October 21, 2019 / 9:11 AM / 23 days ago

Putin steps up drive for clout in Africa with broadside against West

MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin stepped up Russia’s push for influence in Africa days before he hosts a summit with African leaders, saying on Monday that Moscow could offer help without strings attached unlike what he cast as the exploitative West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a conference of the Israeli foundation Keren Hayesod in Moscow, Russia, September 17, 2019. Pavel Golovkin REUTERS/File Photo

The Kremlin has said it expects 47 African leaders to converge on the Black Sea city of Sochi for the Oct. 23-24 event, Moscow’s first Russia-Africa summit and part of an ambitious push for influence and business in Africa.

For Moscow, the prize is greater political influence on a continent with 54 United Nations member states, sprawling mineral wealth, and potentially lucrative markets for Russian-manufactured weapons.

The world’s largest wheat exporter, Russia is also looking to ramp up its supplies of grain and fertiliser to meet demand that is rising in step with Africa’s booming population.

U.S. officials have vowed to counter what they see as Moscow’s growing political and economic clout in Africa as well as that of China, which has long had a large economic presence there and began its own series of Africa summits in 2006.

In December, then U.S. national security adviser John Bolton accused Moscow of “corrupt” and “predatory” business practices and of selling arms and energy in exchange for votes at the United Nations. Moscow denies that.

On Monday, Putin gave the clearest idea yet of his pitch to African countries, warning of rising competition over Africa. Turning the tables on the West, he accused it of intimidating African countries to exploit the continent’s resources.

“We see how an array of Western countries are resorting to pressure, intimidation and blackmail of sovereign African governments,” Putin told the TASS news agency.

He did not name specific countries, but said he was referring to former colonial powers on the continent.

ARMS FAIR

“They are using such methods to try to return lost influence and dominance in their former colonies in a new guise and rushing to pump out maximum profits and to exploit the continent,” he said.

By contrast, Putin said Russia was ready to offer help without “political or other conditions” and to embrace the principle of African solutions for African problems.

During its Cold War struggle with the capitalist West, Soviet Moscow developed close ties with many African countries, backing for instance post-colonial independence movements. Many of those ties lapsed after the 1991 Soviet breakup.

But Moscow’s ties to Africa are now on the up, Putin said, pointing to military technical cooperation accords that Russia has with more than 30 African states which it supplies arms to.

Russia’s new role in the region was thrust into the spotlight in July last year when three Russian journalists were killed in the Central African Republic while investigating the alleged presence there of a shady Russian private military contractor known as the Wagner group.

Putin will co-host the summit with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Russia plans to put on an arms fair at the summit, showing Russian-made weapons including its S-400 missile defence system, other air defence systems as well as non-military equipment, according to the Almaz-Antey arms manufacturer.

In trade terms, though, Moscow lags far behind competitors. Russia says its trade with African countries rose to $20 billion last year, but Russia did not rank among the continent’s top five largest trade in goods partners, according to Eurostat.

That list was topped by the European Union, followed by China, India, the United States and the United Arab Emirates.

Additional reporting by Polina Devitt; Editing by William Maclean

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