Russia offered nuclear power plants, fighter jets and missile defence systems to African countries in a charm offensive designed to win back influence on the continent, at a summit low on concrete trade and investment deals but high on congeniality.
The Kremlin says $12.5bn worth of deals were struck during the first ever Russia-africa Summit, however the majority were memorandums of understandings that may not result in any investment.
“Let’s drink to the success of our joint efforts to develop full-scale mutually beneficial co-operation, wellbeing, peaceful future and prosperity of our countries and people,” Russian president Vladimir Putin said in a toast at the formal summit dinner in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
For all the warm rhetoric, however, the lack of fully formed deals underscored the gulf in financial firepower between Moscow and Beijing, which last year offered $60bn in financing to African states to fund trade.
The bulk of the agreements discussed revolved around expanding already existing arms deals, a factor that has meant the bilateral trade relationship is heavily unbalanced in favour of Russian exports to Africa.
In a symbolic gesture, Moscow flew two Tupolev Tu-160 nuclear bombers to South Africa as the summit opened, the first time the aircraft had landed on African soil. At a business forum attached to the summit, African leaders picked up assault rifles from a stand managed by Russia’s defence export agency, while others lingered near racks of grenade launchers.
“The number one [issue] is defence and security,” Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni told Mr Putin at their bilateral meeting.
“We have been co-operating very well, we have supported the building of our army by buying good Russian equipment, aircraft, tanks, and so on. We want to buy more,” he said, suggesting that Moscow provide loans to speed up arms purchases.
Russia has defence orders worth $14bn from African countries, its state-run arms export agency said at the summit, and sales to the continent account for around a third of Moscow’s military exports.
Mr Putin said Russia had agreed “military technical co-operation agreements” with more than 30 African states, to supply weapons. “Some of these deliveries are free of charge,” he added.
Elina Ribakova, deputy chief economist at the Institute of International Finance, described Russia’s offerings as “no strings attached . . . especially now compared to the EU, which is refocusing all its engagement with Africa on preventing migration and that could potentially create bad will”.
The event drew 43 heads of state and government in a geopolitical coup for Mr Putin, as Moscow seeks to rebuild ties with the continent amid souring relations with the west.