Russia is trying to normalize an international order based on the law of the strongest where democracy and respect for human rights are optional.
Less than 1% of foreign direct investment in Africa comes from Russia. Substantially, Russia therefore contributes little to the continent. But the high-profile visit of the Russian foreign minister, even as Russia's war in Ukraine rages on, demonstrates just how much Russia needs Africa.
One of the priorities of Lavrov's trip – to Egypt, the Republic of Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia – is to demonstrate that Russia is not isolated on the international stage, despite harsh Western sanctions.
The goal is to portray Russia as an unfettered great power that has allies all over the world with whom it pursues business as usual.
Russia is also trying to normalize an international order based on the law of the strongest where democracy and respect for human rights remain optional.
Lavrov's trip to Africa is therefore important for Russia's geostrategic positioning. The Russian messages portray the imperialist expropriation of territory in Ukraine as something that is part of the larger framework of the ideological struggle between East and West. If Moscow manages to convince with such a message, few countries will criticize it.
This partly explains why 25 of Africa's 54 countries either abstained or did not vote to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine in UN General Assembly ES-11/1 votes in March. last. This ambivalent response stands in stark contrast to the widespread condemnation in all other regions of the world.
Lavrov should also try to present the recent agreement between Russia and Ukraine to release more than 20 million tons of Ukrainian grain as a humanitarian gesture from Russia. And this despite the fact that it is the Russian invasion and blockade of Ukrainian ports that prevents these grains from reaching international markets. The Russian bombardment of the port of Odessa the very day after the agreement suggests that Moscow will continue to use the food crisis as a weapon, while pointing the finger at the West. Egypt and Ethiopia, two key countries on Lavrov's itinerary, have been particularly hard hit by this cut in food distribution. The Russian blockade has indeed caused grain prices to double this year, creating intense political and social pressures across Africa.
What African host countries gain
Emphasizing ideological considerations helps to mask the modest nature of Russia's economic and diplomatic investments in Africa.
This therefore begs the question of what do African leaders gain from hosting Lavrov even as Russia faces fierce criticism for its unprovoked aggression and subsequent destabilization of global food, fertilizer and fuel. The short answer is that they seek political support.
Russia's growing influence in Africa in recent years is largely the result of Moscow's use of unofficial means, including the deployment of mercenaries, disinformation campaigns, resource deals for weapons and trafficking in precious metals. These low-cost instruments have a big impact and are normally used to support isolated African leaders whose legitimacy is in question. Russian support for the beleaguered leaders of the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali and Sudan has been instrumental in keeping them in power.
It should also be noted that this asymmetrical Russian approach to increasing its influence in Africa is distinguished by the fact that these partnerships are established with the leaders in person and not with the population. It is therefore a question of co-opting the elites rather than establishing traditional bilateral cooperation.
Understanding these motivations helps to better understand Lavrov's journey and itinerary. Egyptian President Abdel al Sisi is a key ally in Russian efforts to install a puppet government in Libya. This would, in effect, allow Russia to establish a sustainable naval base in the southern Mediterranean and gain access to Libyan oil reserves.
Sisi is also a partner of Russia in its attempt to frustrate efforts to thwart Sudanese and Tunisian democratic transitions.
Moreover, Russia is a major arms supplier to Egypt. A $25 million Russian-funded loan for the atomic energy company Rosatom to build the Dabaa nuclear power plant in Cairo makes little economic sense. But he will be a boon for the henchmen of Sisi and Putin, while allowing Russia to establish its influence over Sisi.
Lavrov's trip to Uganda provides political cover for the increasingly repressive and unpredictable regime of President Yoweri Museveni, even as he tries to set up a hereditary succession for the benefit of his son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba. Russia's main interest in Uganda is to bring into Moscow's orbit yet another African country that has hitherto been rather leaning towards the West. For Museveni, moving closer to Russia is a not-so-subtle message of his intention to align himself even more with Moscow if the West proves too critical of the deteriorating human rights record and weak government. democratization in his country.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is also trying to defend himself against fierce international criticism over Ethiopia's alleged human rights violations and obstructions in Tigray and for obstructing the distribution of humanitarian aid in the region. . Addis Ababa appreciated the actions taken by Russia to thwart UN Security Council resolutions on the conflict in Tigray and the humanitarian crisis.
Ethiopia has long pursued an independent foreign policy. But Addis Ababa will host the next Russia-Africa summit, scheduled for this year. An event that could serve as a visible platform to reinforce Moscow's message that Russia remains welcome on the international scene.
During his visit to Addis Ababa, Lavrov can be expected to highlight Russia's close ties with the African Union. Fear of upsetting Russia prompted the regional body to repeatedly postpone a virtual meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky. When the meeting finally (quietly) took place in July, only four African leaders attended.
President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of Congo has ruled the central African country since 1979 – he was only away from power for five years. The country is 162nd out of 180 in Transparency International's annual ranking, the corruption perception index. The country has been noted by Moscow for its efforts to increase its control over hydrocarbon exports from the Congo, the DRC, and the CAR, via Pointe Noire. It would also strengthen Russian influence in global energy markets.
What benefits for ordinary Africans?
Lavrov's visit demonstrates that some African leaders believe there is a political interest in maintaining ties with Russia, despite its tarnished international reputation. Indeed, most of the countries included in this Africa tour maintain important relations with the West.
Receiving a very noticeable visit from Lavrov does not reflect any desire to undo these links but rather to acquire more influence with Western countries.
But this game is dangerous for African leaders. The Russian economy, equivalent to that of Spain, has not carried out significant investment and trade in Africa (apart from cereals and arms) and is increasingly disconnected from the international financial system.
Furthermore, direct international investment is strongly associated with the maintenance of the rule of law. By showing that they are open to Russia's lawless international order, these leaders risk undermining their chances of securing more investment from the West.
Nine of the ten countries with the most direct investments in Africa, representing 90% of these investments, are part of the Western financial system. It could take years for countries in Africa to recover from the tarnished reputation they so risk by embracing the Russian worldview that rule of law is not binding.
Lavrov's trip to Africa is not an isolated event, rather it is part of an ongoing choreographic composition. Moscow is trying to gain influence in Africa without investing there. This strategy will only bear fruit if some African leaders see it as a way to consolidate their hold on power, despite violations of human rights and democratic norms.
While the benefits for Moscow and African leaders are clear, they are less so for ordinary citizens of Africa.