Why you should care

This is all part of President Putin’s plan to reclaim Russia’s role as a global power.

A flurry of flashes and clicks erupted from the pool of press photographers while whispers of a new Cold War flooded the hallway outside. It was the 2007 Munich Security Conference, and after years of trying to court the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin had finally had enough. “We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law,” he said, in a speech that would become a defining moment of his presidency. “The United States has overstepped its national borders in every way.”

But while Putin’s declaration sent political analysts scrambling to figure out what all this meant for Russian-American relations, it turned out that Moscow was quietly in the middle of a equally important shift, courting a new and unlikely international partner: Africa. Indeed, in recent years, this unusual relationship has strengthened to a new level as Russian investments across Africa have grown at an astounding rate. Overall trade has increased more than tenfold over the past decade or so, with exports jumping from under $950 million to $4 billion, and imports from Africa rising from $350 million to $1.6 billion. For Russia to reclaim its role as a global power after long being seen as a “junior partner” by the West, “it needed to be present in all geographies — and, of course, Africa is an increasingly important one,” says Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, chief executive of the South African Institute of International Affairs, a research organization.

Indeed, for most developed countries Africa’s growing economic importance is now impossible to overlook. In the next five years, the continent will be home to eight of the 10 fastest-growing economies, and in the next 15 years its GDP is expected to reach that of Eastern Europe. But there’s also plenty of allure today: It’s already home to some of the largest untapped reserves for minerals, oil and gas in the world.

The rekindling of relations has already had a positive political impact for Moscow.

Those features are particularly attractive to Russian companies. Sure, Russia’s sitting on 35 percent of the world’s reserves in mineral deposits, though the bulk of its undeveloped reserves are located in remote areas of Siberia, making them expensive to extract. Getting mineral resources from countries like Angola, South Africa, Guinea and Nigeria — countries now home to major Russian investment projects — is much more profitable. And with Russia’s reserves of oil and gas plummeting while Europe’s consumption of energy is on the rise, Moscow is also desperately searching for alternative energy sources. In fact, Russian natural gas giant Gazprom has recently partnered with Algeria’s state gas company, which will give Russia control of nearly 40 percent of Europe’s gas consumption.

Unlike other countries racing in the new scramble for Africa, Russia has the added advantage of a long-standing history with the continent. Since the days of the Cold War, when proxy battles between the Soviet Union and the United States raged on African soil and African liberation movements fought for freedom from colonial powers, Moscow has built a vast network of political and economic ties to African countries. “It was actually written in the constitution that the Soviet Union supports nations fighting for independence and for liberation,” says Alexandra Arkhangelskaya, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for African Studies.

By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it had established 20 cultural centers; launched agreements with 37 African countries on technical and economic assistance, and with 42 countries on trade; educated more than 25,000 Africans in Soviet universities; and trained 200,000 more on the continent. Alumni include the former president of Mozambique and the current presidents of Angola and South Africa. Yet when the Soviet Union dissolved, so too did its political ties with African allies. “There are many in Russia who feel that by disengaging with the continent, they lost a golden opportunity,” says Sidiropoulos.

While growing at a rapid pace today, Russia’s total investment in Africa still lags far behind competitors such as India. China, for one, started courting businesses in Africa a decade before Russia, and has a secret weapon for investing in high-risk places where corruption and political instability are widespread: policy banks. George Ward, former U.S. ambassador to Namibia, says Chinese government officials and financial institutions have provided loans and other assistance that African governments have used for development purposes, “often employing Chinese companies to carry out large-scale infrastructure projects.” With the Chinese government and banks assuming the financial risk, Chinese companies have been encouraged to invest.

Still, the rekindling of relations has already had a positive political impact for Moscow. When members of the U.N. General Assembly, a third of which are African countries, overwhelmingly voted to condemn Russian intervention in Ukraine, two of the 10 countries that voted with Russia were in Africa, while a majority of African countries abstained. As investment continues, Putin’s predictions at the Munich Security Conference may just come true: The days of American global dominance are ending, and Russia is yet again making its way to the forefront of international affairs, starting with Africa.

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