MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin courted dozens of leaders of African nations Wednesday at the first-ever Russia-Africa summit while a pair of nuclear-capable bombers made an unprecedented visit to the continent, reflecting Moscow’s new push for clout.
Speaking at the two-day summit attended by leaders of 43 of Africa’s 54 countries, Putin hailed the continent’s “enormous potential for growth” and negotiated deals to tap its riches including diamonds, uranium, and oil.
Putin said Russia’s annual trade with African nations doubled in the last five years to exceed $20 billion, and expressed confidence that it could double again “as a minimum” in the next four or five years.
Russia has worked in recent years to expand its influence in Africa, taking advantage of the seemingly waning U.S. interest in the continent under President Donald Trump’s administration. Moscow has sought to revive relationships forged during the Cold War, when it poured funds and weapons into Africa in rivalry with the U.S., and has worked to cultivate new ties such as relations with South Africa.
Some analysts have said Russia has been late to engage a continent where China has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure and other projects in recent years. But Moscow portrays itself as free from the past baggage of colonialism and slavery that haunt some more traditional powers.
“It was long overdue,” Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said of Russia hosting such a summit. The Ugandan leader, traditionally a U.S. security ally in Africa, said he and Putin discussed issues ranging from livestock vaccines to space technology.
Russia already is building on its status as Africa’s largest arms supplier. It has signed military cooperation agreements with at least 28 countries on the continent, the majority in the past five years.
Russian officials have talked about the possibility for Russian warplanes and navy ships to use ports and air bases in some African countries. On Wednesday, two Russian Tu-160 nuclear-capable strategic bombers arrived in South Africa on a visit the Russian Defense Ministry described as a sign of “strategic partnership.”
Putin noted that Moscow has written off $20 billion in debt — he did not say over what period — and provided aid to African nations. He said Russia is willing to help tap natural resources and offer its technologies to the continent, and he welcomed the recent creation of an African free trade zone.
Russia’s geological survey agency signed agreements with South Sudan, Rwanda and Equatorial Guinea to search for carbon resources on their territories. And Russia’s largest oil company, Rosneft, said it was preparing to explore Mozambique’s offshore oil resources.
Angolan Mineral Resources and Oil Minister Diamantino Azevedo said his country was working to expand cooperation with Russia’s diamond company Alrosa.
Putin also met with several African leaders to discuss potential projects.
He told South African President Cyril Ramaphosa that Moscow is looking to further expand trade with the country, one of the continent’s most developed economies. Trade reached $1 billion last year.
Putin congratulated Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on winning the Nobel Peace Prize this month, hailing his efforts to make peace with longtime rival Eritrea.
Abiy’s office said he and Putin discussed cooperation in defense, education, “nuclear technology for peaceful purposes” and increased trade relations.
While speaking with Namibian President Hage Geingob, Putin touted prospects for Russia to help tap the country’s vast uranium resources, diamonds, and other mineral riches. Geingob, in turn, welcomed Russia to send military advisers.
Uganda’s Museveni thanked Putin for supplying warplanes, tanks, and other weapons and said his country would be eager to get more if Russia provides loans.
The central African Republic President Faustin Archange Touadera also said he was grateful for Russian weapons and asked for more military assistance, saying his government needs it to fight armed groups competing for the country’s gold, diamonds, and uranium riches. Russian private contractors and security experts reportedly have helped train the nation’s military.
Last year three Russian journalists were killed in the Central African Republic while investigating a Russian military contractor, Wagner. The perpetrators haven’t been found, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin and Touadera discussed the probe into the killing.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pledged that Moscow will help African countries raise their profile in the international arena, including potential permanent representation on the United Nations Security Council, something African nations have sought for years.
“We are continuously upholding the role of Africa as one of the leading centers of the evolving multi-polar world,” Lavrov said.
VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV I Associated Press
Associated Press writer Cara Anna in Johannesburg contributed.