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