In 2019 Vladimir Putin welcomed 43 African leaders to the first “Russia-Africa summit”, says The Economist, “a higher turnout than Britain or France attracted to similar shindigs”. The Russian president used the occasion to lambast the West for chiding African leaders about human rights, adding: “We have a lot to offer to our African friends.” The UN vote on 2 March to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine suggests the feeling may be mutual. Of the 54 African countries, 17 abstained and eight were no-shows. Eritrea, “a gulag state”, joined Russia, Belarus and North Korea in voting against.
These votes reflect historical ties between Russia and many of Africa’s ruling parties. Many of the region’s elites studied in the Soviet Union, and the liberation parties that still run Angola, Mozambique (whose flag features a Kalashnikov rifle), Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe saw the USSR as an ally in their fight against colonial rule. Africa’s warm relations with Russia are also about self-interest, most acutely in countries that rely on mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group: there are reportedly 2,000 Wagner troops in the Central African Republic (paid in gold and diamonds) and around 800 guns-for-hire propping up the junta in Mali. It’s not just a few “rickety states” – Russia is the biggest arms exporter to Africa. The rationale for the UN vote is to send a message to America: If we can’t count on you, you can’t count on us.