JOHANNESBURG     -     Russian President Vladimir Putin is following China’s lead and making a splashy bid for influence in Africa, hosting the continent’s leaders this week in the first-ever Russia-Africa Summit. The Kremlin on Monday said 43 of the continent’s 54 heads of state or government are expected to attend.

Russia is taking advantage of the Trump administration’s seemingly waning interest in the continent of 1.2 billion people that includes some of the world’s fastest growing economies and a strategic perch on the Red Sea.

“We are not going to participate in a new ‘repartition’ of the continent’s wealth; rather, we are ready to engage in competition for cooperation with Africa, provided that this competition is civilized,” Putin told Russia’s Tass news agency Sunday.

 

Russia hopes to host such summits every three years, with foreign ministers meeting annually, said Putin’s foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is the co-chair this time. Here is a look at Russia’s growing military and business activities in Africa as it portrays itself as free from the past baggage of colonialism and slavery that haunt some traditional powers.

In addition to its booming youth population, growing middle class and improving infrastructure as well as long-standing natural assets like diamonds, strategic minerals and oil, Africa is also a place where Russia can grow its interests while avoiding Western sanctions imposed over its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Russia is trying to revive relationships forged during the more engaged Soviet Union era, when the USSR assertively backed countries across Africa in a Cold War of influence with the United States. While the generation of African leaders and officials who trained in the Soviet Union decades ago is aging, some such as President Joao Lourenco of oil-rich Angola are still in influential positions.

One such relationship has paid off in the past couple of years in Central African Republic, where ties with former president Michel Djotodia led to the arrival of Russian military and civilian trainers that alerted France and others to Moscow’s growing interest in a continent it long had largely neglected.

“It will be naive to say Russia’s return to Africa is not about geopolitics,” Nigerian analyst Ovigwe Eguegu wrote Monday for The China Africa Project blog.

While Russia is years late to Africa in comparison to China, which has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in railways, airports and other high-profile projects across the continent, it can build on what it has kept flowing for years: guns. Russia sends more arms to Africa than any other country and the supply is rising, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

“Weapons exports to Africa facilitate Russia’s broader diplomatic efforts to cultivate military, political, and security ties and expand its influence in Africa” to compete with the United States, France, and China, senior fellow Paul Stronski wrote for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last week.