SOCHI/MOSCOW, Oct 23 (Reuters) - Russia despatched two nuclear-capable bombers to South Africa on a training mission on Wednesday, a flight that appeared timed to coincide with President Vladimir Putin’s opening of a flagship Russia-Africa summit designed to boost Russian influence.
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.
Speaking before dozens of African heads of state at a two-day summit in the southern Russian city of Sochi, Putin called for trade with African countries to double over the next 4-5 years and said Moscow had written off African debts to the tune of over $20 billion.
The first Russia-Africa summit is part of a Kremlin drive to win business and restore influence that faded after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which backed leftwing governments and movements across the continent throughout the Cold War.
The prize is greater political clout on a continent with 54 United Nations member states, sprawling mineral wealth, and potentially lucrative markets for Russian-manufactured weapons.
But Russia is starting from a low base. Although it has had considerable success selling arms to African countries, Moscow lags far behind competitors in trade terms.
Russia says its trade with African countries rose to $20 billion last year, but it did not rank among the continent’s top five largest partners for trade in goods, according to Eurostat.
That list was topped by the European Union, followed by China, India, the United States and the United Arab Emirates.
U.S. officials have vowed to counter what they see as Moscow’s growing political and economic clout in Africa as well as that of China, which has long had a large economic presence there and began its own series of Africa summits in 2006.
On Monday, Putin accused former colonial powers in the West of intimidating African countries in order to exploit the continent’s resources.
“We see how an array of Western countries are resorting to pressure, intimidation and blackmail of sovereign African governments,” Putin told the TASS news agency. (Additional reporting by Maxim Rodionov in Moscow; writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Andrew Osborn and Peter Graff)