After a decade of neglect following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia re-entered Africa to join what had become known as the “new scramble for Africa”.

Forewarned by President Vladimir Putin’s penchant for revisionist adventurism, the West regarded this move as a major foreign policy event. And given the present state of relations, it does not welcome any foreign policy success on the part of the Kremlin, regarding it as a threat to its own interests; a failure to contain the Russian bear.

On the one hand, this may come across as a clear case of over-reaction. The competition Russia faces in Africa is formidable, involving players such as the US, the EU, China, the UK, France and Germany, India, Turkey and Japan and lagging far behind most of them in terms of trade, investment, development aid and cultural recognition.

Russia concentrates only on a dozen or so African states out of a total of 54. In comparison to the main players in the stampede, it is still a minnow. In  just a decade, for example, China moved to  become a major trade and investment partner in Africa.

Wanting to maintain the momentum of his foreign policy successes, Putin will pounce on every opportunity.

This is obviously impossible for Russia to match given the state of its economy. It still languishes at the bottom of the pile of competitors and is destined to remain there. Presently, no African state features among Russia’s top 15 international trading partners, with the country only responsible for 2.2 % of total global exports estimated at $16-trillion.

Russia’s presence and role in Africa, for now and the future, are in comparative terms too insignificant to have a meaningful impact on the continent . 

On the other hand, what causes concern in the West is the Kremlin’s geo-strategic intentions in Africa, replicating its role of agent provocateur as it  has done in its own region in recent years.

Initially, Russia’s new entry into Africa was mainly aimed at making money, taking advantage of the new “rising Africa” phenomenon. However, as relations between Russia and the West deteriorated and competition increased, Russian revisionist geostrategic goals became an important part of the scenario.

Wanting to maintain the momentum of his foreign policy successes, Putin will pounce on every opportunity. Presently he is under pressure. Even for him, all the good things no longer seem to go together. The dwindling oil price, debilitating Western sanctions, domestic economic decline and mounting internal political opposition (with his poll ratings declining), have forced him to look at fresh options. Involvement in Africa offers low hanging fruit: a low-risk, accessible and affordable way to relieve domestic economic threats and off-set the high price of Russian foreign policy adventurism.

Quite clearly the present Russian pivot to Africa is aimed at maximising influence and enhancing its role as a global role player. This is the point Putin wants to drive home. It follows on his military successes in Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine and Syria, and hosting the winter Olympics and soccer World Cup, which significantly enhanced his international standing. Putin obviously wishes to consolidate, even expand, these successes.

As he proclaimed at the Sochi Winter Olympics: “At last Russia has returned to the world arena as a strong state — a country that others heed, and [that] can stand up for itself.”

Taking note of the intensity of global reaction to Russia’s new Africa adventure, this move had substantial propaganda value for the Kremlin. It wants the world to believe Putin is unstoppable. However, what Russia has to contend with is that Africans no longer see Russia as a Cold War hero fighting colonialism. It will have to switch to the role of public benefactor, helping liberate them from insecurity, underdevelopment, destitution and poverty.

Instruments of conflict

But Russia mostly deals in Africa with instruments of conflict rather than development and peace. Like at home, it props up authoritarian rulers against domestic democratic resistance. The proliferation of Russian bases on the continent is mainly for this purpose. 

Most of Russia’s Africa trade comes from arms sales, it being the second largest arms seller in sub-Saharan Africa after China, and the activities of a small group of powerful mega companies investing mainly in nuclear energy, technology and mining.

What does count in Russia’s favour, mainly among authoritarian African leaders, is that unlike the West (and like China), it eschews structural conditionalities such as respect for human rights and good governance. Notably, Russia is not a signatory to the UN international arms trade treaty (ATT) of 2014, which calls for ending small arms sale to Africa.

US security adviser John Bolton has called Russia’s military engagement with Africa a predatory practice that builds on Cold War-era alliances to sell arms and energy in exchange for votes at the UN, helping keep strong men in power and undermining peace and security, which runs counter to the best interests of the African people.

Bolton may have a point, a key Kremlin focus is the UN Security Council, where Africa enjoys three rotating nonpermanent seats and an overwhelming majority in the General Assembly. As a continent, it invariably supports the Kremlin and China’s position against the West, even when they break international law.

Of course, external involvement in Africa is not a monopoly. Russia is a legitimate role player there, fully entitled to advance its interests as long as it is law-abiding, respecting the rules of nonintervention and not acting as an agent provocateur, which seems to be part of its DNA. At the same time, a plurality of role players, as against a few dominant ones, can only benefit Africa, depending on how wisely it deals with the situation.

In spite of the decline of the “Africa rising” phenomenon at the turn of the century, Africa’s future potential is undeniable, and present competitors in the “Africa game” remain keenly aware of this. Its abundant raw materials, impressive demographic profile, vast future consumer market potential and the demand for investment in new infrastructure, renders it one of the most promising future markets.

Russia, like all the others in the scramble, no doubt wants to share these benefits. However, to do so it must come to Africa not as a latter-day Cold War warrior playing a zero-sum game, as an opponent with an anti-West agenda, but in a spirit of co-operation and peace.

In the bilateral sphere, SA is aware of the importance of good relations with Russia. But unfortunately they fall short, being hamstrung by incompetent diplomacy such as the failure of the $75bn nuclear deal. 

SA should regard Russia’s new discovery of Africa as an opportunity to protect itself from big power exploitation. It should continue to advance the relationship, engaging Russia on various bilateral and multilateral issues affecting itself and Africa, such as reforming the UN Security Council and the global financial and legal institutions so they become more democratic and less Western-centric.

SA’s Brics membership, once seen as a gateway to Africa, still fails to impress fellow Africans. With Russian support in the Brics context, SA’s flagging status and role in Africa — Southern Africa in particular — could be improved upon. Provided, of course, that the country has the diplomatic nous to do the job.

• Olivier,  SA’s first ambassador to Russia and Kazakhstan, is an extraordinary professor at the University of Pretoria.