Vladimir Putin has made no secret of his intention to return Russia to its previous glory as a world power by all means available to him, not least of which has been military aggression such as in Crimea.
But on the African continent, where Russia has no colonial hangover like Europe or the suspicion that comes with Chinese economic diplomacy, Moscow under Putin’s presidency has quietly ramped up efforts to invest and control mineral and energy assets.
It’s a policy that some have compared to France’s use of government-backed industrial and military deals in its former colonies in the 1970s and 1980s, known as Francafrique.
Russia has traditionally been a large arms supplier to the continent, and that has almost tripled since 2007, according to a Financial Times study.
But what’s different is how aggressive Russia has become at courting nations by offering both money and military expertise to its former Cold War allies and others in Africa, with a view to gaining a foothold and access to energy resources.
Africa is a ripe investment environment for energy because of its abundance of sources across the energy value chain, from gas, oil and minerals to wind, water and sun. Coupled with the fact that one in three Africans has no access to electricity, the continent is an ideal testing ground for innovative approaches to get power to the people.
That’s why the World Bank has invested $11.5-billion in renewable electricity and energy efficiency programmes, much of it in Africa. Entrepreneurs in traditional and renewable energy are flocking there.
Russia has no such ambitions. It is playing a traditional hand, seeking to lock in access to minerals, oil and gas in exchange for easy funding or weapons.
Take its arms-for-platinum deal in Zimbabwe. It traded an undisclosed number of MiG-35 fighter jets for the rights to a platinum concession, in a deal worth $3-billion.
Russia’s proposed solution to Africa’s lack of power is the most ambitious part of the Kremlin’s African play: building nuclear power plants.
It is negotiating or has completed nuclear cooperation agreements with at least 16 countries in Africa, in countries ranging from Angola and Sudan to Nigeria and Ethiopia. In 2017, it signed a deal to build a $21-billion plant in Egypt, the North African country’s first.
South Africa is the only African country with a functioning nuclear reactor. A Russian deal to expand its capacity fell through in 2018 when South Africa opted for gas, wind and solar expansion instead.
What raises eyebrows is that Russia’s State-run nuclear company, Rosatom, has been trying out an agreement known as a “build-own-operate” in Turkey. That entails Rosatom building the plant, maintaining ownership and then turning a profit by selling power back to the host country.
This would be very enticing to African countries that lack the money to build nuclear plants, and it would open those nations up to the kind of energy diplomacy Russia has practiced in Europe – shutting off gas in wintertime to express political displeasure.
In fact, it would be much like Chinese-funded infrastructure projects that primarily employ Chinese contractors and enjoy concessional Chinese government loan rates that often end up in heartbreak when the host country can’t afford the loans anymore. That’s how Beijing snagged itself a port in Sri Lanka.
The US is not blind to Russia and China’s methods. In December, US National Security Adviser John Bolton rolled out a Trump Administration policy to counter it.
While that policy proposes African self-reliance as the ideal outcome – and the first criteria when Washington decides who to help – it’s still going to pale in comparison to the comparatively sweet-looking deals offered by Russia and China to many governments, especially poorer ones.
Russia and China are employing, on a grand scale, the same tactic salesmen use to sell big-ticket items to people who can’t really afford them – no down payment, easy credit and low monthly payments.
Fortunately, Africa’s leaders and its people can defend themselves against that kind of tactic: they can read the fine print first.