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Putin and African leaders at the summit in Sochi, Russia. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

The pomp and circumstance of this week's Sochi summit, where President Vladimir Putin hosted 43 senior African leaders, furthers a narrative Russia is crafting about its return to the continent.

The big picture: Putin's main goal was to rattle the U.S. and Europe, which have taken Russia’s decades-long absence from Africa for granted. Despite his hype, however, cash-strapped Russia’s reach on the continent is still a far cry from what China, the West and many lesser powers can muster when it comes to financing, trade, investment and even influence.

Context: Opportunism drives the foreign policy Russia is pursuing in Africa today — a departure from the ideological approach of the USSR, which invested heavily in military and security ties and economic development to create client regimes among revolutionary and post-colonial leaders.

  • Despite the Trump administration’s rhetorical focus on “great power competition,” the U.S. and its allies have disengaged from Africa, creating vacuums Moscow can exploit.
  • Yet Russia's influence is not expanding across the board. Its deepest inroads are in highly troubled countries, such as the Central African Republic, or pariah states such as Sudan and Zimbabwe that are often under UN sanctions.

Between the lines: During the 2000s, the Kremlin envisioned Africa as part of a “multipolar world” that would not be led by Washington.

  • Africa’s heavy representation in the UN — it accounts for more than 25% of countries in the UN General Assembly — made it an important target.
  • Since 2014, nimble Russian diplomacy and old-fashioned vote-buying has strengthened African support for Moscow’s stances on Crimea, Syria and Libya.

Yes, but: Russia has little economic penetration on the continent.

  • In 2017, trade between Russia and sub-Saharan Africa was $3 billion, well behind China's $56 billion and the U.S.' $27 billion. The most significant mineral and energy opportunities it's pursuing have already been examined or discarded by other players.
  • Limited resources and risk appetite have left Russia falling back on tools like sending Kremlin-connected mercenaries to conflict zones or offering consulting services to autocratic regimes on election manipulation.

What to watch: No ground-breaking trade, investment or security announcements came out of the summit, suggesting the gathering was more symbolic than substantive. But if Moscow expands its Africa policy after the summit and under the West's inattentive watch, it could be a far greater worry for the West.

Paul Stronski is a senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment’s Russia and Eurasia Program.

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