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From Visits to Concepts: How Russia and the U.S. See Africa’s Place in the World



Since the early days of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine, the diplomacy of the Сollective West has been striving to isolate Moscow, punishing it for resolving the conflict in Donbass. However, one cannot talk about isolation without accounting for the position of developing countries: Alongside the golden billion, there are another 7 billion people living in the world. It is then only natural that the eyes of Western strategists and diplomats have turned to states and regional organizations reluctant to join the anti-Russian rhetoric, seeing no point in imposing economic and political restrictions against Moscow.

A significant piece of this puzzle of international isolation is Africa, a continent comprising 54 internationally recognized states with nearly 1.4 billion inhabitants. Today, Africa is not only more than a quarter of the UN member states. It is the countries of the continent that can provide tangible assistance to the West in replacing imports of Russian energy resources, fertilizers and rare metals. Therefore, the recent visits of Russian and American dignitaries are no surprise, as it is important for each side to understand where the sympathies of the whole continent as well as those of individual states may swing. From June 23 to 27, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited four African capitals, while U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited three sub-Saharan states from August 7 to 11. Most of the countries were reluctant to reproduce Western assessments of the events in Ukraine, except for the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In this context, we need to understand what Russia and the United States have formulated in conceptual terms, and we need to track the vision of a joint future that Moscow and Washington offer to the African continent.

Lavrov’s tour of Africa: status proposals

In the third week of July, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited four African states, including Egypt, the Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia. At the talks in each country, the Russian position was enriched with some new details. Perhaps, the most important innovation in the dialogue with African countries has been their participation in global negotiation platforms and non-Western political institutions. In particular, Russia supported the idea of Egypt joining the SCO as a dialogue partner and the launch of the extended BRICS format, which is still under discussion.

For Cairo, institutional access to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is more than the start of a dialogue on the terrorism-separatism-extremism triad. First, participation in the same security structure as China, India, and Russia noticeably strengthens the country’s position in balancing between the major centers of power. In 1987, Egypt received the status of a major non-NATO ally and annual military aid of $1.5-2 billion from the U.S. However, due to the current political instability in Washington, Cairo can no longer expect that the Egyptian army will have access to financial subsidies and technological innovations as a matter of course. While the head of Egypt was the “favorite dictator” for President Donald Trump, it was—for a long time—as if the country did not even exist for the Biden administration. Joe Biden’s first call to the head of an allied state, President al-Sisi, did not take place until a year and three months after the inauguration ceremony, and the first face-to-face meeting took place more than two and a half years later. Of course, it is unlikely that the game combination in this foreign policy endeavor is to cause “jealousy” of the United States. Still, the very involvement in the SCO could give the Egyptian diplomacy more room to maneuver and bargaining power with Washington, especially given the rhetoric of recent years on human rights.

Second, Turkey’s participation as a dialogue partner of the SCO impinges on Cairo’s painful issue—namely, the Muslim Brotherhood. In Egypt, this group is recognized as terrorist, and since Turkey patronizes the organization, it is important for Cairo to give an alternative point of view in any international platforms, avoiding terminological games with the concept of terrorism.

Equally interesting are the details of the negotiations in Ethiopia and Uganda. Judging by the publicly available information, the Russian side is signaling its readiness to launch another round of negotiations on the configuration of the UN Security Council. Sergey Lavrov raised the topic of a UN reform during his conversation with the president of Uganda. At a press conference with Yoweri Museveni, the problem of the continent’s total non-representation in the UN Security Council was noted as urgent and in need of resolution. At a briefing by Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Meles Alem, it was announced that Russia supported the idea of a permanent UN Security Council seat for an African state. Previously, there were discussions of options such as rotating and semi-permanent seats for the continent, but this does not seem to be enough now. Negotiations on a UN reform and an expanded Security Council have been stalled for more than 15 years, and Moscow’s position in recent years has clearly implied support for Africa’s claim to representation in the main UN body.

In this case, the signal’s timing is important. In the current environment, possibilities are opening up for negotiating a partial adjustment of the composition and principles of representation on the Security Council. Of course, radical options for expanding the UN Security Council with membership for Pakistan, Japan or Germany have no chance to succeed, but a compromise set of candidates, who would meet some of the demands of Africa and Latin America, is quite likely. At the same time, adding relatively neutral players to the UN Security Council would equally suit both Russia and the Collective West.

After all, Russia’s proposals for transforming international institutions and negotiating platforms imply a more active and creative involvement of African countries. Open and unconventional creation in shaping of a new global institutional architecture gives Russia and other possible participants in the collective Non-West a competitive advantage, since the West’s main political institutions (G7, NATO, AUKUS) are non-inclusive and imply ideologically determined bloc discipline.

Is the Red Sea ours?

Another out-of-the-ordinary event for the African vector of Moscow’s policy was the publication of Russia’s revised Maritime Doctrine on July 31. In addition to the traditional provisions of the earlier iterations the new document proclaimed Moscow’s intention to ensure its permanent presence in the Red Sea, for the first time in decades. The Maritime Doctrine declared it an important area for ensuring Russia’s national interests, fixing the desire to establish logistic support points for naval units.

Naturally, Russia’s desire to gain some foothold in the Red Sea appeared long before 2022. In late 19th century, Nikolay Ashinov, a native of modern Volgograd, tried to establish a colony of New Moscow on the territory of present-day Djibouti. From 1964–1977, the USSR built from scratch a naval base in the port of Berbera, Somalia. Besides, from 1977–1991, the Soviet Union used a logistical support station on Nokra Island in the Dahlak Archipelago, present-day Eritrea. In 2012–2013, Russia was negotiating with Djibouti over a possible military base in the country, but the financial conditions and the proposed territorial area did not satisfy Moscow’s requests. In 2017, Sudan’s leader proposed the establishment of a logistics point in his country. While negotiations and agreements were underway, Sudan endured two (or one and a half) coups in 2019 and 2021, which brought less compliant forces to power. Although a military base agreement was signed on December 1, 2020, its ratification and final entry into force has been delayed due to the serious pressure exercised by the West on the Sudanese authorities.

In this regard, Russia’s Maritime Doctrine provides food for thought with regard to the wording about logistic support points (note the plural) in the Red Sea and the use of infrastructure by states in the region (paragraph 59, subparagraph 4). What this effectively means is that Moscow will not rely solely on the Sudanese project of a naval base near Port Sudan and may limit itself to occasional use of the port for resupply and minor repairs, as it does now.

The list of potential countries to deploy a military base will probably be expanded. The most likely options in the Red Sea are Djibouti and Eritrea, as the other states are more inclined to follow in the wake of the recommendations coming from the West. As for Eritrea, it is highly possible that Russia won’t use Nokra Island again. This may bring back negative memories, since patrols from the Soviet base actually fought the country’s currently ruling party at one time. However, there are enough small coastal communities in the south of the country that the Russian Navy could well approach. Moreover, the Port of Assab is already used by the Gulf countries to support operations against the Houthis in Yemen, if on an informal basis. As for Djibouti, the options are less tangible. There could be a resumption of negotiations on a full logistics point or somewhat reduced presence to back up possible problems with Sudan.

Either way, prioritizing the Red Sea will require dialogue with all coastal states on the part of Russia, including approaching such difficult partners as Kenya and Somalia. The Sudanese experience clearly demonstrates that fall-backs and back-up options are always needed, since domestic political changes may well stall or nullify any diplomatic arrangements.

Biden’s Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa

In contrast to Moscow’s proposals, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, in a speech in Pretoria on August 8, voiced quite a one-sided format of engagement—namely, “a vision for our nation’s engagement of the region.” In his speech, the head of the U.S. diplomatic office outlined “Biden’s Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa” covering its four chief priorities. The first is openness, which implies the ability of states in the region to develop receiving U.S. assistance needed to build infrastructure or facilitate technology transfer. The second is to promote democracy through the exchange of ideas, the fight against disinformation and corruption, and reinforced relations between law enforcement officials and the local population. The third is to overcome the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, laying down conditions for a long-term and sustainable economic growth. By creating conditions, Secretary Blinken meant not only investments and subsidies from international financial institutions but also organizing vaccine production in African states. Finally, the fourth priority is to engage the countries of the continent in the green agenda, including the fight against climate change.

An analysis of Biden’s Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa suggests a solid conceptual similarity to an earlier document, the 2012 Strategy. Of the four priorities listed back in 2012, half remained virtually unchanged, such as the promotion of democracy and the linking of economic development to environmental concerns. Ten years ago, the third priority did not mention the global pandemic, but it otherwise included similar proposals, that is, working with sub-regional organizations, engaging business, and reforms for sustainable growth.

Only two aspects are fundamentally different in the Strategies of 2012 and 2022. First, Biden’s Strategy is soft-spoken about security concerns and the role the U.S. is willing to play in conflict-resolution in Africa. Probably, the reason being that these issues will be reflected in another document currently prepared by the U.S. Department of Defense. This document will link security issues with the political and economic efforts of the United States and will address the 3D (diplomacy, defense, development) principle. Second, the 2012 Strategy strictly conditioned U.S. relations with an African country on respect for the “legitimacy of the democratic process” that ultimately refers to regular elections, an adequate vote count, a peaceful transfer of power. And Biden’s Strategy is moving away from such meddling in internal affairs and arguing that the U.S. may not have a solution for democracy problems in Africa. That said, Blinken’s visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo was mostly focused on the upcoming 2023 elections, which somewhat undermines the stated positions of the Strategy.

In general, Blinken’s visit demonstrates that the U.S. does not yet have a re-branded perspective on Washington’s relations with African states and that the State Department was inspired by America’s domestic political agenda. It is likely that African countries are quite satisfied with the conceptual auto-plagiarism of the U.S. leadership. At the same time, methods of solving domestic American problems in other realities will prove to be less in demand, and these methods have not been very effective in the United States itself in recent years.

Instead of an epilogue

Currently, work is continuing on a new Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation. At a press conference in Uganda following his visit, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that Africa’s role in Russia’s main foreign policy concept document would grow. In the current Foreign Policy Concept of 2016, the continent occupies the last place in the regional dossier, with not a single African state mentioned separately, unlike such “important” partners of Russia as Canada or New Zealand. Notably, the two versions of the 2013 and 2016 Concepts have a consistent regional dossier structure, while the Concept of 2008 at least placed Africa in the penultimate place in the ranking of priority regions.

Recent events show that a new view of relations with Africa is gradually emerging in Russia. At one time, Russian diplomacy talked a great deal about the “flexible geometry” of multilateral institutions, emphasizing the importance of unity over political goals, as opposed to targeting political unity. In Africa, Moscow is moving from “flexible geometry” toward agile and parallel dialogue structures, which entails nuanced and subtle work with the countries of the continent. On the one hand, it allows to develop alternatives and combinations for cooperation as well as to reduce dependence on the volatile situation in particular countries. On the other hand, it is important not to get carried away with the “flexible geometry” in relations with Africa and to match different interaction formats as well as to link the involvement of African states to their own vision of the present and future.

In a multipolar and multilateral world, the SCO and BRICS will have to be expanded, but it is important to understand what principles Russia should be guided by in doing so. Moscow and its allies have other institutional mechanisms in their arsenal: this includes the CSTO peacekeeping and military-political potential, the EAEU dialogue possibilities and subregional organizations of the African continent, as provided for by the first Russia-Africa Summit. Such an institutional list can satisfy very demanding tastes and looks more advantageous than Biden’s Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa. All that remains is turn vivid concepts into a concrete action program and implement what has been conceived.

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D., Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Political Elites, Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Theory, MGIMO-University

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Critical Views On Russia’s Policy Towards Africa Within Context Of New World Order

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In September WhatsApp conversation with Matthew Ehret, a Senior Fellow and International Relations Expert at the American University in Moscow, he offers an insight into some aspects of Russia-African relations within the context of the emerging new global order. 

In particular, Matthew gives in-depth views on Russia’s valuable contribution in a number of economic sectors including infrastructure development during the past few years in Africa, some suggestions for African leaders and further on the possible implications of Russia-China collaboration with Africa. Here are important excerpts of the wide-ranging interview:

What are the implications here and from historical perspectives that Russia is looking for its allies from Soviet-era in Africa…and “non-Western friends” for creating the new world order?

Russia is certainly working very hard to consolidate its alliances with many nations of the global south and former non-aligned network. This process is hinged on the Russia-China alliance best exemplified by the integration of the Eurasian Economic Union with the Belt and Road Initiative and the spirit of cooperation outlined in the the Feb. 4 Joint Statement for a New Era of Cooperation.

Of course this is more than simply gaining spheres of influence as many analysts try to interpret the process now underway, but has much more to do with a common vision for instituting a new system of cooperation, creative growth and long term thinking uniting diverse cultural and religious groups of the globe around a common destiny which is a completely different type of paradigm than the unipolar ideology of closed-system thinking dominant among the technocrats trying to manage the rules based international order.

Soviet Union, of course, enormously supported Africa’s liberation struggle and resultantly attained political independence in the 60s. What could be the best practical way for Russia to fight what it now referred to as “neocolonialism” in Africa?

Simply operating on a foundation of honest business is an obvious but important thing to do. The African people have known mostly abuse and dishonest neo-colonial policies under the helm of the World Bank and IMF since WW2, and so having Russia continue to provide investment and business deals tied to the construction of special economic zones that drive industrial growth, infrastructure and especially modern electricity access which Africa desperately needs are key in this process.

African countries currently need to transform the untapped resources, build basic infrastructure and get industrialized -these are necessary to become somehow economic independent. How do you evaluate Russia’s role in these economic areas, at least, during the past decade in Africa?

It has been improving steadily. Of course, Russia does not have the same level of national controls over their banking system as we see enjoyed by China whose trade with Africa has attained $200 billion in recent years while Russia’s trade with Africa is about $20 billion. But despite that, Russia has done well to not only provide trains in Egypt, and has made the emphasis on core hard infrastructure, energy, water systems, and interconnectivity a high priority in the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit and the upcoming 2023 Summit.

Generally, how can we interpret African elite’s sentiments about Russia’s return to Africa? Do you think Russia is most often critical about United States and European Union’s hegemony in Africa?

I think the over arching feeling is one of trust and relief that Russia has returned with a spirit of cooperation. According to all the messaging from Lavrov who recently completed an important Africa tour late July, I can say that Russia is very critical of the USA and EU approach to hegemony in Africa. As Museveni and the South Africa Foreign Minister have recently emphasized, they are sick of being talked down to and threatened by western patronizing technocrats, whereas we see a sense of mutual respect among the discourse of Russian and Chinese players which is seen as a breath of fresh air. 

While the west is obsessed with “appropriate green technologies” for Africa while chastizing the continent for its corruption problems (which is fairly hypocritical when one looks at the scope of corruption within the Wall Street- City of London domain), Russia supports all forms of energy development from coal, oil, natural gas and even nuclear which Africa so desperately needs to leapfrog into the 21st century.

Understandably, Russia’s policy has to stimulate or boost Africa’s economic aspirations especially among the youth and the middle class. What are views about this? And your objective evaluation of Russia’s public outreach diplomacy with Africa?

So far Russia has done well in stimulating their youth policy with expanded scholarships to African youth touching on agricultural science, engineering, medicine, IT, and other advanced sectors. Additionally the Special Economic Zones built up by Russia in Mozambique, Egypt have established opportunities for manufacturing and other technical training that has largely been prevented from growing under the IMF-World Bank model of conditionality laced loans driven primarily by the sole aim of resource extraction for western markets and overall control by a western elite. Russia has tended to follow China’s lead (and her own historic traditions of aiding African nations in their development aspirations) without pushing the sorts of regime change operations or debt slavery schemes which have been common practice by the west for too long.

Sochi summit has already provided the key to the questions you have, so far, discussed above. Can these, if strategically and consistently addressed, mark a definitive start of a new dawn in the Russia-African relations?

Most certainly.

Geopolitical confrontation, rivalry and competition in Africa. Do you think there is an emerging geopolitical rivalry, and confrontation against the United States and Europe (especially France) in Africa? What if, in an alliance, China and Russia team up together?

China and Russia have already teamed up together on nearly every aspect of geopolitical, scientific, cultural and geo-economic interest imaginable which has created a robust basis for the continued successful growth of the multipolar alliance centered as it is upon such organizations as the BRICS+, SCO, ASEAN and BRI/Polar Silk Road orientation. This is clear across Africa as well and to the degree that this alliance continues to stand strong, which I see no reason why it would not for the foreseeable future, then an important stabilizing force can not only empower African nations to resist the threats, intimidation and destabilizing influences of western unipolarists. 

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Sahel security crisis ‘poses a global threat’

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Refugee women prepare food in a displacement site in Ouallam, in the Tillaberi region of Niger. © UNOCHA/Michele Cattani

Rising insecurity, including the proliferation of terrorist and other non-State armed groups, coupled with political instability, is creating a crisis in the Sahel that poses a “global threat”, the UN chief warned Thursday’s high level meeting on the vast African region, which took place behind closed doors at UN Headquarters in New York.

“If nothing is done, the effects of terrorism, violent extremism and organized crime will be felt far beyond the region and the African continent”, said Secretary-General António Guterres, in his remarks issued by his Spokesperson’s Office.

“A coordinated international breakthrough is urgently needed. We must rethink our collective approach and show creativity, going beyond existing efforts.”

The insecurity is making a “catastrophic humanitarian situation even worse”, he said, leaving some beleaguered national governments, without any access to their own citizens.

‘Deadly grip’ tightening

Meanwhile, “non-State armed groups are tightening their deadly grip over the region and are even seeking to extend their presence into the countries of the Gulf of Guinea.”

The indiscriminate use of violence by terrorist and other groups means that thousands of innocent civilians are left to suffer, while millions of others are forced from their homes, Mr. Guterres told the meeting of national leaders, during the High Level Week summit.

Women and children in particular are bearing the brunt of insecurity, violence and growing inequality”, he said, with human rights violations, sometimes committed by security forces mandated to protect civilians, “of great concern”.

Climate factor

And the crises are being compounded by climate change, said the UN chief, with soil erosion and the drying-up of water sources, “thereby contributing to acute food insecurity and exacerbating tensions between farmers and herders.”

“Against a global backdrop of turmoil on energy, food and financial markets, the region is threatened by a systemic debt crisis that is likely to have repercussions throughout the continent.”

The conventional international finance remedies are not helping, the UN chief said bluntly, with more and more countries forced to channel precious reserves into servicing debt payments, leaving them unable to pursue an inclusive recovery, or boost resilience.

“It is absolutely necessary to change the rules of the game of the financial reports of the world. These rules of the game are today completely against the interests of developing countries, and in particular the interests of African countries”, said Mr. Guterres, “with debt problems, with liquidity problems, with inflation problems, with instability, necessarily posed by this profound injustice in international financial and economic relations.”

Democracy, constitutional order

The UN chief called for a “renewal of our collective efforts to promote democratic governance and restore constitutional order” across the whole Sahel, which stretches from Senegal in the west to northern Eritrea and Ethiopia in the east, a belt beneath the Sahara of up to 1,000 kilometres.

The rule of law and full respect for human rights are indispensable for ensuring security and sustainable development, Mr. Guterres said.

Addressing national leaders and senior politicians from the region, he said the UN “stands ready to work alongside you, with urgency and solidarity, for a peaceful, stable and prosperous Sahel.”

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South Sudan: Extended roadmap for lasting peace deal, a ‘way point, not an end point’

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Since 2018, the Revitalized Agreement between the key players in South Sudan’s long-running civil war has provided a framework for peace, the Head of the UN mission there, UNMISS, told the Security Council on Friday – “despite continued outbreaks of intercommunal violence”. 

UN Special Representative Nicholas Haysom said that although key provisions of the Agreement are set to end by February, the parties agreed in August on a Roadmap that extends the current transitional period by 24 months. 

While a welcome development, he reminded that “there is no alternative to the implementation of the peace agreement”. 

“Let me underscore that the roadmap is a way point, not an end point”, he said. 

Inclusive political process 

The UNMISS chief flagged the importance of an inclusive political process and the opening of civic spaces as “essential conditions” for a robust and competitive electoral process. 

He then outlined some steps underway – from President Salva Kiir and first Vice-President Riek Machar’s agreement to resolve the parliamentary impasse, to the graduation of the first class of joint armed forces recruits – for which budgetary resources, integration and deployment, are vital to allow a broader security sector transformation. 

“Failure to address these critical issues…have the potential to reverse the gains made,” Mr. Haysom warned. 

Violence continues 

He went on to describe violence on the regional level, marked by cycles of cattle raiding, abduction, and revenge killings along with fighting in Upper Nile state that has displaced thousands of people. 

The Special Representative reported that while conflict-related violence is also increasing, UNMISS continues to support prevention through policy frameworks and other areas. 

“The Mission is strengthening its support to the justice chain in each state…to address crimes that risk destabilizing the peace, including those involving gender-based violence,” he told the ambassadors. 

‘Double pivot’ 

Mr. Haysom said that UNMISS has managed to accomplish a “double pivot” in its focus and operations, by channeling resources towards the political process; proactive deployment to violent hotspots; and expanding its protection presence for civilians. 

He assured that South Sudan’s natural resources have “tremendous potential” for either conflict, or cooperation.  

“It is always political that can make the difference”. 

Turning to the humanitarian situation, he acknowledged that food security continues to deteriorate, leaving some 8.3 million people in need and outstripping available funding. 

Noting that the Humanitarian Response Plan is only 44.6 per cent funded, he urged donors to fulfil their pledges. 

‘Litmus test’ 

He asserted that the next few months would be “a litmus test” for the parties to demonstrate their commitment to the Roadmap, warning against “delays and setbacks”. 

In closing, the Special Representative reaffirmed the importance of the international community’s support. 

“Our collective task now is to support the parties in fulfilling their obligations to the people of South Sudan as per the timing of the Roadmap,” he concluded. 

Indispensable timelines 

Meanwhile, Lilian Riziq, President, South Sudan Women’s Empowerment Network discussed a broad-based and inclusive process for all key participants, underscoring the need for a new transitional governance process.  

She underscored that election timelines are indispensable, noting that four years on, levels of revitalized agreement implementation have not brought security or ended humanitarian misery. 

She also highlighted ways that precious oil revenues in South Sudan, have been heavily misused. 

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