in light of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine since 2022. This article was edited by Freya Moorhouse.
Even though Russia’s influence in Africa has waned since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin has traditionally enjoyed significant sympathies amongst leaders on the continent. Russian trade and FDI volumes in Africa pale in comparison to powers such as China and the US, but Moscow continues to hold an outsized sway across Africa based on historical alignment of values, occasional security cooperation and deep mutual mistrust of the West.
The invasion of Ukraine likely caught African governments off guard and has since forced them to re-evaluate their relationship with President Putin. The African Union (AU) as well as the majority of its members initially took a non-interventionist stance on the Russian aggression, in a move interpreted by some western governments as alignment with Moscow. South Africa (SA) for instance, has largely abstained from UN votes on the crisis and has called for negotiations between the warring nations. This stance can be traced back to SA’s historic ties to the Soviet Union and apprehension against perceived imperialist tendencies of the West.
However, prices of agricultural products surged in the aftermath of the invasion, and the disrupted grain supply chain quickly became a growing concern for policy makers on the continent. Countries grappling with drought and food shortages now find themselves victims of what they perceive as an intra-European conflict. In the face of international isolation, President Putin relies heavily on African nations to project credibility on the international stage. From a purely economic perspective, Russia has so far offered little to African partners in comparison to other international players. Organisations such as the IMF, as well as the World Bank, have also stepped up and adopted major food relief packages to alleviate pressure on the continent. With grain shortages caused by the war and increased Russian need for allies in Africa, leaders on the continent could aim to extract more concrete action, such as food relief and investment, from their Russian counterpart in exchange for pricey diplomatic non-alignment.
African votes at the UN
When Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border in late February last year, United Nations (UN) members were asked to vote on a resolution condemning the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. Fifty-two UN member countries did not vote for the motion, half of which were African. In subsequent resolutions admonishing various acts of Russian aggression, a majority of African countries either voted against, abstained from or did not attend the vote. Of course, African UN members can’t be viewed as a monolithic voting block and a closer look at the voting record reveals various trends. Autocratic countries supported by Russian mercenaries, such as the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali, voted fully aligned with their Russian ally. Africa’s more liberal democracies, including Botswana and Kenya, voted broadly in favour of the resolutions. The diverse UN voting record demonstrates deep divisions in Russia-Africa relations across the continent and their analysis requires nuance.
The African Union, a representative pan-African organisation, positioned itself cautiously in the early days of the war. The body did not go as far as condemning the Kremlin but called for Russia to uphold international order. Now, 20 months after the invasion, with no peace in sight - has the relationship between Russia and African Union members evolved?
The war in Ukraine and agricultural products
The conflict exposed Africa’s significant reliance on agricultural imports from Russia and Ukraine, with 40% of the continent’s wheat supply originating from these two countries before the invasion. Africa’s most fragile nations are paying a high price for the conflict as the surge in food prices threatens the sustenance of vulnerable communities across the continent. While Europeans took costly steps to diminish their dependence on Russian energy, leaders of impoverished African nations do not have the same flexibility. Despite other factors fuelling alignment with Moscow, including mistrust of Western powers, Africans are suffering from the global consequences of Russia’s attack. African Development Bank estimates show that the conflict has so far caused a shortage of around 30 million tonnes of grain in Africa. Officials have therefore upped the pressure on the Kremlin, especially regarding the agricultural trade.
The faltering of the Black Sea Grain Initiative in July this year, was a major setback for African food security and a turning point for the AU’s relationship with Moscow. The agreement, brokered by the UN and Turkey in 2022, allowed the export of food and fertiliser from three east Ukrainian ports through the Russia controlled Black Sea. The initiative served to guarantee a continued supply of vital agricultural products to international markets, including Africa. The deal was highly effective and had reduced food costs by 23%, since their peak in the early days of the invasion. In Mid-July 2023, however, the Kremlin decided to terminate their participation in the agreement, citing demands to alleviate the impact of sanctions on their country. Shortly after, Russian forces shelled several silos and a port in Ukraine controlled territory, destroying over 300,000 tons of grain ready to be shipped worldwide.
African leaders stepping up their demands on Russia
Unsurprisingly, food security was a central topic at the 2023 Russia-Africa summit, during which Putin hosted African officials just days after his decision to pull out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative. With 17 heads of state in attendance, down from 43 in 2019, the two-day conference aimed to bolster the Kremlin’s commitment to the African continent amidst growing international isolation. The timely summit showed that Moscow desires to demonstrate continuing global relevance and aims to use Africa as a token for this projection.
While most African leaders refrained from publicly criticising Russia for the war or its decision to terminate the grain initiative, the tone struck by several African officials at the summit revealed an increasingly demanding and forceful AU block. The organisation’s chair, Comoros President Azali Assoumani, called for a reactivation of the deal and commented that the issues around food and agricultural products are a concern to everyone. Putin, who had offered grain relief to African nations in the aftermath of his withdrawal from the deal, was rebuffed by Assoumani who called the move insufficient. Additionally, the AU chair demanded a ceasefire in Ukraine. At the summit, AU Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat told the Russian president that: “This war must end, and it can only end on the basis of justice and reason”. He continued by highlighting his concern for global grain supply, especially in Africa. Republic of the Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso “urgently” demanded peace in Ukraine. Korir Sing’Oei, a high-ranking Kenyan foreign affairs official, went a step further, calling the move to pull out of the grain deal “a stab on the back”.
In the days prior to the summit, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa led a “peace mission” trip to both Russia and Ukraine. Ramaphosa and Zambia's President Hakainde Hichilema, Senegal's President Macky Sall, President of the Comoros and AU chair Assoumani, as well as Egypt's Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly, presented a peace plan in meetings with Zelensky and Putin. The plan prominently outlined steps for a resolution of the conflict and measures to enhance food security. Ukrainians and Russian officials quickly questioned the viability of the proposal, but the trip demonstrated African desire to take a more demanding lead on the international stage, especially in their relationship with Moscow. African leaders, previously on the side-lines, are taking on a punchier stance in their demands for a resolution of the conflict. It seems they understand that with Putin’s back against the wall, barraged by sanctions and knee-deep in a costly war, they have something concrete to offer to the Kremlin. As a testament to the continent’s importance in Russian geostrategic thinking, Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, has travelled to Africa eight times since the beginning of the war.
Even though Russia has enjoyed support on the continent, African leaders are acutely aware that they are not permanently bound to Putin. Their changing approach to the relationship suggests that they have recognized their strengthened negotiation position. However, so far they have seen relatively little action in exchange for their support. At the Russia-Africa summit in 2019, Russia vowed to bring trade on the continent to $40bn in the next five years. Instead, the number currently hovers around $18bn. Beyond that, Russian FDI in Africa accounts for a mere 1% compared to ambitious Chinese approaches to the region. Besides weapons and security cooperation, Russian influence on the continent has not translated into significant investment and job creation. African nations are likely well-placed to use their newfound leverage to try to extract concessions from Russia on grain supply, trade, investment and security.
The warm relationship between the Kremlin and numerous African states is facing challenges as a result of the Ukraine war. Surging food prices and grain shortages following the invasion are putting a strain on struggling African nations. At the same time, the Kremlin is looking to kindle international friendships and Africa has been the focal point of their efforts. On one hand, under pressure from high commodity prices and on the other emboldened by Russia’s increased dependence on African allies, leaders on the continent have become more forceful in their demands from Russia. This extends from calling for a reinstitution of the Black Sea grain corridor to outright demanding a ceasefire in Ukraine. As the war drags on, Moscow can expect increasingly assertive African leaders promoting their interests.