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Why did Lavrov go to Africa?

The African vector of Russian foreign policy solves one big strategic task for Russia: to stall for time. The Kremlin understands perfectly well that the war with the West in Ukraine is a war of attrition.

In the minds of  the Russian leadership, the longer this process is stalled, the more chances the Russian Federation has to gain an advantage and turn the situation around, to reach advantageous negotiating positions, just the way it occured after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the intervention in Syria in 2015. Russians are planning to win time by:

• maintaining their markets and influence in non-western regions, where countries are ready to cooperate with the Russian Federation for commercial profits  and other benefits, and remain neutral about Ukraine;

• finding ways to circumvent Western sanctions and develop logistics to build up their “parallel” import schemes in order to compensate for losses and technologies;

• expansion of situational political partnerships through existing “entry points” (for example, the presence of Wagner mercenaries, the interests of mining companies or joint projects) or the creation of new opportunities, primarily in non-western regions. They are convenient and understandable partners who remain neutral about Ukraine, and also because anti-Western postcolonial sentiment in these regions remains strong, and which Russia knows too well how to play to. This applies to Africa and the Middle East, Latin America and Asia.

At the same time, such a policy will unavoidably create negative consequences for Russia who will become increasingly dependent on many other countries that are likely to be using Russia’s weakening in Ukraine to their advantage. But for what it’s worth, the Russian political leadership is not taking this fact into consideration at the moment and believes it to be an acceptable price for turning the situation around in their confrontation with the West in the medium run.

What happened? 

On January 23, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov began his tour of African countries. This is the second such trip in the last 8 months. He visited the Republic of South Africa (South Africa), Angola, Eswatini and Eritrea. For many observers, Lavrov’s visit went almost unnoticed, and some ridiculed his arrival in the tiny kingdom of Eswatini, with whom the Russian Foreign Minister signed a visa-free agreement. However, Lavrov’s African tour should not be perceived as a mere formality or a whim. Africa is essential for Russia’s geopolitical, economic and political interests.

The interests of the Russian Federation in Africa can be divided into the following categories: 

• economy and industry; 

• military-political cooperation;

• geopolitics. 

Geopolitics. For the second year already, a visit to South Africa — the key and most developed country in Africa — is an important component of the political partnership between the Russian Federation and this state. South Africa is part of the BRICS group, an organization that unites mainly non-Western countries that are trying to balance between the West and the Russian Federation on global affairs while maintaining relations with Moscow. In the situation of an almost total financial, economic and energy disintegration with the West, sanctions pressure and isolation, Russia began to rely on redirecting its policies and foreign trade to non-Western markets and systems, in an attempt to compensate its losses. Consequently, it has become the Kremlin’s priority to build broad situational partnerships oriented to non-Western markets and financial systems, for example, within organizations that are less dependent on the West and can form their own alternative systems in the future. That is why developing relations with South Africa as a member of both the BRICS group and the G20 is very important for Russia both from the point of view of geostrategic interests (pulling Africa to its side and under the joint influence of Russia and  China across the continent), and from the point of practical needs: circumventing sanctions, providing “parallel” imports, searching for new markets, as well as preserving sales markets for their energy carriers, building situational partnerships to achieve tactical goals across diverse sectors.

Since Russia does not have enough resources to strengthen its influence in Africa on its own, Moscow sometimes attempts to play the role of China’s junior partner in the region. In particular, during Lavrov’s visit to South Africa, joint naval exercises of South Africa, Russia and China had been discussed and scheduled to take place on February 17-27 off the coast of South Africa.

Meanwhile, Russians are playing on the postcolonial anti-Western sentiment of African states, publicly supporting those African leaders who often talk about the need to increase  Africa’s involvement  in world affairs. In particular, while visiting South Africa, Sergey Lavrov made a not so subtle reminder that the United States “have over 200 military bases around the world” and “believe that only they have the right to conduct exercises,” thereby playing along the lines of South African President Cyril Ramaphosi, who said that conducting joint exercises with the Russian Federation and China is a sovereign right of his country.

Finally, from a geopolitical point of view, South Africa is a key country for Russia’s positions in the African Union, the UN and the G20. Some countries in the region take guidance from the position of South Africa’s voting in the UN. In particular, in October 2022 , Eswatini, Ethiopia and Eritrea, which Lavrov had also visited during his tour, abstained from voting for the resolution condemning the Russian Federation for the annexation of four Ukrainian regions occupied since 2014.

Eritrea, being a poor and not the most developed state in Africa, is also an “entry point” into the strategic Horn of Africa region, where China is attempting infiltration and the US is trying to counteract these attempts, especially in Sudan and Ethiopia. This region is very important from the point of logistics and sales markets: Eritrea is situated on the Red Sea coast, at the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which is the main artery connecting the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean. In addition, Eritrea is a sub-sanctioned country, which, nevertheless, is a zone of influence of regional states, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who both invest in it to strengthen control over the Strait and the Red Sea. Through its influence on Eritrea, in theory, Moscow could strengthen its partnership with the Arabian monarchies, assisting them in the region. And finally, Eritrea is one of the countries that Russia is considering a potential location for its new naval base instead of the one that could not be built in Sudan in 2019-2021, due to the latter’s permanent state of  political crisis.

Globally, the Russian Federation views Africa and the Global South as convenient partners, potential sales markets and an arena where Moscow can play against its Western rivals. The Russian Federation’s escalation of presence in  Africa began  in 2018-2019,  against the backdrop of gradual weakening of the former colonial states in Africa, for instance of France, who had to withdraw its troops from  Sahel, resulting in free passage of the Russian Federation to Mali and the CAR.

Economy and industry. For the Russian Federation Africa is the principal market for, among other things, agricultural products. In this context, Lavrov’s tour was supposed to fulfill two tasks: to convince Africans that the United States and its allies, not the Kremlin, were to blame for the grain shortages on the continent, and also to agree on the continuation of trade. In particular, in Esvatini, Lavrov persuaded King Mswati III to sign the import contracts for Russian grain and fertilizers, and to allow Russian companies to mine coal and minerals on the territory of the kingdom.

Moreover, some Russian companies have assets in African countries, namely precious and rare earth metals mining. The ALROSA company, owned by Sergei Ivanov, an oligarch from Putin’s inner circle, is mining diamonds in Angola, while trying to adapt to the conditions of Western sanctions. In South Africa, the Russian Renova group of companies, controlled by oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, owns a significant share in the local manganese ore mining sector.

But at the macro level, Russia’s trade and economic cooperation with these African countries is miniscule. Trade with South Africa, for example, accounts for less than 1% of Russia’s foreign trade, while trade between the United States and South Africa has reached $21 billion. Subsequently, for many African states, cooperation with Russia is not a substitute for cooperation with the West, but rather a convenient way to tease Western countries, extorting concessions from them, and at the same time strengthening their political positions by diversifying foreign relations. Russia is using all of these factors, attempting to rely on the non-Western Global South and Global East as communities alternative to the West.

Military-political cooperation. In 2017-2021, Russia accounted for 44% of all arms shipments to the African continent. In other words, Africa is a huge and strategic market for the Russian military-industrial complex, which is currently put under sanctions. In all likelihood, Lavrov was promoting the interests of the military-industrial complex during his tour, convincing African states to continue cooperation with Russia, despite Western sanctions.

Besides, Africa has recently intensified cooperation with the Russian Federation in the area of security. Russian private military companies have become noticeably more active on the continent over the past few years amid the weakening influence of the West and a chronic security crisis in a number of states that the United States and their allies in Europe could not cope with. Russian mercenaries from the PPK “Wagner” are already present in countries such as Mali, CAR, Sudan, Libya, Mozambique. They take on various functions there: from advisory to the organization of military operations, and have managed to earn a good reputation as “solving all”. Consequently, other countries have also started to demonstrate avid interest in the idea of hiring Russians to solve their security issues. This applies to Chad, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. Lavrov’s tour in this context looks like an opportunity taken to expand the geography of security services at the expense of key countries of the Horn of Africa, where Russia does not yet have a military—political presence.