Neck and Neck: Ankara and Moscow in the New ‘Race for Africa’

As emerging powers in the international system, Turkey and Russia are frequently in strict competition for influence in global affairs. This same competition extends to the African continent. From the Horn of Africa to Libya, Russia and Turkey are vying for increased resource trade, fighting for new consumer markets, and searching for influence as “partners” with African nations.

In the renewed concourse for Africa, these two powers have sought to augment their position in regional resource and energy markets, making use of the continent’s strategic military value in establishing government-level partnerships, holding military exchanges with local powers, and negotiating the establishment of military installations along the Mediterranean Sea, Indian and Atlantic Ocean.

Russia and Turkey have much to fight over in the new ‘race for Africa’ — however, there are important instances of cooperation and aligned interests which may bridge the gap between Ankara and Moscow. These vectors of mutual interest may create synergetic, multi-level gains, both for Russia and Turkey, as well as African countries. Through established political, economic, and ties between Russia and Turkey, both nationwide and regionally, and shared perspectives between the Turkish and Russian central governments on the creation of a multipolar world, the two countries may find commonalities and even points of partnership in Africa. Particularly in Libya, where energy, defense, and foreign policy objectives of Turkey and Russia possess quite similar ambitions. The result could spell increased options for African governments seeking new partners.

Competition: two powers, running a different race

When analyzing the role of Russia and the role of Turkey in the new race for Africa, it appears the two powers have markedly different approaches for how to cross the “finish line”, with that finish line being garnering influence, the capture of consumer markets, and the control over valuable resources from diamonds to bauxite and uranium ore.

Based on the content of strategic partnerships, publicized trade deals, and senior-level summits and meetings between African Heads of State and their Russian or Turkish counterparts, two observations become apparent: (1) Turkey has been pursuing an African strategy far longer than Russia; and (2) this strategy is far more varied than the one employed by the Russian Federation – which – although it holds similar symbolic qualities (e.g., the holding of grand summits, frequent state visits, and the public instrumentalization of strategic partnership agreements) it largely centers around a few select fields of interest for which Russia holds a strategic advantage. These fields of interest include: the extraction of natural resources such as diamonds in Zimbabwe, the installation of nuclear power plants in Egypt and South Africa by RosAtom, the processing of oil resources in the Al Sahara oil fields in Libya by Taftneft, and the supply of arms and security services in Mali, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, and Angola by Rosoboronexport and other organizations involved in the Russian security-supply market.

To this end, Russia is strategic in its diplomatic as well economic outreach in Africa – primarily focusing on the best partners to enhance points of business as well as political-military interest for Russia. This is exemplified by the signing of strategic partnerships with Mali in 2021, the military cooperation agreement between Russia and Nigeria in 2021, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s various tours to select countries (e.g., South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola, and Egypt) over the past decade to build better relations with these key partners. These activities fit Russia’s strategic advantages in resource extraction, energy development, and arms sales and security provision. However, Russian grasps at influence in the continent have begun to expand in recent years – including the expansion of media outlet RT in Mali, Congo, and the Central African Republic, as well as the growing importance placed on Russia-Africa summits in Sochi, Moscow, and St. Petersburg over the last eight years.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s strategy in Africa is more diverse and has benefitted from a sizeable head start over Russia. Beginning in 2005 after the announcement of “the year of Africa” by the Turkish central government, Turkey has pursued a “Neo-Ottoman” vision in its outreach in Africa. This vision has drawn from practical political, economic, and diplomatic ties, as well as more ephemeral cultural and religious ties with Africa that draw on both the Ottoman Empire’s activities in Northern and Saharan Africa and a shared Muslim identity with modern African states, such as Mali, Somalia, and Libya. The former political, economic, and diplomatic ties cover much of the same bases as Russia’s activities across Africa. Like Russia, Turkey employs strategic partnership agreements – for example, with the GNA in Libya and the authorities in Somalia. However, Turkey has also achieved sizeable public opinion successes in Africa as it expands its development aid presence in Africa. From the creation of the Dakar-Blaise Diagne airport rail line in Dakar, Senegal and education scholarships for over 15,000 students since 1992 to development and military aid to countries like Libya, Somalia, and elsewhere, Turkish activity across the continent appears far more varied than Russia in Africa.

The Turkish development agency (TIKA) has transferred 1 billion dollars to African countries in the past few years, while Turkish foreign direct investment (FDI) in Africa reached over 10 billion and trade volume with African countries hit 26 billion in 2021. Ankara can also boist having 37 embassies across Africa and AU observer status. These figures are “neck and neck” with Russian economic, political, and diplomatic capabilities across the region, as Russia only holds 51 active embassies in Africa, has reached a trade volume of 20 billion dollars in 2021, and largely confined its development aid and investment across the continent to emergency food relief and the forgiveness of Soviet Era debts for the purchase of African arms before the end of the Cold War.

Although they be “neck and neck” across various concourses in the new race for Africa, perhaps there is room for cooperation, and possibly, to relay common interests into a net gain for Russia, Turkey, and their African partners.

Turkey: A Neo-Ottoman vision

Much like Turkey’s larger foreign policy goals in global affairs, Turkish activity in Africa aligns itself with a reoccurring construct in Turkey’s foreign policy: Neo-Ottomanism. Although Neo-Ottomanism is not codified in Turkey’s foreign policy doctrine it is resonated in statements by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other senior-level officials. The gist of this concept is to re-establish Turkey’s role as a center of cultural, religious, political, economic, and military center of power in an increasingly multipolar world where influence in regions of key strategic interest (e.g., the Middle East and North Africa, the Mediterranean, Turkic countries in Central Asia, and larger Africa). This Neo-Ottoman vision guides Turkish foreign policy and connects itself with the established Turkish foreign and military policy concept of the “blue homeland” – or “Mavi Vatan” – which intensifies maritime transit and gas exploration and exploitation issues across the Mediterranean from Israel to Libya.

In Africa, this Neo-Ottoman vision feeds into Turkey’s loosening secularism and state-sponsorship of Muslim initiatives as well as Ottoman-Era ties to the continent through the empire’s regional holdings in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and Eritrea. To many observers, President Erdogan’s recent political adaptation of Islam at home is extending itself to Turkish foreign policy abroad, building ties with Muslim majority countries that share commonalities with Turkish Islam – and more importantly – have strategic practical value to Turkey. Such as Libya and others countries.

Russia: A Western spoiler

As outlined in A.K. Bobrov’s “The Russian Foreign Policy Concept of 2016” – Russia engages in activities across the world, both in its strategic military, political, and economic self-interest, but also to act as a spoiler to the West – and most specifically – the United States. Equally, as part of the Russian foreign policy concept of 2016, is the imperative placed on the creation of a multipolar world order where in which the Russian Federation is a center (or pole) of power. And although A.K. Bobrov highlights that the 2016 foreign policy concept dedicates little attention to Africa in comparison to other regions and relationships, the tendency has changed over the course of the last six-years with increased summits, agreements, and state-visits between African countries and Russia.

Regarding Russia-Africa relations, Russia has reanimated its relationships with African partners that collaborated with the Soviet Union during the Cold War or whose modern-day elite were educated in Russian universities like RUDN. For example, in Congo, South Africa, the CAR, and most recently, Mali. In this vein, Russia has upset power balances and monopolies on power controlled by France and the United States – albeit usually in pockets isolated to Russia’s strategic advantage in providing packaged arms, energy development, and resource extraction deals to African governments ostracized by Western governments for human rights abuses or dictatorial behavior.

Cooperation to Contention

Russia and Turkey are both acting in their enlightened self-interest by portraying themselves as “partners” with African countries, which can mutually benefit from relations with either nation. Both Russia and Turkey are seeking to establish footholds in Africa and in the international arena as credible emerging powers, and in doing so, destabilizing a fragmenting monopolar world with the U.S. and E.U. at its helm, or even conflictual bipolar world with competition between the U.S./E.U. and China. Inevitably making way for more room at the table for emerging powers like Russia, India, and Brazil.

On a foundational level, this may breed competition or cooperation between Russia and Turkey as the two seek global preeminence in international affairs as well as conflicts. Currently, there are sparks of competition and conflict over the situation in Ukraine but also cooperation as Turkey hosts negotiations between the parties involved. In the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis in 2019, the two powers settled on a peace and monitoring mission agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan – although entering conflictual and competitive waters in the early days of that crisis.

In Africa, Russia and Turkey have ameliorated their efforts in the region. However, it will be much to no avail as the two powers stagger behind established powers like the EU, U.S., and China in the new race for Africa. Going forward, Turkey and Russia may be able to find more points of commonality.

For one, Russia playing its “Muslim card” (such as indirectly involving Tatarstan as a region close enough to Turkey’s culture) could prove to be a powerbroker for new deals between Russia and Turkey in Africa. This can extend to shoring up common points of interest in Libya, where Russia and Turkey seek to re-establish economic ties and remove other nations such as the UAE or the U.S. from advancing their interests in the region. Similarly, this can be a beachhead for better relations with Turkey in its mission in Djibouti and Somalia. Possibly allowing Russia to establish military operations, joint arms deals, and other diplomatic, political, and military exchanges along Africa’s Indian Ocean coastline.

Cooperation: different races, similar finish lines

No one knows where the new race for Africa will lead, who will be the inevitable victors, or where it will leave Africa in the end. And although certain articles cite Russian interest in a new world order is a net negative for the continent, the activities of Russia, Turkey, India, and other powers on the continent, do achieve one necessary object required for not only African development but international development though – diversification of options. Operating in different spheres, overlapping in others for influence and resources, Turkey and Russia may find more in common as emerging powers looking to establish a multipolar world vis-à-vis relations with equally emerging powers in Africa. If not, there will be avenues for tempered cooperation between Russia and Turkey across other domains, such as playing up Russia’ “Muslim card”. The result of both possibilities being the reduction of the EU’s, China’s, and U.S.’s monopoly of influence over African decision-making in the political, economic, military, and economic spheres.

From our partner RIAC

Robert Quinn Carolan
Robert Quinn Carolan
Dual M.D. in International Development and World Politics, Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) & Sciences Po Paris, RIAC Intern