Russia has renewed its ties with African countries as it on Wednesday opened a forum in the Black Sea city of Sochi put up by the government in a bid to play catch up with Western countries and others like China, India and Japan that already have strong influence in the resource-rich continent.
Russian President Vladimir Putin while opening plenary session of the first Russia-Africa Economic Forum lamented that though trade had increased between Russia and African countries to about 20 billion US dollars, he wanted the figure to be doubled to 40 billion dollars in 4-5 years in its renewed trade approach.
Over 47 African heads of state and governments including senior officials and business people from Russia and Africa were invited to the programme with many of them in attendance.
But what’s in it for Africa?
African leaders are looking to Russia not only for trade but also weapons to beef up their military arsenal due to increasing insecurity and difficulty in purchasing the same from the United States and other Western powers.
Moscow’s relations with Africa have already witnessed a boost due to several military-technical cooperation agreements that Russia currently has with more than 30 African countries which it supplies arms to.
Putin in a pre-event interview to the country’s official news agency, TASS had on Tuesday said he was ready to offer help to African countries without political conditions or strings attached, unlike the exploitative West.
Putin on Wednesday also promised to link African free trade zones including the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) with the Eurasian Economic Union through expanding trade missions and providing support to businesses.
Many African countries have now grabbed these opportunities as most of the economic and political measures promised are without stiff conditions like it often happens with Western and Bretton Woods institutions-backed packages.
But what does Russia want in return? That is the question many African countries would have to deal with as Moscow begins to seek an extension of its influence on the continent once more as it did during the Soviet era.
Moscow is in dire need of natural resources to support its economic growth and a market for its goods which Africa offers through its population. The world’s largest wheat exporter, Russia is also looking to ramp up its supplies of grain and fertilizer to meet the demand that is rising in step with Africa’s booming population.
For Moscow, the major prize is greater political influence on a continent with 54 United Nations member states, sprawling mineral wealth, and potentially lucrative markets for Russian-manufactured weapons.
But U.S. officials have vowed to counter what they see as Moscow’s growing political and economic clout in Africa as well as that of China, which has long had a large economic presence there and began its own series of Africa summits in 2006.
In December, then U.S. national security adviser John Bolton accused Moscow of “corrupt” and “predatory” business practices and of selling arms and energy in exchange for votes at the United Nations. Moscow denies that.
On Monday, Putin gave the clearest idea yet of his pitch to African countries, warning of rising competition over Africa. Turning the tables on the West, he accused it of intimidating African countries to exploit the continent’s resources.
During its Cold War struggle with the capitalist West, Soviet Moscow developed close ties with many African countries, backing, for instance, post-colonial independence movements. Many of those ties lapsed after the 1991 Soviet breakup.
Russia is now planning a return to the continent with recent moves including its presence in Central African Republic where it is the security backbone of the country’s leader.
Other African countries set to benefit from Russian intervention include Nigeria which is out to purchase military equipment to fight Boko Haram militants in the country’s borders with Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
Egypt is also warming up to Russia’s embrace as it seeks its support to intervene in mediation efforts towards ending the row with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam construction that it fears will deprive it of access to the Nile River.