For decades, the most visible link between Russia and the continent of Africa was the Kalashnikov. Rebel groups, national militaries and even police officers carried the Soviet-designed AK-47 rifle. They still do.
But as Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted the vast majority of Africa’s leaders at the Black Sea resort of Sochi this week, it seemed that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Fresh from signing a deal on the future of Syria, Putin told attendees at the inaugural Russia-Africa summit: “Russia has signed military-technical cooperation agreements with more that 30 countries, where we supply a large array of weaponry and hardware.
“Part of these supplies are done on a free-of-charge basis,” he added.
But analysts believe Russia’s renewed interest in the continent is hardly altruistic. Guests arriving in Sochi were treated to an exhibit of Russian-made military hardware: military helicopters, fighter jets, and armored vehicles.
The message is clear: the Kremlin is pitching itself to African governments as a reliable supplier of military expertise and modern weaponry – with few strings attached.
On the first day of the event, Russia announced plans to supply $4 billion worth of weaponry by the end of this year alone, and $14 billion more in the coming years. Russia is already the chief supplier of arms to both North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was heavily involved in backing African liberation movements with arms and training in their fight against colonial powers. It is still not uncommon to meet senior African officials who speak Russian from their time at military academies in Moscow or Leningrad.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union led to Russia’s broad disengagement from Africa.
But Putin changed all that, in keeping with his aims to expand Russia’s influence on the world stage. At the summit, Russia’s leader said it was possible to double his country’s trade volume in the continent over the next four to five years.
Details of Russia’s military aims are scant, but Moscow’s message in Sochi was simple: our weapons are cheaper than those provided by the Americans, and they aren’t dependent on human rights and democratic values.
“Our policies never aim to impose our cultural values, our democracy standards and so on, we always respect the sovereignty of our partners,” said Anton Morozov, member of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s parliament said Thursday. “So in that sense it’s much more beneficial for the African countries to cooperate with Russia rather than other countries, including Western states.
A ‘predatory’ relationship
Last December, in a major speech outlining the Trump administration’s “New Africa Strategy,” then national security adviser John Bolton singled out Russian and Chinese moves in Africa, describing both countries’ relationships with the continent as “predatory.”