Energy Diplomacy Isn’t Helping Russia In Africa

By Ariel Cohen, Alum of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

Africa has had to walk a perilous diplomatic tightrope regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Most of the African public is embracing democratic norms with surveys showing widespread sympathy for Ukraine.

Kenya’s representative to the UN summed up this sentiment by comparing Ukraine’s plight to the struggles of postcolonial Africa. And rightly so. As I outline in my book, Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis, the origins of Russian expansionist aggression along its periphery for the last several centuries are rooted in its immutable and implacable imperialist agenda.

Unfortunately, widespread sympathy has not translated into state policy. Concerns over food security and dependency on Russian foodstuffs force African states to remain distant from the conflict. Now in addition to this food dependency, Russia has begun augmenting its diplomatic playbook in Africa with changes in its energy diplomacy and military power projection.

Despite dependency on foodstuffs, African states mostly benefit from sanctions against Russia. Russia’s isolation from the European market means that African states enjoy higher commodity prices and have fewer competitors. It is obvious that African energy may save Europe, and in doing so, Africa will secure a large share of lucrative and stable energy contracts vital for its economic development.

Simultaneously, it is plainly understood that Russia cannot economically compete with or alter the market forces driving these changes. Only 1% of FDI in Africa is sourced from Russia, while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only helped economically align Europe and Africa.

Examples of African gain at Russian expense abound. Tanzania, having the sixth-largest natural gas reserves in Africa, was able to renegotiate with energy companies such as Shell and ENI to attract foreign investment of up to $30 billion to revive the construction of offshore liquefied natural gas projects in 2023.

Senegal is expected to begin extraction of its 40 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in late 2023 for most European consumers via forthcoming liquefication infrastructure and via a pipeline connecting to Morocco.

Nigeria already supplied 14% of the EU’s liquified natural gas (LNG) demand in the first half of 2022 with plans for further expansion.

Namibia has taken advantage of Europe’s energy hunger to develop a green hydrogen export base to enter the European energy markets. None of these would have been possible without Russia’s self-imposed isolation from the European energy market.

Despite the overall weakness of Russian capital investment in Africa, it is concentrated in a select few areas and sectors where Russian influence can be cohesively exercised for maximum political gain. The majority of the imports from Russia are concentrated in strategically important sectors such as infrastructure construction equipment and military hardware, forcing African militaries and elites to consider Russian opinion closely before action.

Geographically, Russian capital investment has clustered in select, strategically important markets. In Rwanda, Russia has piggybacked off the country’s prodigious rise as the “Singapore of Africa” by investing in the country’s infrastructure and even emerging nuclear science capabilities, hoping that influencing a role model will influence the rest of Africa to partner with Russia in uranium production development and purchasing Rosatom reactors.

In Djibouti, where Russia has long expressed interest in opening a naval base at the mouth of the Red Sea, Russia is attempting to bolster its influence in the vital country. In a geopolitical scramble reminiscent of the “Great Games” of the nineteenth century, Russia would join 8 other countries (including the USA and China) which have military bases in the country.

In hydrocarbon sectors in Algeria, Mozambique, Cameroon, and Gabon, Russia has attempted to use investments through Russian energy companies such as Rosneft and Gazprom to interdict energy exports to Europe.

Even though Russian involvement in Africa punches above its weight, most of Africa remains distant from the Kremlin. Russia simply lacks the economic weight to decisively impact state policy in Africa to the same degree that the West or China does. The Kremlin is trying to remain relevant, and in some cases is succeeding. For example, Russian involvement in the Sahel is eclipsing French influence in Mali as local elites scramble to find resources and muscle to oppose ISIS affiliates. Russia has increasingly turned to private military companies, including the notorious Wagner Group of Ukrainian infamy, to advance its agenda in Africa.

Wagner, with sizable influence and a direct line to Putin, has swayed policy in Mali. Amongst the group’s list of crimes that hopefully end up with its leadership facing the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the Wagner Group has monopolized Malian minerals, especially rare earth elements which are vital for modern green technology. In the Central African Republic, Russian mercenaries extracted similar mineral concessions. Demonstrating who holds the real power in the country, Russian mercenaries physically led a presidential parade.

In the strategically vital Red Sea region, Eritrea (an “African North Korea”) has become reliant on the Russia’s internal security apparatus to maintain control. Eritrea rewards Russia with energy concessions, mineral rights, and its UN vote. In neighboring Sudan, Russia has been exercising tremendous political pressure and cutting off arms shipments in an attempt to force the Sudanese government to allow a Russian naval base on the Red Sea.

All throughout Africa, Russia is playing the part of a disruptive force aimed at preventing the consolidation of new political and economic relationships with the West, while creating a bargaining position vis-à-vis China. In doing so, it is contributing to Africa’s underdevelopment. This scheme should be recognized for what it is: a sign of weakness and naked exploitation.

Russia undertaking these disruptive efforts, destroying long-term relationships, and threatening a continent with starvation because it is weak and ideologically anti-Western. These are the actions of a desperate power unable to exercise leverage in any other way, seeking to weaken the West and the global democratic order. Africans who care about their continent’s future must recognize the danger of Russia’s actions. The best way to counter Russian influence in Africa is to support the development of security, energy, and trade links between Africa and the West while investing in African human capital. Only then will Africa and the west be able to fully resist Russia’s systematic campaign of geopolitical destabilization.

This piece is republished from Forbes.

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