Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, was welcomed in a handful of African countries this week, from those with big economies—South Africa and Angola—to the tiny kingdom of Eswatini, the last absolute monarchy in Africa, and Eritrea, one of only five countries to vote against a U.N. resolution back in March condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This was Lavrov’s second visit to the continent in six months. With a shrinking pool of trading partners under a growing gauntlet of sanctions, the trip appeared to be planned as an image-booster for Moscow.
"I think the real message behind the Lavrov tour is that Russia is not as internationally isolated, perhaps, as the West thinks or would like to believe," Russia and Africa expert John Lechner tells Fox News. He said the foreign minister wanted to show that "Russia still has some friends, even after the disastrous war in Ukraine."
Due to that disastrous war, it is not clear how much Russia can offer Africa. But Moscow’s steadily growing influence on the continent has drawn a lot of attention recently. For example, Russia’s navy will join China and South Africa in joint exercises next month. Russia is the largest exporter of arms to Africa.
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Russia is also involved in some energy-exploration projects, another endeavor that creates jobs for its people. Quite a few African countries have tapped Moscow and some of its more ruthless mercenaries, like the notorious Wagner group, to help prop up shaky governments. Out of those relationships have come, reportedly, shady deals favorable to Russia for the mining of precious natural materials. But Lechner says the scale of Russia’s trade relationships with Africa ($20 billion in total) are dwarfed by those of the United States (as much as $60 billion), which are in turn dwarfed by those of China (estimated at $190 billion.)
It is China’s influence in Africa in particular that is said to have prompted U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s ten-day trip to the continent to beef up involvement. Her trip dovetailed with Lavrov’s. Yellen was definitive about the U.S.’s commitment as she announced a few initiatives including helping Africa transition to renewable energies.
"The United States is all-in on Africa and all-in with Africa," she said, adding, "Our engagement is not transactional, and it’s not for show." Mindful that some African heads of state have failed to condemn Moscow for attacking Ukraine, she pointed out that the conflict has direct consequences for Africa.
"Russia’s war and weaponization of food has exacerbated food insecurity and caused untold suffering, and the global economic headwinds caused by the actions of a single man, President Putin, is creating an unnecessary drag on Africa’s economy."
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I asked John Lechner why some African countries are not making that connection or at least continue to be content asking Russia for assistance and doing deals with a country that is slaughtering tens of thousands of its neighbors.
"At the end of the day, each country has to think about its own local security priorities first. In the countries where Russian mercenaries are, are countries that are in conflict. I don’t think we necessarily ask Ukrainians whether or not they care about what’s going on in the Central African Republic or Sudan or Mali," he says, mentioning some countries where Russia’s forces are known to be active. "So we shouldn’t necessarily expect Central Africans to think in that way themselves."
About the lack of condemnation for the war, not just among some African countries, but across parts of the Middle East, for one, which have kept silent. Lechner says it appears to be about asserting agency and basic realpolitik.
"Russia’s intervention in Syria has made the country another power broker in the region, especially at a time when there is at least fear that America is going to disengage more from the Middle East with more concentration in the Asia Pacific."
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"Russia is able to talk to both Iran and Israel, for example, and moreover it’s also an important oil producer itself. So I think maintaining those relationships and lines of communication and cooperation are important for their own interests."
And back to Africa, Lechner says, it may be wary of taking sides in a new Cold War. Not only that, but certain countries view the brutality of Russia’s Wagner fighters as the last chance for quelling militias and resistance in places where more restrained Western peacekeepers have failed, so they will likely keep Russia at least relatively close as long as it serves the interests of those in power.