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Did Russia Achieve its Goals in the Sochi Summit?

Over the last decade Africa has once again emerged as an area of strategic interest. In what has been dubbed “the new scramble for Africa” powerful countries are renewing interest in the continent for trade, development, and military purposes. Tensions between the U.S. and China over this issue are well documented. Hesitant to give up its role as the most visible superpower in Africa, the United States has accused China of luring African leaders into “debt-trap diplomacy,” an assertion which Beijing vehemently denies. After the Sochi Summit hosted by President Putin in late October, Russia seems poised to join the so-called “scramble,” soliciting African leaders for greater engagement. However, compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars poured in by China, the U.S., and Europe, Russia simply doesn’t have the economic might to compete for influence on the continent.

Putin meeting with President of the Arab Republic of Egypt, African Union Chairman and Co-Chairman of the Russia-Africa Summit Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. (Image source: Kremlin.ru © 2019)

But if Russia is coming to Africa from a  position of weakness, how then did it successfully attract representatives of all fifty-four African countries including heads of state from forty-three? China may be a key part of this equation. Facing a menu of aid options from the U.S., EU, and IMF tied to democratic practices and economic liberalization, African leaders have increasingly been enticed by China’s no-strings-attached approach. Although Beijing has touted its assistance as a “win-win,” reports have since emerged accusing China of exploiting its relationship with African countries to secure natural resources at below-market costs. A decade or more after Beijing began investing in earnest on the continent, the impact of that relationship is being felt. On the national level state leaders are facing mounting debts and the risk of sovereign debt crisis. Locally citizens perceive — rightly or not that Chinese nationals are depriving them of jobs and depressing their wages.

With countries throughout the global South distancing themselves from historically exploitative relationships with the U.S. and Europe, Moscow sees an opportunity to show African leaders that they needn’t place all their eggs in the Chinese basket. President Putin recognizes that it would be foolhardy to try to supplant China or the U.S. as primary economic backers on the continent. Instead, he utilized the Sochi Summit as an opportunity to highlight Russian strengths, most notably Moscow’s dominance in the legal arms trade.

Russia has been the top supplier of arms to Africa in recent decades, building on its network of Cold War allies to provide military supplies and mercenary services to African leaders. In recent years, demand for weapons has grown on the continent, both because of ongoing armed conflicts and due to military leaders seeking the most advanced weaponry available. Although African leaders have consistently turned to Russia in the past, Putin is no doubt fearful that China’s massive investments on the continent will expand to include military manufacturing. Several participants likened the Sochi Summit to a “trade show” for the amount of military hardware Russia had on display. This was certainly a deliberate choice by Putin, designed to envisage Russia as a dominant military power and cut Beijing out of the African arms market.

In the wake of the Sochi Summit, Putin secured military cooperation deals with thirty African countries, leaving no doubt that Russia is Africa’s defense guarantor of choice. Using a multinational summit to achieve this goal, however, is a strange—and expensive—choice, especially given Russia’s existing relationships on the continent. The summit was certainly undertaken more as a publicity stunt than a policy necessity.

Moscow’s Sochi Summit is eerily reminiscent of Beijing’s Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, the event which in 2018 was so well-attended that it drew dozens of African leaders away from the meeting of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. While Putin’s event did not have such a well-heeled competitors, it was still taken as a page out of China’s playbook.

Given how strongly Washington has come out against the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) it is telling that Russia has sought to emulate the Chinese program. Just as the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation was timed to detract from the UN meetings, the Sochi Summit explicitly highlighted the lack of U.S. engagement in Africa, sending a strong message that other superpowers are willing to fill that gap. Putin’s second goal in convening the forum was to fire a barb at U.S. foreign policy. Interestingly, he found much greater success in securing military cooperation deals than he did in playing superpower politics.

The Sochi Summit went largely unremarked upon in the U.S., failing to elicit so much as a tweet from President Trump. This may be merely a case of bad timing — overwhelmed with news of the ongoing impeachment proceedings against Trump, world news is not as high a priority for U.S. media outlets. But policy wonks also recognize that Russia, in spite of its concerted efforts remains a relatively small player on the African continent. Compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars poured in by China, the U.S., and Europe, Russia’s military contributions simply cannot compare.

President Putin pursued the Sochi Summit with two goals in mind. His first goal, to promote the idea of Russia as a powerful military backer was successful, yielding tangible results. The second, to antagonize the U.S. and highlight Washington’s lack of proactive engagement with Africa was less successful, despite Putin’s attempts to mirror Chinese practices. Over the last fifty years, Russia has found success working covertly in Africa to promote military and defense projects. It will reap the greatest economic and soft power benefits by continuing in this proven path rather than seeking out publicity coups.

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Kathryn Urban

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