MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed 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."
As Putin and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi hosted the two-day summit attended by leaders of 43 of the continent's 54 countries, two Russian nuclear-capable strategic bombers landed in South Africa in the first-ever visit to the continent to underline Moscow's bid for influence.
Russia's annual trade with African nations doubled in the last five years to exceed $20 billion, Putin said, and expressed his wish that trade will double again "as a minimum" in the next four or five years.
Russia has worked 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.
Russia has signed military cooperation agreements with at least 28 African countries, the majority in the past five years, and expanded arms sales to the region. It is already the continent's largest arms supplier.
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 Equatorial 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.
Angolan Mineral Resources and Oil Minister Diamantino Azevedo said his country was working to expand cooperation with Russia's diamond company Alrosa.
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. Trade reached $1 billion last year.
Putin congratulated Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on winning the Nobel Peace Prize this month, hailing his efforts to make peace with longtime rival Eritrea.
Abiy's office said he and Putin discussed cooperation in defense, education, "nuclear technology for peaceful purposes" and increased trade relations.
While speaking 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.
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. The perpetrators haven't been found, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin and Touadera discussed the probe into the killing.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pledged that Moscow will help African countries raise their profile in the international arena, including potential permanent representation on the United Nations Security Council, something African nations have sought for years.
"We are continuously upholding the role of Africa as one of the leading centers of the evolving multi-polar world," Lavrov said.