After the collapse of the Soviet empire, Russia has steadily shown interest in many spheres, ranging from political consultations through business and economic cooperation to culture with African countries. Of a special focus, Russia attaches significance to deepening trade and investment cooperation with Africa.
It is encouraging that more Russian companies, being aware of the prospects that are opening in the large market of the continent, are working actively in such fields as nuclear energy, hydrocarbon and metallurgy industries. Russia also pursues a pragmatic policy aimed at enhancing multidimensional ties with the countries of the continent on the bilateral and multilateral basis.
In this exclusive interview, Professor Irina Abramova, newly-appointed Director of the Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences, spoke recently to Kester Kenn Klomegah, an independent research writer on Russia-African affairs, about some aspects of Russia-African relations, economic cooperation, cultural dimensions and some future prospects.
In the first place, how would you describe Russia’s position towards Africa? And the position towards Africa from the Kremlin?
The events that occurred relating to the military conflict in Ukraine, the introduction of economic sanctions and countersanctions, deteriorating conditions in the energy market, show that the restructuring of the Russian economy is a strategic task of ensuring national security. The transition to the active import substitution should encourage the rapid development of high-tech industries, as well as the modernization of the industry that, in the end, will provide a transition from raw material orientation of the Russian economy to more innovative ways of development.
The task of Russian researchers is to offer theoretically rationale, innovative solutions for the RF to overcome the crisis, which could give significant positive results in the short term. Africa could be one of such effective and breakthrough solutions. It is a compact, comprehensible and relevant to our capabilities possible object of economic expansion in a number of sectors, for products which are closed for western markets, as well as a promising supplier of agricultural and commodities which are necessary for the Russian consumers.
One of the results of rethinking of foreign policy priorities of Russia on the basis of President Vladimir Putin’s initiative was, in particular, a definite shift in Russian foreign policy in the direction of the axis of the East. Nothing new has been revealed regarding the Ukrainian crisis. It served as a new impetus for further development of mutually beneficial cooperation outside of the Euro-Atlantic partners. At the same time, due to the attempts by Western countries to isolate Russia, the growing list of promising new economic partners becomes particularly important and Russian foreign policy rotates the vector, not only to the East but also to the South, in the direction of the African continent. For Africans, Russia still appears as the most likely ally in defending its interests in the world arena as a natural counterweight to the hegemonic aspirations of one or a group of world powers.
As a Director of the Institute for African Studies, what would you say about the development of the current relations between Russia and Africa?
In the eyes of the Russian political establishment and business community, Africa is still viewed as a continent of poverty, endless wars and epidemics, stuck in the pre-industrial stage of development, and surviving only thanks to international aid. Meanwhile, there is a different Africa – Africa with rapid economic growth (5% or more per year for the last twenty years), dynamic formation of democratic management systems, modern structures and institutions of a market economy, a major player in the market of natural and human resources, a key source of growth in global demands, profitable spheres of investment operations.
In recent years, Russia’s relations with Africa is a new trend. It is deepening and becomes a more active political dialogue, activated economic, humanitarian and cultural cooperation. This is facilitated by negotiations at the highest level. Relations develop with leading regional associations, including the African Union. We regularly take part as guests and active participants in the discussions, including on the sidelines of international summits and conferences, and in many African capitals. Relations with African countries and regional associations in the field of security and counter-terrorism.
Building mutually beneficial cooperation remains one of the main priorities of Russia. The foreign trade turnover with the countries of sub-Saharan Africa for the period from January to December 2015 was estimated at US$ 3.3 billion. A lot or a little? If we compare with the European Union – US$ 340 billion, China – about US$ 200 billion, well, somewhere close to the United States – US$ 14 billion. Expected by the end of last year, the decline of this indicator compared to 2014 year due to the general financial and economic instability in the world and the limited resources investing in large and expensive projects, the fall in world prices of most commodities.
If we consider our foreign trade it is less than 1%. At the same time Russian business holds a leading position in the exploration, mining (bauxite, gold, and copper, and cobalt, and diamonds, and many more). In the future, we see the participation of domestic companies in a number of African countries, such as Egypt, South Africa, in nuclear power projects. Constant interest in the African market is maintained and major Russian oil and gas operators. An important area of work in this regard is the improvement of the legal framework of our relations with the African states. On the agenda of an agreement with the African partners on economic and trade cooperation in order to avoid double taxation and protection of intellectual property. All these questions are, of course, of great importance for the representatives of our business because they provide a solid foundation for future cooperation.
Yet, it must be noted that a number of Russian companies’ results of the development of the African market does not unfortunately correspond to any of our export opportunities or resources of the vast continent, which has huge reserves. As before, we cannot deny the insufficient knowledge of the Russian business structures specificity of Africa, its requirements, and other parameters.
On the other hand, Africans are poorly informed about the possibilities of Russian partnership. Interest in quality enhancing economic ties, including a line of private enterprise, of course, there is a tendency of growth. To do this, first of all, to establish an effective exchange of information in the investment potential of the business, to focus efforts on expanding partnerships, increasing the return on existing cooperation mechanisms and implementation of the most complete and effective projects. In recent decades, marked by a noticeable re-activation of the whole complex of relations between Russia and Africa. At all levels, the attention to this continent in our country increases. It is important that in the process contacts between people expand. More and more of our fellow citizens visit African states, familiarize with their ancient history and culture.
Do you think Russia should transfer its technology to economic sectors such as agriculture, health and manufacturing in Africa?
Russian technology can be quite successfully promoted in Africa, especially today in the context of the weakening of the Russian currency, which makes exports advantages of the Russian Federation. It’s not just about these industries, which you mentioned, but also the exploration, transportation, infrastructure, energy, in particular, the construction of nuclear power plants.
In your view, have Russian authorities supported strongly Russian companies to invest in Africa? Are Russian financial institutions interested in viable corporate projects in Africa?
State support, including investment insurance, is offered mostly to large companies. Meanwhile, the most important task – the support of the middle, including regional, business, and those willing to work on the continent, is more flexible and mobile. This support at the state level is still lacking. As for the Russian small business, it cannot compete with the Chinese and Africans.
What challenges are there for Russia returning to Africa now? Does it face any competition from other foreign players in Africa?
Russia-African relations have a significant and growing resource which is promoting Russia towards achieving national priorities. This includes expanding cooperation with Africa in the international arena in terms of coincidence or closeness of positions on the formation of a new international order, another key international problem, which increases the possibility of consolidating Russia’s position as an independent and influential center of world politics. The presence in the African markets favorable conditions for the implementation of the continuing competitive advantage (for example price) of Russian industrial goods, engineering products, products of the defense-industrial complex, the expansion of opportunities for the implementation of Russian innovative technologies, scientific and technological, educational, health and other services can contribute successful implementation to the import of Russian politics.
At the same time, the development of Russia-African economic and trade cooperation is an effective tool for solving the problems of the Russian industry to ensure scarce and financially the least expensive types of mineral raw material reserves of many species of which Africa is a monopoly in favor of the world level. Russia may be involved in the implementation of projects aimed at achieving energy security in Africa with the use of atomic energy. It has extensive experience in the construction of nuclear power plants, modern technology with exhaust of the post Fukushima generation of safety systems. And finally, in a Russian counter sanctions condition, trade with Africa today is an important source of new demand generated due to changes in the structure of the Russian consumer market. Africa is, indeed, an important and promising partner for Russian business. But, it is a highly competitive market and there are already too many foreign players.
Tell us about some efforts, such as the creation of African Business Initiative, have become so important this time? Would you encourage such private initiatives?
The Institute for African Studies is one of the founders of the initiative. It is a direct challenge – to move from declarations to deeds by bringing together government, diplomatic, scientific, economic and financial resources in order to promote Russian business on the continent. All previous initiatives have not led to the desired results because it didnot have a complex character.
Why Russia’s soft power is softer compared to Soviet days? Can media play any role here?
During the Soviet era, Africa was among our political and economic priorities. In the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, Russia has largely reoriented to western states. Currently, the Russian Federation does not have a comparable economic potential of the USSR to promote its influence in Africa. However, with existing resources, it is possible to succeed in this business, if you focus on the right directions and actively develop cultural ties with African countries, to provide scholarships to African students, to promote the Russian language and to carry out humanitarian projects. A great contribution to the improvement of Russia’s authority in Africa has made the development of Russian scientists against Ebola vaccine. RF also actively supports all initiatives of African States to establish a more fair world order. In the past few months, as a result of the successful operation in Syria the Russian Federation sharply increased its prestige in Africa. The media should more actively inform Russians about the prospects for the development of the African continent, its history and culture. Unfortunately, the Russian man in the street does not know much about Africa. For Africans, so far Russia is associated with the Soviet Union, the majority of Africans still have very warm feelings towards Russia. But in general, and the Russian Federation in Africa, and Africa in the Russian Federation are very poorly represented in the media.
In this case, what else should be done about investment and business to “catch up” with other foreign players such as China, India, Europe and United States that are very active on the continent?
I think and will strongly suggest that Russia should take the lead in preserving the balance of interests on the African continent in the system…”Russia is a country of the West – the new players (China, India, Brazil)” and to seek cooperation on the full range of African issues, taking into account the national interests of each party.
And finally what should be done to encourage African presence both in terms of economic and culture in the Russian Federation? In this direction, what are your expert recommendations?
It is necessary to organize business forum Russia-Africa, which should be held, at least, one time per year (that is yearly), as well as the organization of African cultural festivals, the festival of African cinema in Russia, art exhibitions and concerts of popular African artists. Creation of a special transmission of Russian television, entirely dedicated to Africa. And all these can be organized in close cooperation with the African diplomatic corps. Increase the number of scholarships to Russian universities for Africans. Active work with the African Diaspora in the Russian Federation.
Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms
Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.
Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive
approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.
Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.
Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.
Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.
As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.
Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.
Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.
Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.
While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.
For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.
Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.
To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.
The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.
For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”
The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.
It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.
If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.
“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.
Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia
Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.
Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.
The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.
In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.
The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.
The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.
The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.
Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.
This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.
The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.
Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.
This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.
from our partner RIAC
Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood
The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.
Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.
But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.
CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.
In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.
Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.
Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.
More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.
The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.
A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.
Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.
Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.
Author’s note: first published in cepa
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