Wed, 13 Nov 2019

WASHINGTON - Dozens of African officials and business leaders will gather in Sochi, Russia, this week for a two-day summit designed to bolster relations between the Russian Federation and all 54 African nations.

Moscow hopes the summit, co-chaired by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, will kickstart economic, security and political partnerships.

Expanded ties to Russia mean more flexibility for African states in search of international collaboration, James Jonah, the former U.N. under secretary general for political affairs, told VOA.

"It opens a lot of options not to rely only on one power," Jonah said, whether that power is Japan, China or the European Union.

Russia may also hope to fill a perceived void left by the United States, whose presence in Africa appears to be waning.

In August 2018, the New York Times reported that the U.S. would begin drawing down troops and scaling back missions throughout Africa.

It's also unclear how a new strategy released this summer, "Prosper Africa," will reshape America's involvement in Africa, especially after the abrupt departure of National Security Advisor John Bolton, who first unveiled the plan at the Heritage Foundation last December.

And when President Donald Trump omitted Africa from his remarks at a recent United Nations General Assembly appearance, Jonah said, it sent a clear message.

"If you listen to the speech that President Trump gave at the U.N., he doesn't mention Africa," Jonah said. "So why should the Africans - what could they do? If the interest is not that great on the other side?"

'A relative minnow'

For its part, Moscow has taken a hands-on approach, forging security and economic alliances from the Central African Republic to Eritrea.

But Judd Devermont, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it's problematic to conclude Russia can compete with countries like the U.S. and China, despite recent trends suggesting a resurgence.

"We have to look at Russia's influence and engagement quite separately from the U.S., Europe and China," Devermont said. "Russia is a relative minnow compared to these other countries."

Overstating Moscow's clout, Devermont added, could benefit a government intent on creating the impression of power on par with the biggest international players in Africa.

"When the United States and other governments talk about great power competition, and they say 'Moscow' in the same breath as 'Beijing' or 'Washington' or 'Brussels,' I think they're doing a tremendous service to Vladimir Putin, who very much wants to present himself as a global power."

Cooperation and conflict

In Sochi, African heads of state, ministers and business leaders from more than half the continent's countries will join panels to explore potential collaborations with Russian agencies and businesses.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni will serve on a panel examining the security implications of epidemics and disease outbreaks, and Museveni and former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo will join a discussion on doing business in Africa.

Representatives from intergovernmental organizations, including the Southern African Development Community, the African Union Commission and the Organization of African First Ladies for Development, will also attend the events.

A forum that will run alongside the summit will serve as an additional outlet to explore points of potential collaboration.

But the cooperation and goodwill in focus at this week's summit reflect one side of Russia-Africa relations. In countries like the Central African Republic, Moscow has enmeshed itself in longstanding conflicts, often through the use of private military contractors, who give Russia flexible ways of working with both African governments and rebel groups.

While Moscow may cast itself in a peacekeeping role, some analysts, including Devermont, have raised concerns about Russia's presence in regions marked by conflict and instability.

"It is a bit player that is doing a number of things that are deeply destabilizing and concerning," Devermont said.

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