Their differences notwithstanding, the UK and Russia could cooperate in Africa.
Today, neither Russia nor the UK can claim a leadership role in Africa. London reached the peak of its influence there between the First and Second World Wars, when the British Empire had a large part of the continent under its direct control. Moscow’s heydays in Africa were the 1960s and 1970s, when the Soviet Union was the main overseas supporter of the continent’s national liberation movements. The odds are that in the 21st century, the destinies of African countries will depend more on the logic of the emerging global competition between the US and China than on any decisions taken in the Kremlin or Downing Street.
Moreover, today both Russia and the UK have limited economic, political and strategic interests in Africa compared to some other parts of the world, such as Europe or the Middle East. Arguably, this is the main reason why Africa does not look as ‘toxic’ for Russia-UK relations as some other regions do. However, we cannot rule out potential clashes between the two powers in various present or future crises and conflicts in Africa. For instance, diverging views in Moscow and London on a civil war in an African state might prevent the UN Security Council from deploying badly needed peacekeeping units or imposing international sanctions on oppressive regimes. Neither should we underestimate the likely benefits of cooperation between Russia and the UK, even if this remains quite limited.
Many current trends suggest Africa’s place in the international system will continue to grow over time – both in terms of global challenges that the continent is likely to generate and in terms of global opportunities that it is going to offer. If today, everybody’s attention seems to focus on the Middle East, tomorrow it might well shift to Africa. The stakes for both Russia and the UK in Africa may grow, and the price of an uncontrolled confrontation would increase.
Moscow and London must start working on how to contain risks and cut the costs of this confrontation. And, ideally, they should also look at means to exempt Africa from their geopolitical confrontation altogether. The first important step might be to try to agree on an appropriate ‘code of conduct’ in the continent, which could be applied not only to Russia and the UK, but also to external players in general. Africa may well be an ideal place to test new solutions to controversial challenges, including responsibility to protect, failed state, hybrid war or regime change. London and Moscow are more likely to reach an agreement on many African crises than on more sensitive matters like Ukraine or Syria. At the same time, an understanding of ‘rules of engagement’ in Africa would make it easier to approach highly divisive cases in Europe and the Middle East.
The African commons present another area for potential Russia-UK collaboration. The African commons include both security and development related matters. In the security domain, we can talk about fighting international terrorism and political extremism, handling failed states and separatism, restricting arms transfers to conflict areas, managing forced migration and refugee flows. In the development field, the continent confronts epic challenges of urban infrastructure and transportation development, waste management, agriculture modernisation and so on. Though it is essential that Africans themselves provide for the African commons, the role of external players should not be underestimated.
Due to great demand, the continent is in desperate need of essential public goods, meaning the two nations would fare better by avoiding old-fashioned competition, instead increasing the efficiency of their respective assistance projects in Africa. Take, for instance, the domain of general and higher education and human capital development in Africa, where both the UK and Russia have a lot of experience and overlapping comparative advantages. For example, according to some estimates, up to half a million Africans have received education in Russia or in the former Soviet Union. The UK also has a very impressive record of accomplishments in this field. Another area for potential cooperation is public health, which will require a lot of investment, personnel training and emergencies management. Joint projects in infrastructure development and private-public partnerships constitute even further opportunities.
The African continent is already a major driver of global population growth but may soon become a force for global economic development as well, and will be hungry for large-scale investment projects. For a variety of reasons, multilateral initiatives involving a number of overseas participants are likely to look more attractive and more politically acceptable than a unilateral economic expansion in Africa. Though today joint UK-Russian private-public development consortia on the continent might look unrealistic, one should not rule out such partnerships in future.
In the security domain, Russia and the UK could explore options for deeper cooperation in fighting international terrorism, both coming from Africa or targeting African countries. At the same time, Moscow and London could consider enhancing their respective roles in the UN-led peacekeeping operations in Africa, demonstrating an appetite for consorted votes within the UN Security Council. They can work together in fighting piracy in the dangerous waters of the Gulf of Guinea, and so on.
It is evident that any level of UK-Russia interaction relating to Africa cannot, and will not, be completely separated from the rest of their bilateral relations. If we fail to settle the core problems dividing Moscow and London today, the divisive agenda which characterises these relations will continue to limit opportunities for cooperation in both Africa and the wider world. However, the Africa of today, and especially the Africa of tomorrow, will be too important for the world at large to view it as merely an extension of the ongoing Russia-UK confrontation in other theatres. Africa is one of the most obvious cases in which an exemption to this geopolitical contest would not be viewed as a manifestation of weakness or cynicism, but rather a demonstration of political wisdom and strategic foresight.
Andrey Kortunov is Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other organisation.