Putin looks to expand influence in Africa, hosts massive summit with leaders

Russian President Vladimir Putin hosts dozens of African leaders for the first-ever Russia-Africa summit, reflecting Moscow's new push to expand its clout on the continent and saying there is "enormous potential for growth."

Russian push has echoes of Soviet-era African ties, amid signs U.S. interest waning

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shares a laugh South African President Cyril Ramaphosa before talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. (Sergei Fadeyechev, TASS News Agency Pool Photo via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted dozens of leaders of African nations Wednesday for the first-ever Russia-Africa summit, reflecting Moscow's new push to expand its clout on the continent and saying there is "enormous potential for growth."

Putin and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi are hosting the two-day summit attended by leaders of 43 of the continent's 54 countries, with the other nations represented by senior officials.

Putin said Russia's annual trade with African nations doubled in the last five years to exceed $20 billion US. He noted that "it's clearly not enough" and expressed his wish that trade will double again "as a minimum" in the next four or five years.

El-Sisi encouraged Russian companies to expand their investment in Africa.

"There is an opportune moment for that now," he said.

Russia has worked methodically 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.

Putin delivers his opening speech at the Russia-Africa summit. He expressed his wish that the current level of trade between Russia and the continent will double in the next four or five years. (Valery Sharifulin, TASS News Agency Pool Photo via AP)

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 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.

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. Such trade reached $1 billion last year.

Russia dispatched two nuclear-capable bombers to South Africa on a training mission on Wednesday, a flight that appeared timed to coincide with the opening of the summit in Sochi.

The two Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bombers were due to land near Johannesburg later on Wednesday, Russia's Interfax news agency cited South Africa's military as saying. Russia's Ministry of Defence has said the mission is designed to nurture military ties with South Africa.

Meahwile, Putin congratulated Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on winning the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month, hailing his efforts to make peace with longtime rival Eritrea.

While meeting 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 to the country.

Central African Republic President Faustin Archange Touadera thanked Putin 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 Central African Republic while investigating a Russian military contractor, Wagner, which operates there. The perpetrators haven't been found, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin and Touadera had discussed the probe into the killing.

With files from Reuters