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Russian State Energy: Are things heating up again?

It is well known that in 2022, the majority of exports by state-backed energy giants such as Gazprom and Rosatom were heavily sanctioned by some of its biggest customers in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Notably, this included the European Union. However, as with many of the biggest issues in international politics, a broadly Eurocentric view is taken, and the remaining five continents (not counting hegemonic North America) are ignored. It was assumed that this would be the end of Russian energy supremacy and would be followed by the collapse of its export market and its energy-reliant economy. Nearly two years on, this has yet to be the case. In fact, indicators show that things may be heating up again in the Russian energy, gas and oil export market. 

Once again, unexpectedly, it is in the continent, perhaps most ignored by Western politics and media, that is starting to show these signs. Recently, this has been the new memorandum of understanding signed by both Burkina Faso and Mali, respectively, with Rosatom, Russia's leading nuclear energy export company. In addition, Rosatom is in negotiations to significantly strengthen its partnerships with other African nations, such as Zimbabwe and Burundi. 

But what is this really a sign of? Are the frozen energy giants in Russia starting to thaw again? Is the African market beginning to heat up? Or is it simply a sign of desperation from both Russia and Africa? 

The answer I would offer is a rather unsatisfying mix of everything, in addition to the waning absolute power that the United States and West have claimed they have exercised since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – the U.S. can no longer control with whom apparently 'insignificant' nations trade; even if these new partners are its worst enemies. These are just a few of the trade deals happening in spite of the U.S. in the region as the States loses its grip on international economic control. For well over a decade, China has been pouring its resources into effectively undermining the Western dominance of the global stage through much talked about projects such as the Belt and Road and String of Pearls initiatives. China focuses on strategically important East African states, such as Kenya, with its standard gauge rail project. 

However, when these kinds of projects are discussed in the West, it is almost always about the Indo-Pacific; very rarely is the threat to Western dominance in Africa discussed and, even more rarely, the effect on Africa itself. On the rare occasion that projects like the new trade deals between Rosatom and Burkina Faso are concerned, it is always with reference to Western state interests, their 'grip on power', or Western priorities such as the climate emergency and energy security. 

While these are valid priorities, particularly the climate crisis, the effects on Africa and Russia are often ignored. For Burkina Faso, this could present a tremendous development opportunity in one of the most energy-insecure nations in the world, where only 20% of its population has access to electricity at the best of times. This is a country which has very little time for Western questions around climate change, and Burkina Faso's energy minister Simon-Pierre Boussim has stated that renewability is by no means a priority for Burkina Faso, instead that 'the right to life comes first'. In Russia, trade deals such as these are sure to have a significant impact, not least regarding sanctions: this could signify the unified sanctions wall splintering, as is inevitable with global shows of economic strength. It is also significant to observe that it is not the traditional big-name oil companies such as Gazprom making the headlines – instead, the younger, slightly nerdier nuclear energy company Rosatom is starting to make changes. 

The more sinister undertone amongst usual dialogue about undermining Western hegemony is that this is nuclear power. The reality of this trade deal may be that it was simply to make headlines and to remind the West, in particular, that even if Russia is continuing to make a fool of itself on the traditional battlefield, it is still a nuclear power and should be feared as such. This is likely an objective for the Kremlin backers of Rosatom. Recent discussions around nuclear democratisation versus disarmament after comments from Israel and some Arab states have led to worries about the use of nuclear arms in the current Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. 

The worrying apocalypse scenario is that this might not stop at electricity or quality of life improvements for Burkinabe, or Malians, or Zimbabweans, or Russians, for that matter. Instead, it may become something entirely more sinister, or perhaps there is a sinister objective behind the trade deal, whether this is the usual nuclear flex or to remind the U.S. that its hold on global power is slipping further and further, even if Russia isn't the sole protagonist breaking its grip. However, this may be nuclear paranoia, considering nuclear energy is one of the most reliable and palatable forms of energy. It is just one of the ways underdeveloped states can develop their electricity infrastructure without compromising renewability. 

Rosatom's deals in Africa signify Russia's thawing and economic desperation and that the African market continues opening up to states worldwide. The world is heating up, literally and figuratively, and international relations are becoming ever trickier.

Image: AP Photo/via The Gaurdian

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