Putin Lost His African Great Game Before He Started

Russia wants to expand its footprint across Africa—but the feeling isn’t mutual.

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.
Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa on Sept. 6, 2006. VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP via Getty Images

A desert-themed armored car, camouflage-colored attack helicopter, and sky-blue fighter jet lined the entrance to the arena. Guns and grenade launchers greeted guests inside. It was the first-ever Russia-Africa Summit, held in Sochi, Russia, last week, and the host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, was determined to display all his country has to offer. “They’re good,” one South African said, toying with the new line of Kalashnikovs. “I like them.”

As Putin tries to court Africa’s leaders and stage a grand return to the continent, fears have been raised of a new scramble for Africa. It is a framing that seems to have stuck in Moscow, Beijing, and Washington, where officials have made clear to varying degrees that their engagement with the continent is part of a broader geopolitical struggle between each other.

There are plenty of problems with this framing, not least the way it portrays Africans as passive political objects, rather than actors in their own right. But the first factual shortcoming is the inclusion of Russia in any discussion of the world’s great powers. The sense that it belongs among these powers, which has been parroted by officials and outlets from around the world, would appear to be little more than Putin’s spin.

“Russia is trying to fuel the perception that it’s a major player,” Grant Harris, who served as former U.S. President Barack Obama’s senior advisor for African affairs, told Foreign Policy. In Sochi, Putin was undoubtedly able to do so, but the data tells a different story.

Since 2014, when sanctions following the annexation of Crimea forced Putin to find new markets and partners beyond the West’s regulatory reach, Russia has made a concerted effort to expand into Africa. It hasn’t had much effect. Today, only 3.7 percent of Russian goods end up in Africa. With more than 2.7 percent getting gobbled up by North Africa, a paltry fraction is destined for the bulk of the continent. It’s even worse in reverse, as African goods account for just 1.1 percent of Russian imports. The Sochi summit was supposed to change all this. However, there’s not much to suggest that it will. Of the $12.5 billion in deals that were allegedly signed, most were only memorandums of understanding that may never get off the ground.

The problem is simple and seemingly unavoidable: Other than arms, of which Russia continues to be the continent’s key supplier, there is little it has to offer and less that Africa will take. For now, it’s hard to see how Putin’s plan to find new partners, make more money, and restart the Russian economy will succeed. “When the forum is finished, everything will be the same,” one Sochi native despaired.

Nevertheless, Putin has fallen for his own great-power paradigm. “For many years Putin has aspired to play a much bigger role in the international system,” Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, told Foreign Policy. In Sochi, the Russian leader and his associates were not shy about this, and they voluntarily expressed that the return to Africa was a hopeful step in their return to great-power status. “The superpowers that are competing on this continent will determine the future of the world’s agenda,” Russian State Duma Deputy Anton Morozov awkwardly announced to a room full of African officials on the second day of the summit.

But as Russia returns, its blunders abound. As it turns out, treating African states as easy-to-manipulate pawns is not only ethically and intellectually questionable—it’s also strategically silly. When Russia engages, it often discounts domestic African politics and overlooks political preferences, refusing to develop meaningful ties with civil society and across the political spectrum. Instead, Judd Devermont of the Center for Strategic and International Studies explained, “The Russians go all in on the incumbent.”

In South Africa, this mistake was on full display in Russia’s opaque and potentially corrupt courtship of then-President Jacob Zuma for a contract to build a nuclear facility. It did not take long for Zuma’s government to fall in a broader corruption scandal, which in turn led his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, to cancel Russia’s prized agreement.

In Sudan, Russia made similar and shadier errors. As Omar al-Bashir was fighting to hold on to his blood-soaked dictatorship in the recent revolution, Russian actors swooped in with a misinformation plan to save him. They didn’t, and today Bashir is behind bars. Although the Russian-Sudanese relationship has resumed, it was a costly error in a country that can offer not only gold and oil, but also the Red Sea naval base that is one of Putin’s top priorities.

Other blunders have been more embarrassing. In 2018, associates of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man who is believed to have masterminded Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, trotted out similar tactics to disrupt a race in Madagascar. The idea was to use a troll farm to influence voter opinion by manipulating online media. However, in a nation where internet penetration is just 9.8 percent, about a quarter of what it is on average across the continent, the troll farm did not make a dent. The Kremlin’s candidates went on to lose, and subsequent allegations of bribes to Malagasy officials further sullied the Russian image.

Yet in Libya, Russia has had even less luck. Two of the same Russian nationals who botched the Madagascar plot were found in July to be attempting to influence Libya’s recent elections. The Russians’ clueless antics got the duo arrested—no easy feat in a country that, according to Freedom House, entirely lacks both an electoral democracy and the rule of law.

In Guinea, a similar situation is currently unfolding as President Alpha Condé, who could be seen at the summit gawking at the guns, is running up against his nation’s two-term limit. To curry favor with Guinea’s aging leader, the Russian ambassador there advocated a constitutional amendment that would allow Condé to stay in office. “Constitutions aren’t dogma, the Bible, or the Quran. Constitutions adapt to reality,” the ambassador said in defense of the proposed power grab. Going all in on Condé might serve some short-term interests given Guinea’s supply of bauxite, a valuable ingredient in the production of aluminum, but protests in the capital, where several protesters were shot dead by police, would suggest that Russia may once again regret its decision to double down.

Although Putin has had success with many of his assertive endeavors in Europe and the Middle East—polarizing publics, aiding politicians, annexing eastern Ukraine, and turning the tide of the Syrian civil war—his aggressive maneuvering in Africa has come with clear costs. “When Russia overplays its hand, Africans have distanced themselves,” Devermont said.

What Russia misses in its engagement with Africa, and what the great-power framing encourages others to forget, is that African states naturally have their own political preferences that are not always up for sale or at one leader’s mercy. When Russia courts ruling elites and tries to undermine democratic elections, it ignores basic trends on the continent. In the latest round of polling from Afrobarometer, Africa’s leading public survey firm, 75 percent of respondents expressed their commitment to free and fair elections.

This degree of philosophical difference between the Kremlin and the continent has helped make Russia a political and ideological irrelevance in Africa, despite its powerful presence there during the Cold War. Today, just 0.0005 percent of Africans believe that Russia serves as the best development model for their country, an Afrobarometer spokesperson told Foreign Policy. What’s more, the spokesperson said, the percentage of Africans who believe that Russia has the greatest foreign influence in their country was “lost among the ‘Others.’”

As role models and political partners, the United States and China are leaps and bounds beyond Russia. Polling from Afrobarometer shows the United States to be the most desired development model on the continent, attracting approval from 30 percent of Africans. China, meanwhile, comes in second with 24 percent. The rankings reverse for greatest foreign influence: 23 percent of Africans believe China to be the most prominent noncolonial power in their country, while 22 percent of Africans believe the United States holds that distinction. With the United States and China having substantially less shady foreign policies, as well as vast financial capabilities, deep diplomatic relations, meaningful civil society connections, and quite a bit of military muscle, it is understandable why they poll so prominently.

Nevertheless, there is a clear path for Putin to catch up—with Washington at least. Last year, U.S. President Donald Trump announced a large military drawdown that comes even as there is crucial anti-terrorism work left to do against Boko Haram in the west, al Shabab in the east, al Qaeda in the north, and the Islamic State in the south. In addition, Trump has shown total diplomatic indifference to the continent, having not sent a senior aide to Africa since former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited last year (and was fired while he was there), having never paid a visit himself, and having filled the key role of the ambassador to South Africa with a fashion designer and Republican donor with no diplomatic experience.

The little attention the Trump administration has paid to Africa has come in the same, erroneous great-power framing. When then-U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton rolled out the Trump administration’s new Africa policy last year, he sounded off on “the pressing challenge of great-power competition.” Recent comments by Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, targeting both Russia and China, have been much the same.

On top of all this, there is Trump’s “shithole countries” comment. “That’s getting at every malicious stereotype of the African continent in a single, racist, shorthand phrase,” said Harris, the former Obama advisor. “A lot of damage done.”

As with U.S. missteps in the Middle East, Trump’s Africa policy, or lack thereof, has paved the way for Russia’s rise. “It’s another case where we’re withdrawing and Putin is moving in to fill the vacuum,” McFaul, the former ambassador, said.

China, for its part, has played its hand much better. Regularly referencing its own encounters with Western imperialism, Beijing has proved quite adept at using a global south narrative to paint its engagement with Africa as one of mutual respect and noninterference. Nevertheless, it has still come to use Africa as a place to project its power. Although less destabilizing than the proxy wars it fueled in Angola and elsewhere during the Cold War, the Chinese military remains active on the continent—operating its only overseas base in Djibouti and training soldiers in Rwanda.

China has also found Africa to be a good place to project its principles. At the 2015 and 2018 Forums on China-Africa Cooperation, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared his goal of “the building of a new model of international partnership” and changing “the global governance system.”

These actions have come with a cost. In recent years, Zambia has experienced a heated #SayNo2China campaign that has hoped to put an end to Chinese investment and involvement in the country. In Ghana, similar anxieties prompted President Nana Akufo-Addo to assure Ghanaians earlier this year that engagement with China would not bring about “the loss of Ghana’s sovereignty.” Western attempts to vilify Chinese investments as “debt traps” have not made things much easier.

Even still, China has what Russia does not and what the United States, preoccupied with other problems, has been unwilling or unable to use: cash. Since China overtook the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner a decade ago, Beijing has overseen large-scale infrastructure projects and pumped generous concessional loans into the continent. At the last Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, Xi redoubled his country’s outreach efforts, announcing a $60 billion investment package—nearly quintuple what Russia offered last week.

However, none of this will necessarily stop Russia’s rise. One thing the great-power framing also fails to take into account is how African states, like all states, can maintain multiple partnerships. It is a basic diplomatic fact that offers particular benefits in Africa, McFaul said, given that the “U.S., Russia, and China play in different lanes.” Nigeria, which announced a new arms agreement in Sochi, is one such beneficiary. At the same time as Russia can equip the country to provide security in its volatile oil-rich southeast, China has helped fund and build its oil infrastructure, and the United States has bought its oil by the billions of dollars. On second look, the mistaken zero-sum framing becomes a positive-sum bonanza.

Stephen Paduano is a journalist based in London. Twitter: @StephenPaduano