Africa, beware of Putin’s money promises | Russia-Ukraine war

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Amid the backdrop of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine and growing international isolation, Russia will attempt to demonstrate it can still count on many old and loyal allies from Africa during the Russia-Africa Economic and Humanitarian Forum in St Petersburg on July 27 and 28.

The theme for the summit, “For peace, security and development”, belies Russia’s brutal and predatory conduct in East Europe, but complements its predilection to lie and express alternative truths about its belligerent conduct.

This is why African leaders should be careful not to inadvertently endorse the invasion of Ukraine or conclude problematic trade deals at the forum.

In October 2019, when 47 African heads of state attended the first-ever Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum in the seaside resort town of Sochi, the nature and scale of Russia’s imperial aggression in its neighbourhood hadn’t fully entered the global consciousness.

Aside from recognising and defending the unlawful breakaways of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia in August 2008, Russia had illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014. Later that year, it secretly deployed soldiers and mercenaries in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine to support armed pro-Russian separatists.

Russia had no business presenting itself as a trustworthy global power and partner.

African leaders, meanwhile, threw all caution to the wind, needlessly, and gave Russia’s President Vladimir Putin an undeserved platform to overstate his country’s contemporary significance to Africa.

Speaking in Sochi at a gala reception for African leaders, Putin spoke of the Soviet Union’s support for African liberation movements and newly independent African states, emphasising Russia’s old ties to Africa.

“Our specialists helped African states overcome poverty and develop their economies” and construct “industrial, agricultural and social facilities, including hospitals and schools”, he said.

The longstanding relationship would continue based on “equality, friendship and mutual respect” so African states could “conduct independent policy and resolve African problems themselves”.

Putin understood that a room full of pseudo-democrats and tyrants would love to hear the leader of a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council declare his administration’s widespread indifference to democracy and human rights. And that it would help to rekindle a diminished bond.

Russia’s influence in Africa shrank after the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, allowing others – including China – to gain the upper hand and dominate foreign trade.

In fact, China is currently Africa’s largest trade partner.

At the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in September 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged $60bn in funding to African countries. Chinese-funded projects – bridges and railway lines, ports and stadiums – dot the continent.

Putin didn’t and couldn’t possibly offer as much as Xi in Sochi. The Kremlin claimed deals worth $12.5bn were signed at the 2019 summit, but according to a Financial Times report, most of those were memorandums of understanding (MOU), which weren’t legally binding.

Some of the pacts augmented existing arms deals concluded with Rosoboronexport, Moscow’s state arms behemoth. Others included “military-technical cooperation agreements” confirmed with over 30 African countries, underscoring Russia’s immense usefulness to despots such as Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Museveni – who on March 25 said he’s “very satisfied with our cooperation with the Russian Federation” and its “high-quality weapons and technologies” – has in the past ordered the police and army to crack down on opposition officials and supporters, leading to many civilian casualties and deaths. In July, some Ugandan citizens lodged a report at the International Criminal Court (ICC), accusing Museveni and his son Muhoozi Kainerugaba, a general in the Ugandan army, of violence and human rights abuses against civilians.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe purchased 32 helicopters from Rosoboronexport this May, allegedly at inflated prices, at a time the country is battling hyperinflation and extensive socioeconomic woes.

These deals exemplify Africa’s problematic and lopsided trade relationship with Russia, which offers weapons but little that benefits everyday people on the continent – whether in terms of goods, or jobs through investments.

Russia accounts for just 1 percent of foreign direct investment into Africa. What’s more, Russia’s trade with Africa dwarfs in comparison to its peers, representing only 5 percent of the European Union’s total trade with Africa, and no more than 6 percent of China’s total.

And Africa imports five times more than it exports to Russia, a situation that has produced a $12bn trade imbalance. In October 2019, Russia pledged it would double its trade with Africa in five years but has failed to achieve its target.

Putin will likely make a similar and hollow claim in St Petersburg. But the world in July 2023 is a remarkably different place from almost four years ago. As a result of its illegal war in Ukraine, Russia’s economy contracted by 2.1 percent in 2022.

Several countries and groups, including the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, Taiwan, New Zealand, the European Union and G7, have imposed comprehensive sanctions on Russian banks, oil refineries and military exports.

Other sanctions target future energy revenues and military-industrial supply chains, in addition to architecture, manufacturing and construction. There are also sanctions on wealthy Russian individuals who are close to the Kremlin.

Under these circumstances, it would be understandable if Russian businesses were keen to make new and considerable investments in Africa, to escape sanctions scrutiny and possible trade with the rest of the world.

Several Russian oligarchs have parked their money abroad since the full-fledged invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Overseas investments help the Kremlin, too.

Consider the case of Nayara, an Indian oil refinery in which Russia’s state-owned energy giant Rosneft owns 49 percent stakes. While Rosneft is under Western sanctions, Nayara is not, and continues to export refined petroleum products from India to the West, helping Rosneft – and so the Russian state – fill its coffers.

But it would be a bad idea for an African nation to allow Russia to do something similar on the continent. After a three-day G7 summit in Japan in May, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned the US’s latest round of sanctions would “advance our global efforts to cut off Russian attempts to evade sanctions”.

The EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, has already threatened sanctions against Indian oil exports because they often use Russian crude as the raw ingredient. African nations do not want to find themselves in a similar soup.

Russia is only interested in defending its interests, even to the detriment of its so-called allies.

For months, South Africa faced a dilemma as Putin insisted he would attend the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) summit in August – although the ICC has issued an arrest warrant for him. He eventually agreed to give the event a miss.

Had he landed in Johannesburg, the venue, South Africa, as an ICC member, would have had to choose between arresting him or violating its international commitments.

Equally so, Russia’s self-centred decision to withdraw from the Black Sea grain deal, which facilitated the export of Ukrainian agricultural goods through the Black Sea amid the continuing war, will certainly exacerbate food inflation and hunger in Africa. And Putin clearly doesn’t care.

When African leaders gather in St Petersburg, they must remember the cost of doing business with Russia today far outweighs any assumed benefits.

Sure, the Soviet Union – which included Georgia and Ukraine, too – was a great friend to Africa in the past, but times have changed.

In October 2019, the African Union and Russia signed an MOU undertaking to, among others, cooperate towards strengthening “international law”, including the “principles and norms of the UN Charter”. Sixteen months later, Russia invaded Ukraine in direct contravention of that charter, plunging Africa into an economic crisis.

Africa needs progressive, law-abiding and dependable partners.

It doesn’t need a friend like Russia.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.



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