Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
MUCH HAS BEEN made about China’s role and profile in Africa and the factors underlying its activities on the continent. Less debated is the spread and depth of Russia’s contemporary presence and profile in Africa.

There was a strong Russian influence in Africa during the heyday of the Soviet Union. The post-independence governments of Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Egypt, Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda and Benin at some point all received diplomatic or military support from the then Soviet Union.

But this began to change after the superpower started to collapse in December 1991. More than a quarter-of-a-century later Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have new aspirations in Africa. This is in line with his desire to restore his country to great power status.

Putin places a high premium on geopolitical relations and the pursuit of Russian assertiveness in the global arena. This includes re-establishing Russia’s sphere of influence, which extends to the African continent.

Like Beijing, Moscow’s method of trade and investment in Africa is without the prescription or conditionality of actors such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Russia is gradually increasing its influence in Africa through strategic investment in energy and minerals. It’s also using military muscle and soft power.

An increasingly pressing question: is the relationship between China and Africa as good for Africa as it is for China? The same applies to Russia-Africa relations.

An interaction between Russia and Africa has grown exponentially this century, with trade and investment growing by 185percent between 2005 and 2015.

Economically, much of Russia’s focus in Africa centres on energy. Key Russian investments in Africa are in the oil, gas and nuclear power sector.

The fact that 620million people in Africa don’t have electricity provides Russia’s nuclear power industry with potential markets. Several Russian companies, such as Gazprom, Lukoil, Rostec and Rosatom are active in Africa. Most activity is in Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Nigeria and Uganda. In Egypt, negotiations have been finalised for the building of the country’s first nuclear plant.

These companies are mostly state-run, with investments often linked to military and diplomatic interests.

Moscow’s second area of interest in Africa’s mineral riches. This is particularly evident in Zimbabwe, Angola, the DRC, Namibia and the Central African Republic (CAR).

In Zimbabwe, Russia is developing one of the world’s largest deposits of platinum group metals.

Russia has also been re-establishing links with Angola, where Alrosa, the Russian giant, mines diamonds. Discussions between Russia and Angola have also focused on hydrocarbon production. Uranium in Namibia is another example.

Russia’s current controversial involvement in the CAR began in 2017, when a team of Russian military instructors and 170 “civilian advisers” were sent by Moscow to Bangui to train the country’s army and presidential guard. Shortly after that, nine weapons shipments arrived in the CAR.

Interest in the country has focused on exploring its natural resources on a concession basis. The murder of three Russian journalists in a remote area of the country last year focused the world’s attention on what looked like a Kremlin drive for influence and resources.

Russia is the second-largest exporter of arms globally, and a major supplier to African states.

Over the past two decades, it has pursued military ties with various African countries, such as Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

Military ties are linked to bilateral military agreements as well as providing boots on the ground in UN peacekeeping operations. Combined, China and Russia outnumber the other permanent members of the UN Security Council in contributing troops to UN peacekeeping efforts.

Russia has also been actively supporting Zimbabwe. Shortly after it was reported last year that China had placed new generation surface-to-air missiles in Zimbabwe, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that his country was pursuing military co-operation.

Significantly, Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa has said that his country may need Russia’s help with the modernisation of its defence force during a recent visit to Moscow.

Both Russia and China are keen to play a future role in Africa. The difference between the two major powers is that China forms part of the Asian regional economy. This will surpass North America and Europe combined, in terms of global power - based on GDP, population size, military spending and technological investment.

China and India have sustained impressive economic growth over many years. And their enormous populations make them two world powers of extraordinary importance.

Growth prospects for the Russian economy, on the other hand, remain modest - between 1.5 and 1.8percent a year for 2018-20, against the current global average rate of 3.5percent a year.

Still, Russia remains a major power in global politics. For African leaders, the keyword is agency and the question is how to play the renewed Russian attention to their countries’ advantage, and not to fall victim to the contemporary “geopolitical chess” game played by the major powers on the continent.

Theo Neethling is professor and head of political studies and governance in the Humanities Faculty at the University of the Free State. This article was originally published in The Conversation. See