The United States is no longer the global hyperpower, former colonial powers have lost their captive markets and China has emerged as an economic superpower in Africa but not yet a dominant global force. While geopolitical tectonic plates shift, African governments are being solicited by ever more potential allies, trading partners and investors. In an evolving marketplace for money and influence, China has set the bar very high by hosting grandiose triennial Sino-African summits, but others have big ambitions too. With the 20 January UK-Africa Investment Summit, the British government intends to show off its post-Brexit ambitions to become the continent’s biggest investor among the Group of Seven (G7) nations. Before then, Russia showed off its rising status as 40-plus leaders attended the 23-24 October Russia-Africa Summit, hosted by President Vladimir Putin in his favoured Black Sea resort of Sochi (AE 402/1).

Looking to boost its fragile economy and build on its re-emergence as a key player in Middle East and North African disputes, Russia’s African play is moulded in Putin’s image. His ruthless opportunism has driven Moscow back to the forefront of international relations (or at least of global newsflow) by causing trouble in rival polities and promoting stability over democracy in a ruling doctrine that is much appreciated by both younger generation and long-ruling autocrats. The Putin doctrine was clearly voiced when in January Russian ambassador to Conakry Alexander Bregadze broke with opposition to President Alpha Condé changing the Guinean constitution to stand for a third term by arguing that “it’s constitutions that adapt to reality, not realities that adapt to constitutions”.

Unsurprisingly, the Russia-Africa Summit was highly politicised, with the heavy marketing of Russia’s exports of choice, military hardware and deals involving Kremlin favourites. There were warm memories of the former Soviet Union for veterans like President Denis Sassou Nguesso, who first became Republic of Congo leader as an African Marxist in the 1970s. Thirty years after the Berlin Wall’s collapse, it was as if the Cold War had never gone away as Sassou said African citizens’ enthusiasm for the new Russian-African engagement had triggered “optimism and fervour” in Brazzaville.

Ambitions announced in Sochi include doubling trade with Africa by 2025, to $40bn, compared to around $17bn in 2018. The bulk of this is with North Africa, focused on Algeria’s military build-up, while in the energy sector Vagit Alekperov’s Lukoil is expanding in West Africa, with the $850m purchase of a stake in Congo’s Marine XII Block and other deals (AE 394/16). Lukoil was also a big winner from Putin’s mid-October visit to Abu Dhabi (see our sister publication GSN). Rosneft has gas interests in Mozambique and is exploring Equatorial Guinea opportunities (AE 401/15). Zarubezhneft chief Sergey Kudryashov joined Putin’s meetings with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa in Sochi and held bilateral meetings with hydrocarbons ministers including Gabon’s Noel Mboumba.

Nuclear giant Rosatom’s director-general Alexey Likhachev joined Putin’s bilateral meetings with the leaders of Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Namibia and South Africa. Ethiopian plans to introduce nuclear technologies caused ripples. Less clear was whether Putin could persuade Ramaphosa to revive plans for a new Russian-built nuclear power plant in South Africa – a mega-project from which ex-president Jacob Zuma and his partners saw huge potential for commissions, as well as for generating baseload. Such deals between leaders and their intermediaries speak much for the Kremlin’s economic model – which may explain why, a few juicy deals apart, the Russo-African relationship is likely to remain a sideshow rather than the main event.