Civil nuclear power, a new tool of seduction for Russia in Africa

Civil nuclear power, a new tool of seduction for Russia in Africa

The Kremlin applies all-out diplomacy in Africa, a secondary theater of its confrontation with Europe and the United States.

This is yet another meeting with an African leader that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov concluded in Chad on June 5, after visiting Guinea, Congo-Brazzaville and Burkina Faso. The head of Russian diplomacy’s African tours have multiplied since the start of the war in Ukraine, and all have one objective: to counter “Western propaganda” in order to rally African governments to the Russian vision of the world.

If the Russian presence on the African continent seems to surprise the Western community, it dates from the last century: the Soviet Union was fully invested in the fight for the independence of colonized countries. The legacy of this support is reflected today in all-out diplomacy on the part of Moscow, which is establishing partnerships in a wide variety of areas (security, energy, agriculture, medical, mining, etc.).

Multitude of nuclear partnerships

Moscow particularly excels in one sector: civil nuclear power. Russia stands out from other suppliers by offering a complete service, from construction to implementation, including engineering training, maintenance and radioactive waste recovery. In recent years, a multitude of nuclear partnerships have been signed on the continent. Power plants could thus see the light of day in the four corners of Africa, from Algeria to Rwanda, including Morocco and Burkina Faso.

This cooperation is mainly carried out by the state-owned company Rosatom, whose activities are strongly linked to the strategies of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. African countries agree to cooperate with Russia because “when we work with it, we are subject to regulations that are less strict than if we work with Western partners”, explains Michel Liégeois, Professor of international relations at UCLouvain.

Support for military dictatorships

Should we be worried about such a development of civil nuclear power in Africa under Russian aegis? The civilian sector has already served as a springboard for developing a military nuclear capability, Iran being the best-known example. According to Michel Liégeois, the African countries which cooperate with Russia in this area do not, however, have the ambition to become a nuclear power. “Nuclear weapons serve as a marker of power, provided they are, alongside, a great economic, commercial, cultural power like China or France. Then the price to pay is absolutely enormous. From the moment we intend to violate the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and move towards military nuclear power, that means we are alienating the rest of the world. We then suffer international ostracism and extremely harsh sanctions that these countries cannot afford to pay.” Interested countries therefore consider nuclear power mainly in terms of autonomy and energy independence.

It remains to be seen whether these partnerships concluded with Rosatom will be realized over time. For example, the company signed an agreement with the Egyptian authorities in 2018 to open a nuclear power plant in 2029 in El Dabaa (in the northeast of the country). The $25 billion investment is 85% financed by a loan from the Russian state. Work began in 2022 despite the war in Ukraine, but will Russia still have the means to continue it when the effect of Western sanctions becomes apparent in the long term? These already complicate Russian initiatives linked to mining activity in Angola (diamond mining), Guinea (gold) and Namibia (uranium).

Washington warns of growing influence of Beijing and Moscow in Africa

Security cooperation has also run out of steam since the start of the conflict in Ukraine. Russian industry is particularly active in this sector, where Moscow’s proposals are diverse: deploy the presence of Wagner mercenaries, sell weapons and military equipment, and train and train the (para)military of the country concerned, sometimes jointly. with Russian soldiers…

The choice to break up

On the side of military regimes, the interest is clear: Russia is the only partner which quickly offers a certain number of solutions to consolidate their power. For its part, Moscow sees a double advantage: signing juicy contracts for its defense companies and keeping governments in power that are favorable to it. This exploitation is therefore accompanied by a major communication operation on social networks on the part of the Kremlin.

This strategy is particularly successful in sub-Saharan Africa. Countries like the Central African Republic, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso are now turning their backs on France, their traditional ally, and are considering (or have already chosen) Russia as a new major partner, alongside China, the Iran or Turkey. “It is clear that Russia has entered an area from which it was relatively absent a few years agoanalyzes Michel Liégeois. This is a fairly unexpected and rapid geopolitical shift, and therefore rare. Russia kills two birds with one stone: it erases France from its (strategic) perimeter and it establishes its economic interests in an area which is nevertheless important in natural resources.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, however, arms exports have declined, with the Russian arms industry under heavy demand on the European front. Certain countries, such as South Africa and Mali, are also suspected by Washington of having temporarily sent back Russian weapons to support the war effort.

Towards disillusionment?

For the moment, although the volume of trade has been growing constantly since the beginning of the 2010s, Moscow is not yet a significant economic player on the continent compared to China, the European Union, the United States or India. In 2018, the value of trade reached $20.5 billion, compared to $256 billion for the European Union and nearly $186 billion for China.

Observers are divided on the question of the future of relations between Russia and certain African countries. Some believe that the Russian presence, as it translates into sub-Saharan Africa, is destined to extend to the entire continent. Others, like Michel Liégeois, believe that this cooperation is not sufficiently built on sustainable foundations. “I am not very optimistic about this convergence of interests, which may not last very long. On the military level, Russia is not capable of providing all of the elements necessary for lasting security of the region. On an economic level, if the contracts signed may seem interesting in the short term, I do not think that they provide very promising development prospects for the countries in the long term. The awakening may therefore be brutal. Not only will there still not be enough security, but there will also be no significant improvements in the living conditions of the populations. In these circumstances, the partnership does not seem to me to produce very good results. It will be called into question at one point or another.