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31 Jul, 2023 10:58

Dmitry Trenin: Russia is making its biggest geopolitical shift for 300 years. Here’s how it’s playing out.

The choice of St. Petersburg to host last weeks Russia-Africa summit was no accident. It was a symbolic move.
Dmitry Trenin: Russia is making its biggest geopolitical shift for 300 years. Here’s how it’s playing out.

Last week’s Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg was a landmark event in Moscow’s foreign policy concept and practice. Not so much because it brought scores of African leaders and senior officials to the country. The first summit, four years ago in Sochi, featured even more African heads of state. Also, it is not solely because its agenda expanded beyond economics and included a humanitarian dimension: this is important, but this isn’t all.

Essentially, the meeting, with the bureaucratic preparation and the wide public coverage it has received within Russia, testifies to a sea change in Moscow’s worldview and international positioning toward the world’s rising non-Western majority, as laid down in the recently adopted Foreign Policy Concept.

St. Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great in the early 18th century as a 'window to Europe,' and last week, it served the same purpose for Africa.

Eurocentrism, of course, is still deeply embedded in the Russian elite’s thinking and aspirations. Nevertheless, the failure of Russia’s long travails of Western integration in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union has now exploded into the proxy war against the United States and NATO in Ukraine. This has produced a historic shift in Moscow’s policies, comparable to the time of Peter the Great in its significance, though in a wholly different direction. For the foreseeable future, the universe of Russia’s foreign policy will remain divided in two large parts: the house of foes including Europe, North America, and the rest of the Anglosphere, and the house of friends elsewhere. The dividing line between the two is a country's position in relation to the sanctions regime against Russia.

Africa, in this regard, is largely on the right side of that divide. 49 nations out of the continent’s 54 were represented in St. Petersburg. True, only 17 of them participated at the top level. No longer a curious and skeptical observer, as during the Sochi summit four years ago, the West this time made a determined effort, advising, cajoling or threatening African leaders against going to Russia and dealing directly with President Putin. As a matter of fact, Western pressure scored some points (the number of top leaders in St. Petersburg was about half of what it was in Sochi), but failed to undercut the event. What was lost in the status of representation was compensated in intensity of interaction. The amount of time Vladimir Putin personally invested in the event – that actually lasted three days rather than two – was impressive and noteable. 

The need to counter Western accusations of Russia’s responsibility for the spike in food prices following Moscow’s withdrawal from the Black Sea grain deal (while conveniently ignoring the fact that promises to Moscow to end the Western blockage of Russia’s agricultural exports were never kept) made the Kremlin go beyond the usual verbal rebuttal. At the summit, Putin not only promised to deliver grain free of charge to five of Africa’s poorest nations, but announced plans to expand commercial shipping and to build logistics by sea and air linking Russia to Africa, create a hub in Africa for Russian trade, and expand Russia’s share of African food imports. As for dealing with Western propaganda, Moscow envisages a major expansion of the Russian media presence on the continent. The idea is that Russians and Africans need to have the means of learning about each other directly, rather than through non-neutral intermediaries in London, Paris, or New York.  

Russia certainly has its work cut out for it. Having abandoned the Soviet Union’s rich legacy in Africa in the early 1990s, Moscow faces strong competition there. Compared to China’s Africa trade ($280 billion), or America’s ($60 billion), Russia’s is a puny $18 billion. However, Moscow can do much better. The summit in St. Petersburg focussed on a number of areas, from food security to healthcare and pharma to nuclear energy and security assistance. Of particular importance is education and IT. Since the early 1960s, Moscow’s Lumumba University has been a flagship for training African professionals in Russia. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the school lost much of its luster. But this is now changing and the number of stipends for Africans to study in Russia is being tripled, and many Russian universities are encouraged to seek cooperation partners in Africa.

Recently, Russia has made enormous progress in terms of making the Internet available across its vast territory and turning Moscow into one of the of the world’s most advanced metropolitan areas in terms of public Wi-Fi access. This experience is certainly something to share.

Russia’s revived interest in Africa is strategic rather than tactical. It goes way beyond the important but mundane issues of economic, security and technological cooperation. It also reaches beyond the war in Ukraine – which inevitably also came under discussion in St. Petersburg, - allowing Putin to explain his rationale for acting the way he has and lay out his views on the modalities of peace. In more strategic terms, Russian policymakers increasingly see Africa – along with Asia and Latin America – as part of the rising wave that will help replace the current Western-dominated world order with a more diversified construct built around a number of civilizations.

Some Russians claim that they have a continent of friends in Africa. This is largely true as far as popular sentiments are concerned. Indeed, Russia – in contrast to Western countries – is unblemished by colonial and neo-colonial exploitation of the continent. In the 20th century, it actually provided military assistance to a number of national liberation movements, and economically supported many of Africa’s newly-independent states through infrastructure projects. It trained thousands of doctors, engineers, and teachers, yet the political reality is more complex than that. The US and the former colonial powers France, Britain and others – not to forget Germany – see the continent as essentially their market and resource base, and will seek to protect their economic dominance and political influence. They will make Russia’s progress in Africa as difficult as possible. 

Faced with that opposition, Moscow should avoid falling for the temptation of competing with outside powers for spheres of influence. It needs to be guided by its national interest, which lies in expanding all-around cooperation with African partners, as well as by its aspiration to a new, more equitable, non-Western-dominated world order. The second Russia-Africa summit, for all the complexities and complications it has encountered on the road to St. Petersburg, was a success. However, what is more important is the paradigm shift in Russian thinking and actions towards Africa, which is turning formerly exotic” states into normal and valuable partners.

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