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.
Putin met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi before the two leaders opened an economic meeting with heads of state, top officials and businessmen. The two-day summit is 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. He noted that "it's clearly not enough,'' adding that Russia's trade with Egypt accounts for about 40%.
El-Sissi in his speech 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 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 expand trade, help tap natural resources and offer its technologies to the continent.
"There are many potential partners in Africa with good perspectives and an enormous potential for growth,'' the Russian president said. "In the next four to five years we could again double our trade as a minimum.''
He welcomed the recent creation of an African free trade zone, voicing hope that it will help further boost trade between Russia and the continent.
Speaking at a meeting with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on the sidelines of the summit, Putin said Moscow is looking to expand trade with South Africa. That trade with one of Africa's most developed economies reached $1 billion last year.