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After Middle East, Russia Counters America’s Influence in Africa

Russia’s Vladimir Putin has turned his attention to Africa to raise Moscow’s profile in the struggle for geopolitical influence

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President Vladimir Putin has already restored Russia’s influence in the Middle East; backing President Bashar al Assad’s government in Syria, working with Turkey to find a solution for Turkish-Kurds conflict in northern Syria, rivaling US’s power in the region.

Putin is taking advantage of Washington’s fading influence in the Middle East and Africa since Donald Trump became president. The US released a new strategy ‘Prosper Africa’ to reshape America’s involvement in Africa, but it is still unclear how it will be implemented after the departure of National Security Advisor John Bolton who unveiled the plan last December. The strategy specifically targets Russia as a key geopolitical rival, presenting the United States’ potential African partner countries with an apparent choice between Cold War-style enemies. In March, the US pointed to US as a threat to Africa, when Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan warned Angola of Russia’s interest in Africa.

President Trump omitted Africa from his remarks during his address to the UN General Assembly. Mr. Putin is aware of that and is sending a message to Africa that America ‘abandoned you.’

Between October  23 and 24, Putin hosts leaders from 54 African countries, 43 heads of state and 11 government representatives attended the first-ever Russia-Africa summit in the Black Sea city of Sochi.

The summit comes a day after Putin hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for talks on Syria, as Moscow continues to push its influence in the war-torn country and the wider Middle East. Putin made just one foreign trip to Africa, visiting South Africa since he became president 20 years ago.

After the Middle East, Russia is pushing to rival Western and Chinese influence in Africa.  President Putin called on ‘stronger links between Russia and Africa’ one of his country’s foreign policy priorities. The summit is part of Moscow’s ambitious push for influence and business in Africa. Russia is the world’s largest wheat exporter and seeks to ramp up its supplies of grain and fertilizer to meet demand that is rising in step with Africa’s booming population.

Moscow was a crucial player in Africa in the Soviet era, backing independence movements and training a generation of African leaders. But its ties with Africa declined with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and in recent years China has emerged as a top foreign power on the continent, forcing Russia to play catch-up.

Russia is trying to engage in competition with other states that already have presence in Africa including China, Turkey, Gulf States like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates that are scrambling for a slice of Africa – a rich continent but with poor people.

Moscow’s trade with Africa is dwarfed by that of other countries that have made a significant presence in the continent. In 2018, trade volume between Russia and Africa stood at $20 billion – 10 times less than China’s which stood at $204b, while European Union’s trade with Africa was $334b.

Putin said Russia would be looking “double this trade, at least” within the next four to five years.

In Sochi, Putin said “We see a number of Western states resorting to pressure, intimidation and blackmail” in attempts to regain “lost influence and dominant positions in former colonies.”

Russia plans to offer financing to states with little access to capital markets. According to Bloomberg, Moscow has also inked defense-cooperation accords in recent years with about 15 African nations. State atomic energy operator Rosatom Corp., meanwhile, is seeking contracts across the continent including in Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria and Zambia.

Still, Russia can’t match China’s financial firepower. Chinese President Xi Jinping last year announced $60 billion in loans and other financing at a Beijing conference with African nations, three years after pledging a similar amount.

Russia is in pursuit of becoming a global superpower again and it cannot ignore Africa to achieve this.

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