President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday hosts dozens of African leaders for the first Russia-Africa Summit, as Moscow seeks greater influence on a continent where the West and China have a firm foothold.
The two-day event at the Black Sea resort of Sochi will see more than 3,000 delegates prepare deals and discuss topics from nuclear technology to mineral extraction.
Putin will open the summit at 0800 GMT alongside Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the current head of the African Union and guest of honour at the event.
All 54 African states would be sending a representative, Kremlin advisor Yuri Ushakov said. Of those, 43 will be heads of state or government.
The leaders of former Soviet client states such as Angola and Ethiopia will be at the summit as well as representatives of countries where Moscow’s engagement has been traditionally low, like Nigeria and Ghana.
Cote d’Ivoire, which has had little interaction with Russia, was set to send a delegation of 70 people including its president with a view to signing a possible military cooperation agreement.
Moscow was a crucial player on the continent in the Soviet era, backing independence movements and training a generation of African leaders.
But its ties with Africa declined with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and in recent years China has emerged as a top foreign power on the continent, forcing Russia to play catch-up.
The summit is in many ways borrowing from China’s playbook.
To expand its influence, Beijing in 2000 launched the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and has poured tens of billions of dollars into the continent.
Russia cannot match China’s economic might but, like Beijing, it is prepared to support African leaders with controversial rights records in exchange for access to the continent’s riches.
The summit comes a day after Putin hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for talks on Syria, as Moscow continues to push its influence in the war-torn country and the wider Middle East.
Putin has scheduled 13 bilateral meetings with African leaders in a bid to further extend the Kremlin’s influence.
Putin — who has been in power for the past 20 years — has only ever visited South Africa in sub-Saharan Africa, preferring to host leaders from the continent in Russia.
“We are preparing and carrying out investment projects with Russian participation that are worth billions of dollars,” he said in an interview released Monday by the official TASS news agency.
Amid a stagnating economy and after five years of Western sanctions, Moscow is looking both for allies and an opportunity to boost growth.
In 2018, trade between Russia and Africa amounted to $20 billion — less than half that of France with the continent, and ten times less than that of China.
Only in terms of arms sales does Russia lead the pack in Africa.
To reverse the trend, Putin has promised cooperation without “political or other” interference, at a time when some in Africa are starting to express concern about states’ dependence on China.
But Moscow still has some way to compete with China or the West.
“Russia is not the Soviet Union, it lacks the resources, the ideology and the appeal of its predecessor,” said Paul Stronsky of the Carnegie Center in Moscow.