8 key challenges to the future of Russian–African relations

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Russia's President Vladimir Putin attend the first plenary session as part of the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit at the Sirius Park of Science and Art in Sochi, Russia, October 24, 2019. Sergei Chirikov/Pool via REUTERS - RC11771B7F00

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Russia's President Vladimir Putin at the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia Image: REUTERS

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This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform

The year of 2019 is the Year of Africa in Russia. The first Russia–Africa Summit, held in October 2019, marked a turning point in Russia’s new strategy to return to Africa and promote major initiatives to facilitate development on this continent.

It is important to note that through its African strategy Russia does not seek to compete against other outside forces, focusing instead on bringing added value to Africa in the form of projects it has to offer.

Together with the African countries, Russia can carry out this strategy alongside other cooperation initiatives converging with other development assistance projects. The level of political trust among BRICS states makes this convergence especially important and achievable between Africa’s main non-Western partners.

Cooperation between Russia and Africa is solidly rooted in shared values, which include:

• Commitment to decolonization. Unlike Western and a number of Asian countries, Russia has never subjugated Africa, neither politically nor economically, and does not carry the burden of slave trade.

• Afro-optimism. Russia does not view Africa as an insurmountable challenge, as a source of a migration threat, or as a failed continent. Historically, Russia has been supportive of the aspiration by the African countries to develop independently.

• Afro-intellectualism. Russia does not see Africa or Africans as ‘inept students’ who do not know anything and are unable to learn. On the contrary, Russia is committed to unleashing the intellectual, technological, and creative potential of the African population and builds its education policy for Africa accordingly.

Image: Russia’s Return to Africa: Strategy and Prospects, the Valdai Discussion Club

Russia is proactively stepping up its contribution to various formats and channels of cooperation with Africa. Business partnerships, civil society initiatives, and expert-level cooperation are gaining momentum on top of established diplomatic and state-to-state channels.

These new formats include:

• Increasing participation of Russian companies in Africa’s security services market as follows – protection of high-ranking officials, training local security forces, and cybersecurity services.

• Political technology sphere with Russians being employed in organizing election campaigns and developing strategies for a number of African politicians.

• Proactive contacts of a number of Muslim regions in Russia with Africa’s Muslim communities, including the spheres of peacebuilding and conflict settlement.

• Cooperation in the religious sphere.

Accordingly, Russia and Russians have gained a comprehensive and multi-faceted footprint in Africa, which helps strengthen trust towards Russia among the African elite and among the public in general.

All this opens new opportunities for Russia’s economic cooperation with Africa, including both large corporations and small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

Promising sectors include:

• minerals extraction and technologies;

• energy (including hydroelectric and nuclear power generating);

• military-technical cooperation and maintenance of military assets;

• agricultural sector;

• aquaculture and fisheries production and technologies;

• medical technologies and equipment;

• cyber security and e-services;

• new education technologies.

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Key objectives

However, there are a number of challenges and objectives for Russia’s African strategy.

1) Ensuring that Russian companies engaged in economic projects in Africa, primarily in raw materials extraction, act in the spirit of corporate social responsibility. This includes training local staff and offering career opportunities and social upward mobility. It could be advisable for companies to open corporate training centres in Africa similar to Russian vocational schools, as well as training Russian faculty and recruiting local teaching staff. Otherwise, Russia will inevitably face accusations of acting as a neo-colonialist power with the sole objective of controlling mineral resources.

2) Combining implementation of purely commercial projects with development assistance programmes in African countries (both on state and business levels). In this sphere, Russia’s position looks much weaker – at least, from the public relations point of view – than that of the West, or Gulf States, or China, or India. Development assistance makes up the major part of many African countries’ economies, and it is assistance projects of this kind that will form local public opinion on whether Russia has or has not contributed anything good to Africa.

3) Countering Western anti-Russia clichés that are spreading in Africa and shaping a narrative whereby only dictators and outcasts partner with the Russians. Therefore, efforts to improve Russia’s image must target not only the continent’s elite, but also a broader public opinion. It would be advisable to create and develop appropriate media tools to this effect.

4) Being receptive to the left-leaning liberation discourse that is common among Africa’s elites and public opinion at large. China’s success in Africa is largely attributable to the fact that the ideology of the Communist Party of China relies on the same discourse, which means that the Chinese and Africans are guided by the same notions. It has to be taken into consideration, however, that a left-leaning discourse is far from prevalent in Russia’s domestic policy.

5) Displaying an attentive and caring attitude towards the African diaspora in Russia, including helping the victims of human trafficking who find themselves in Russia and disrupting human trafficking flows. Another objective is to overcome racist stereotypes that persist in marginal segments of Russian society.

6) Intensifying scholarship and grant programmes aimed at African students in Russia both at public and private levels to provide an adequate standard of living in Russia during their staying.

7) Expanding the range of bachelor’s and master’s programmes for African students in English, French, and Arabic, which should become an overall objective in terms of education policy. Removing the language barrier would clearly help African students learn better, making Russia a more attractive education destination.

8) Promoting Russia’s new African strategy within the country to shape a positive public opinion and overcome fears that Russia will simply ‘feed Africa’ the way it does for Eurasia, considering the fallout from the tragedy in Central African Republic and the way it affected Africa-related topics in Russia’s domestic political struggle.

Russia’s Return to Africa: Strategy and Prospects, Oleg Barabanov, Vadim Balytnikov, Andrei Yemelyanov, Dmitry Poletaev, Igor Sid, Nathalia Zaiser, the Valdai Discussion Club

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