The second Russia-Africa Summit on 27-28 July in St Petersburg is viewed by Moscow as the preeminent stage to rekindle relations with Africa. The meeting takes place during a particularly charged geopolitical moment and will attract more intense scrutiny than the first Russia-Africa Summit in 2019.
Will African states manage to work together to shape the outcomes in the continent’s favour? Or will the high-profile event be yet another case of geopolitical pageantry aimed at courting African leaders?
The summit is expected to convene at least 40 African heads of state and senior leaders. It will focus on deepening cooperation between Moscow and African capitals across five broad areas: politics, security, economic relations, science and technology, and cultural and humanitarian engagement.
This ambitious agenda includes a parallel Economic and Humanitarian Forum intended to ‘diversify the scope and nature of Russian-African cooperation, in turn setting the course of its long-term development.’
The scale of the gathering reflects Moscow’s recent strategic pivot back to Africa – and its attempts to reclaim ground lost to other global powers vying for influence on the continent. Organisers say the summit’s 2019 Economic Forum in Sochi convened over 6 000 participants and led to the signing of 92 trade agreements and memorandums worth over US$12.5 billion.
The optics matter for Russia, since little trade and investment progress has been made since Sochi
These events are useful for coordinating strategic priorities, but the 2023 Russia-Africa Summit is arguably far more significant for Moscow. Since the Sochi summit, Russia has turned sharply towards Africa to circumvent Western isolation following its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The St Petersburg meeting is a chance to show that Moscow has not been isolated and has alternative partners willing to deepen their cooperation with the Kremlin.
The optics will be of prime concern for Russia, since little progress has been achieved on bilateral trade and investment over the past four years, primarily due to COVID-19 and the Ukraine war. Moscow will be looking to bolster Sochi’s numbers regardless of whether they lead to tangible outcomes.
This evolving approach towards Africa is reflected in Russia’s updated Foreign Policy Concept. The 2016 policy contained only a handful of references to Africa. The 2023 version elevates the continent’s importance, noting Moscow’s intent to support Africa as a ‘distinctive and influential centre of world development’ through improved bilateral relations, trade, and scientific and humanitarian cooperation.
A positive development is African leaders’ commitment to continuing discussions on resolving the Ukraine war
The question of what African states want from the summit is more complex. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, global fault lines have deepened, with Africa at the centre of a charm offensive by international powers seeking support for their approach to the international order. As the largest regional grouping in the United Nations (UN) General Assembly – and the region most divided on condemning Russian aggression – Africa’s geostrategic stock has risen.
The continent’s development agenda would ordinarily be the priority in its engagements with external partners. But that’s no longer as straightforward or prominent as it once was. Who African states collaborate with and how they do so may become a growing concern for continental leaders in an international system in flux.
To recentre Africa’s development needs, countries must proactively set the agenda and map responsibilities in Africa+1 meetings. African governments still play a largely secondary role in initiating these engagements, framing the agenda and contributing to the outcomes.
Food security is a case in point. On 17 July, Russia withdrew from the Black Sea grain deal, citing its unhappiness with arrangements for the export of Russian grain and fertiliser. This might increase global food prices, threatening food security in many African countries. Regardless of whether Russia re-commits to the deal before the summit, African leaders must actively voice their concerns about food security in the context of the ongoing war.
Many of the 2019 Russia-Africa summit provisions have since been violated by Moscow
African states cannot overlook such glaring inconsistencies that underpin their vast strategic partnership with Russia. Without some pushback, African governments could be seen as passive agents, simply rubber-stamping Moscow’s pursuit of its own narrow global interests.
One positive development is African leaders’ commitment to continue the discussion on resolving the Ukraine war. The summit comes almost a month after the first African peace mission, which saw seven countries’ leaders engaging with Ukraine and Russia in an attempt to reach a settlement.
Senegalese President Macky Sall recently said African leaders would ‘continue to use the Russia-Africa summit to see how we can move forward on the negotiations we tried to implement between Russia and Ukraine.’ Leaders expected Russia to show a commitment to peace, including releasing prisoners of war and returning Ukrainian children taken by Russia during the conflict.
As geopolitical fractures worsen over the foreseeable future, African states should adopt a more assertive approach to Africa+1 engagements. This will move the continent beyond summitry and the interests of the ‘plus ones’ – and towards a firmer footing for negotiating collective African interests on the world stage.
Priyal Singh, Senior Researcher, Africa in the World and Denys Reva, Researcher, Maritime, ISS Pretoria
Image: © Amelia Broodryk/ISS