Putin courts Africa at summit, but many African leaders stay away

RIGA, Latvia — Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet with African leaders in St. Petersburg on Thursday in a piece of diplomatic theater designed to portray Russia as a great power with many global friends, despite its destabilizing war in Ukraine.

But only 16 African heads of state will attend — fewer than half of the 43 who came to the first Russia-Africa summit in 2019, according to presidential aide Yury Ushakov, a striking disappointment for the Kremlin despite a flurry of diplomatic efforts in Africa and a sign of dismay in African nations about a war that has raised food and fuel prices, hurting vulnerable populations. An additional 10 African states are sending prime ministers, Ushakov said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov blamed the West for the reduced number, claiming there had been “absolutely unconcealed brazen interference of the United States, France and other states” to dissuade them from attending. “This is a fact, this is outrageous,” he said.

The timing of the meeting is awkward. Just last week, Russia renewed its Black Sea blockade on exports of Ukrainian grain amid a food security emergency and drought in the Horn of Africa. Putin has been unapologetic as Moscow aims to displace Ukrainian grain in global markets, boosting its leverage in Africa and ruining Ukraine’s agriculture-dependent economy.

Relations between Russia and Africa are uneven at best. Some African leaders see the Kremlin as a useful foil against the West but also a source of destabilization and disinformation efforts in Africa, modest trade and minuscule investment.

African leaders are well accustomed to foreign leaders promising big and failing to deliver. But statistics tell an especially stark story of broken Russian promises. At the African summit in 2019, Putin promised to more than double trade with Africa to nearly $40 billion, from about $16.8 billion, within five years. By 2021, it had reached only $17.7 billion, according to the state-run Tass news agency, citing Russian customs data, mainly Russian exports of arms and grain. It is a puny sum compared with $295 billion for the European Union, $254 billion for China and $83.7 billion for the United States.

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Those figures underscore African nations’ economic interests, but Russia’s humanitarian contribution to Africa is even more dismal, despite the food security emergency. Russia has donated less than $6.5 million to the U.N. World Food Program this year, according to the agency’s figures — less than Honduras ($42 million), South Sudan ($15 million) or Guinea Bissau ($6.9 million), three of the world’s poorest, most fragile nations.

Still, the summit in St. Petersburg, which had to be postponed last year, shows that some African nations are still willing to deal with Russia despite its invasion of Ukraine and its blockade.

Putin’s message that he is working to topple the global dominance of the United States and advance a fairer, multipolar world order resonates with many African leaders who are annoyed with Western arrogance and scolding in general and specifically unhappy about pressure to take sides in the war, according to analysts.

For many African leaders, trade is not Russia’s biggest attraction. Policymakers in Africa look to the United States for aid and China for trade, loans and infrastructure.

Russia is where they call for hired muscle who don’t ask questions or preach about democratic values — a valuable service for repressive governments in unstable nations like Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic or Mali, where state-funded Russian mercenary group Wagner, founded by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, is most active. Russia is also Africa’s biggest arms supplier.

“The Russians explicitly say we can take on the bad guys in a way that the West — focused on human rights — cannot,” said Murithi Mutiga, head of the Africa program at the International Crisis Group.

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Moscow, which has lately worked to roll back democracy in Africa, appeals to authoritarian leaders. A Prigozhin influence group, the Africa Back Office, contracts out services to spread disinformation, manipulate elections, discredit democracy, undermine opposition forces and attack Russia’s Western rivals.

Russia is also cozy with nations like South Africa, which conducts significant trade with the United States, Europe and China. South Africa has long-standing ties dating to Soviet support for the governing African National Congress in its struggle against apartheid, though some tension flared recently over whether South Africa would have to arrest Putin on an International Criminal Court war crimes warrant if he attended a meeting of the BRICS nations in South Africa next month. Putin recently decided not to attend in person.

Almost all African nations are nonaligned, eschewing global power blocs, and resentful of Western pressure. “People on the continent overwhelmingly want to continue with nonalignment,” Mutiga said. “The risk is, the West sees this preference for nonalignment as leaning toward Russia. That is a mistake. The insistence that people make a choice is not strategically smart.”

Still, some African governments seem out of step with their citizens in their warm embrace of Putin.

In South Africa, for example, only 30 percent of people trusted Putin to do the right thing in global affairs, according to a Pew Research Center poll of 30,861 people in 24 countries conducted from February to May. Only 28 percent of South Africans had a positive view of Russia, while 57 percent had a negative view.

Through Prigozhin’s network, Russia has supported coup leaders in Mali and Sudan, disseminated disinformation against democratic groups and opposition movements, manipulated elections, helped leaders evade term limits and endorsed fraudulent election results, according to the U.S. Congress-funded Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

According to the center, Russia is “actively undermining democracy” in 23 African countries, 11 of them in conflict, even though most ordinary Africans favor democracy, according to polling in 2021 by independent Accra, Ghana-based polling group Afrobarometer.

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Russian officials said 49 delegations had confirmed their attendance at the summit. The presidents of Egypt, Uganda, Senegal and South Africa will attend, according to local media outlets.

Kenyan Foreign Minister Alfred Mutua told The Washington Post that his country would send a delegation, but neither he nor President William Ruto would attend, and Botswana’s leader will also stay away. A spokesman for the Nigerian government did not respond to questions.

Putin portrays Russia as opposing “neocolonialism” and supporting African nations’ “sovereignty,” playing on disenchantment in Africa over Western pressure for progress on rights and democracy, an oft-stated condition for aid.

Washington’s Africa Growth and Opportunities Act, for example, offers duty-free access to the U.S. market for many products, conditional on progress on the rule of law, human rights, democracy, poverty reduction, fighting corruption, improved health care and education, and other efforts.

“We have consistently supported the African peoples in their struggle for liberation from colonial oppression,” Putin wrote this week in an article extolling respect for African nations’ traditional values and desire to “freely build relationships with partners.”

Putin’s challenge this week will be explaining the lack of progress on past promises and justifying his claim that the Black Sea grain deal had little humanitarian impact, even though the World Food Program shipped 725,000 metric tons of wheat via the agreement, including 313,000 metric tons to the Horn of Africa.

Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa and a member of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Economic Advisory Council, said higher grain prices were the blockade’s main risk. “This will hurt the poor and importing countries, such as much of Africa,” Sihlobo said.

Cameron Hudson, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that U.S. aid — including more than $110 billion sent through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) since 2003 — has saved lives in Africa but not always won close friends.

“For a long time, PEPFAR and food aid bought us enormous good will. I don’t think it does in the same way anymore. Africa is trying to change the narrative,” Hudson said. “Russia has a very transactional relationship, and as much as we might see that as predation, many Africans respect it more because there’s not the same feeling of paternalism.”

Most African nations pragmatically pursue their own interests while keeping a door open to Washington, Beijing and Moscow. Egypt, for example, has long-standing security cooperation with the United States and buys wheat and weapons from Russia.

Russia, which has signed more than 20 security agreements with African countries since 2015, focuses its efforts on “countries with weak democratic institutions, strong anti-French or anti-Western sentiments and a wealth of natural resources,” analyst Carl Michael Gräns, wrote in an article for Swedish research group FOI Studies in Africa.

“Poor populations with a low level of education tend to be more receptive to disinformation,” he wrote, “and a high level of corruption enables domestic as well as foreign actors to enrich themselves through exploitation of a state’s natural resources.”

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