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Thucydides’ Trap and the Renewal of Africa-Russia Relations in the Face of Global Geopolitical Shockwaves

In PerspectiveThis paper attempts to decipher and make sense of renewed and seemingly strengthened Africa-Russia relations at a time when the world’s geopolitics, geoeconomics, and geostrategic imperatives are undergoing unprecedented tectonic and structural ruptures, shifts, and breaks

The current global geopolitical competition has once again split the world into two hostile camps. As the world order gravitates from unipolarity and bipolarity towards multipolarity, the situation brings to mind what the ancient Greek general, historian, and philosopher Thucydides said about the inevitability of the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens: “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this instilled in Sparta, that made war inevitable”. Presently, this Thucydides’ Trap conundrum is manifesting in a different form. For example, the Russian-Ukrainian war, Gaza war, Third Nagorno-Karabakh War, the new scramble for African resources (notably for Africa’s critical and strategic minerals, without which the global clean energy transition is impossible), renewed tensions between China and Taiwan, expansion of both the G20 (i.e. the African Union being recently added to the group’s permanent membership) and BRICS (i.e. the recent acceptance of Ethiopia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Argentina), and the political and social upheavals in the Coup Belt (i.e. the high prevalence of coups d’etat in West Africa, Central Africa, and the Sahel region).

Made famous by Graham Tillett Allison Jr., an American political scientist and Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, Thucydides’ Trap refers to an unavoidable state of discombobulation and apprehension resulting from an emerging power threatening to replace the ruling power. The knock-on effect of this structural stress is that a violent conflict becomes inescapable.

This paper, therefore, attempts to decipher and make sense of renewed and seemingly strengthened Africa-Russia relations at a time when the world’s geopolitics, geoeconomics, and geostrategic imperatives are undergoing unprecedented tectonic and structural ruptures, shifts, and breaks. The focus is cast on the agency, power relations, and the attendant outcomes of both parties in their quest to reform and decolonize the global governance system, promoting equality and inclusiveness in the emerging multipolar world order. 

Renewed Russo-Africa Relations

While Russia has had a strong relationship with Africa thanks to its significant role in the continent’s decolonization project (i.e. assisting in military training and supplying weapons to African liberation movements), current global geopolitical ruptures are renewing these relations in many ways. In exchange for securing strategic economic interests on the continent at a time when a new scramble for African resources is heightened, Russia is giving many African countries debt relief, free food aid, free helicopters for Zimbabwe, and much-needed security and political assistance to fight against neocolonialism (i.e. primarily via the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group).

At the end of January 2023, the three African states Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger — all Coup Belt countries in the Sahel region with a strong Wagner Group presence — announced their withdrawal from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which is the largest regional organization on the African continent. In a joint statement, the three military leaders said the 15-member ECOWAS has become an agent of neocolonialism as it had fallen under the influence of Western powers, betrayed its founding principles, and become a threat to member states and their citizens.

All three of these countries share similar characteristics: They border each other but are landlocked. All three states are primary commodity exporters: Mali — gold, as Africa’s third largest producer; Burkina Faso — gold and cotton; and Niger — uranium, as the world’s third largest producer, with half of its uranium going to France’s nuclear power plants. All three states have had relatively recent coups d’état that brought the military to power. Mali’s coups occurred in August 2020 and May 2021, Burkina Faso’s in September 2022, and Niger’s in July 2023. 

After that, ECOWAS — backed by France — threatened Niger with military intervention. In response, Mali and Burkina Faso promised to fight alongside Niger in the event that ECOWAS attacked. However, in the end, the intervention did not take place. Under pressure from the new regime, France withdrew its ambassadors and withdrew its troops, watching Russia filling in the resulting void both militarily and politically.

In September 2023, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger established the Alliance of Sahel States (AES) to create a collective defence architecture. The alliance was a direct response to the ECOWAS bloc’s threats of military intervention to restore civilian government in Niger following the Nigerian coup d’etat of July 2022. It is important to note here that the decision to create the alliance was made against a backdrop of the delegation’s negotiations with the Russian Defence Ministry.

Is Russia “Decolonizing” Africa?

The history of Russo-Africa relations spans for over 200 years. The first political contacts between Russia and African countries date back to the late nineteenth century. At that time, the Russian Empire hoped to gain the support of Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia in its confrontation with the Ottoman Empire. Then, after the Second World War, the USSR intensified contacts with African countries to support the struggle for independence for European colonies on the continent. In particular, the USSR initiated the 1960 adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. Under the conditions of the Cold War, the USSR supported its allies in Africa; in addition, it provided military training and weaponry assistance to national liberation organizations and movements fighting colonialism and the racially discriminatory regimes of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa. But the USSR’s relations with North African countries were mostly fruitful: Egypt, Libya (after the 1969 revolution), Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. In the wake of the political independence of many Sub-Saharan countries, the USSR prioritized countries that chose the socialist model of development (Tanzania, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome and Principe, Republic of Congo, Mali, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Angola, Mozambique, Benin, and others), as well as the states that adhered to neutrality in foreign policy (Nigeria, Zambia, and Zimbabwe). 

After the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the reorientation of socialist African states towards cooperation with Europe and the United States, Russian-African ties stagnated. However, diplomatic contact gained steady momentum after Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Egypt in 2005, Algeria, Morocco, and South Africa in 2006, and Libya in 2008. In 2009, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Egypt, Angola, Nigeria, and Namibia to strengthen Russo-African relations.

One of the main ideological messages that Russia promotes with Africa in mind is the joint struggle against neocolonialism or Africa’s self-assertion, which is primarily directed against dependence on former metropoles. Amidst the war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote in an op-ed on the eve of the second Russia-Africa Summit which was held in St. Petersburg in late July 2023: “We have consistently supported African peoples in their struggle for liberation from colonial oppression. We have provided assistance in developing statehood, strengthening their sovereignty and defence capabilities”. In corroboration with this viewpoint, part of the Declaration of the Russia-Africa Summit states that Russo-Africa relations aim at “completing the decolonization process in Africa”, and that the two parties must “work together to counter manifestations of neocolonial policies that aim to undermine the sovereignty of States, deprive them of the freedom to make their own decisions, and plunder their natural resources”.

Anti-colonial rhetoric is also promoted by China, the absolute leader in investment in Africa. Chinese diplomatic missions promote the thesis that China, like Africa, was a victim of imperialism and neocolonialism, and today they stand together defending their rights, fighting political demonization and external interference.

According to Putin’s plan, through the conflict in Ukraine, Russia is trying to establish a multipolar world without Western domination. Africa occupies a special place in this construction as a region with huge potential, which Russia is going to help realize using the historical ties built up by the USSR, a positive “decolonial” image, and the absence of national prejudices or aggravating historical experience. Russia needs Africa as a political partner in the context of its international isolation imposed by Western countries. At the end of the day, African votes account for 28 percent of the UN vote. 

Africa remains generally loyal to Russia in the international arena. On many issues, the positions of Russia and most African countries conceptually coincide. No African country has imposed sanctions against Russia, and in UN votes on Ukrainian issues, most African countries maintain a neutral position. As the state news agency RIA Novosti writes: “Russia has gained an entire continent as an ally”. 

In this context — loyalty from the Global South in return for aid — other broad gestures by Moscow, such as debt write-off and free wheat shipments to Africa’s poorest countries after the so-called grain deal was cancelled in July 2023, should be seen. 

Russia Is the Homeland of the Elephant

This popular joke, which first appeared in Soviet anecdotes of the late 1940s, mocks attempts to distort the history of scientific discoveries for political purposes. However, it has now taken on a new meaning as a real African boom has begun in Russia.

The first Russia-Africa summit was held in October 2019 in Sochi, where delegations from 54 countries of the continent flew in, with 43 of them represented by heads of state. Russia’s relations with Africa required a reset: strong Soviet-era ties had been significantly weakened, and there had been no interest in working with Africa in the previous 15 years.

In practice, Russia cooperates with Africa in the economic and security spheres. Moscow is interested in establishing ties with the African Continental Free Trade Area — both through the Eurasian Economic Union and bilaterally. Major Russian extractive companies such as Rosneft, Gazprom Neft, RusHydro, ALROSA, LUKOIL, and others are now investing in Africa. The Russian state-owned corporation for atomic energy Rosatom is now building Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, El Dabaa, and the corporation is looking to expand its presence on the continent to provide cheap energy in the future. Russia’s trade turnover with the countries of the African continent reached USD 18 billion by the end of 2022; by the end of 2023 it may reach USD 22 billion. Russia trades primarily with Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya. At the same time, trade turnover with China, the continent’s largest trading partner, reached USD 282 billion.

In the field of security, the most significant Russian actor in the region is the notorious PMC Wagner. A Wagner Group presence has been reported at various times in Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, the DRC, and Madagascar. The company has managed to gain a foothold in such former French colonies as the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, and Burkina Faso, displacing the French military there. In Burkina Faso in 2022–23, there were even rallies held in support of the Russian presence, demanding the withdrawal of French troops. However, Russia has no full-fledged military bases on the continent today. There are agreements on the establishment of a Russian naval logistics centre in Sudan — an agreement on this was signed in 2019. 

In December 2023, the specially created Russian news agency African Initiative reported on the formation of the so-called African Corps to replace the structures of PMC Wagner that were operating on the continent. It is planned that this new Corps be ready and operational by the summer of 2024 in Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali, the Central African Republic, and Niger. 

In a cultural sense and against a backdrop of cutting ties with the West, Africa is becoming truly fashionable in Russia. In June 2022, the Russian-African Club was established in Moscow. In January 2024, a Russian cultural centre was opened in Burkina Faso, where people are introduced to Russian culture and taught the Russian language. State experts are calling to prepare for the reception of migrants from Africa. Nonetheless, the size of the African diaspora in Russia has remained unchanged for many years — only 40 thousand people who come to study in a country with a population of 150 million. However, now Black people are increasingly appearing in the Russian media environment, which has even spawned a new meme: chernorus or “Afro-Russian”. Black vloggers talk about how it is pleasant and safe to live in Russia. In the midst of the war in Ukraine, Black influencer Nikita became a real hit on Russian YouTube. He advertises radiators and talks about the peculiarities of life for a “Black person in a Russian village”. According to him, there is no racism in Russia and Russia’s most celebrated author is Alexander Pushkin, an Ethiopian by birth. Against this background, the news about the new wave of far-right violence in Russia and the murder of Francois Njelassili, an African graduate student, who was stabbed to death by a neo-Nazi in Ekaterinburg on 17 August, sounds extremely contradictory. As are the numerous videos replicated by Ukraine about captured Black soldiers from the Russian army.

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