Putin's Playbook: Africa
With the opportunities afforded by its arable land, minerals, and water resources, more and more powers are moving into Africa, a continent whose growth and stability has been long stunted by artificial borders, corruption, and corporate exploitation. With a great deal of power and influence to be won, Moscow has made a return to Africa and is rapidly expanding its reach.
Russia has a long history of involvement in Africa. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union maintained relationships with many African countries, and while their collapse hollowed these efforts out, the legacy of their involvement has been inherited by Russia today. With Moscow now re-entering the geopolitical competition game on the continent, understanding this legacy is key. In 2008 Russia sent the Neustrashimy, a missile-armed frigate, to the Gulf of Aden in response to Somali pirates. Somalia's weak government and the hefty ransom demanded by pirates gave Russia a strategic military role in one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. Around the same time, Russian-assisted peacekeeping operations also began in the continent. While China has focused on sweeping economic investments, Russia has focused on rebuilding ties through military cooperation, as they have in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
Play #1: From Gas to Guns
Russia’s economic interests on the continent are fairly narrow, focused mostly on arms exports, energy projects, and mining. The Kremlin has a great deal of energy industry expertise and experience to offer Africa's resource-rich states, especially those who are under developed and rebuilding after conflicts. Russian state-owned companies have won concessions for energy projects across the continent including off-shore oil projects in Mozambique, the Rosneft-Oranto deal in Nigeria for 21 gas projects across the country, and Lukoil’s plans in Ghana and Nigeria. Likewise, the nuclear industry is an expanding market where the Kremlin is working to establish long-term relationships and strategic partnerships. The Egyptian government signed an agreement with Rosatom, a Russian nuclear power producer, to commence the production of core catcher devices for the construction of Egypt’s first nuclear plant in El-Dabaa.
"The Kremlin has a great deal of energy industry expertise and experience to offer Africa's resource-rich states"
Arms exports are one of the key industries it has remaining in the global economy due to the sanctions against them. Russia’s state export agency, Rosoboronexport, announced major contracts with ten African states in 2021, and in 2020 Russian state-owned exports accounted for 49% of Africa’s weapon imports. Arms and security are a stable and growing market that help subsidise Russia’s extensive defence spending. With the insecurity rampant across the continent, Moscow is reinforcing its Soviet-era ties by reestablishing the arms export relationships it had, which has the benefit of ensuring friendly regimes it has influence over remain in power.
Some of Russia’s key partners so far include Algeria and Egypt, with the Algerian army operating on mostly Russian military technology including T-90C battle tanks and SU-34 combat fighters, and Egypt moving toward Rosoboronexport for arms over the United States. Likewise, Angola suffers from an aging Soviet weapon stock, and so in recent years has opted to update their armed forces with Russian goods including missile defense systems and Kalashnikov assault rifles. Moscow’s work to build partnerships with African states by providing reliable and cost-effective weapons has embedded them in the region and put them in competition with the US, France, India and China.
Play #2: The PMC Plight
Arms sales are only the beginning of Moscow’s military endeavours on the continent. Russian private military companies have popped up in Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), Madagascar, Mozambique, Libya, and soon in Mali. With a surge of terrorism and threats from groups including Boko Haram and JNIM, the Wagner Group has repeatedly popped up across the continent, helping to redefine Russia’s position in a multipolar world. Their operations range from protecting Russian-operated diamond mines, to training local military, to counterinsurgency operations. The group is run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has deep ties to Putin, highlighting an increasingly blurry line between private contractors and Moscow’s armed forces.
With a surge of terrorism and threats from groups including Boko Haram and JNIM, the Wagner Group has repeatedly popped up across the continent
Although the countries where Russian PMCs are located are largely those outside the direct focus of the US or French foreign policy, there is still a great deal of concern about Russia’s growing role. After Russia failed to establish a base in Djibouti due primarily to US pressure, they began focusing on growing ties with neighbouring Ethiopia for logistic facilities. Although its footprint is relatively small thus far, it is growing and acquiring logistic and naval facilities.
Play #3: A New Disinformation Frontier
Finally, in line with Moscow’s political and electoral interference campaigns in Europe and the United States, the Kremlin has ramped up its role in politics across Africa. Disinformation has played a very powerful role in cementing influence and promoting Russian interests, including undermining or disguising reports of Kremlin-backed military operations in Africa. Some Russian disinformation campaigns have also worked to damage views of the US and NATO in Africa.
"Leaked documents showed that Russian specialists linked to Wagner Group businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin formulated plans to intervene in the 2019 South African elections."
Leaked documents showed that Russian specialists linked to Wagner Group businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin formulated plans to intervene in the 2019 South African elections. This involved sending a small team from St. Petersburg to the country to conduct research for Russian non-governmental organisation Afric (Association for Free Research and International Cooperation) and IAC (the International Anticrisis Center) with the aim of polarizing opinions and strengthening the African National Congress party. Although it is undetermined whether the group did in fact execute this plan, the documents come after six Malagasy candidates were offered money ahead of the elections in Madagascar, indicating a willingness to engage in such behaviour. Likewise, political operations and complementary disinformation campaigns have been conducted in the currently unstable Sudan in support of President Bashir.
Russia has repeatedly used Africa as a disinformation testing ground. A CNN investigation revealed that an organisation called the Internet Research Agency (IRA) hired Ghanains and Nigerians to operate bot accounts fronting as NGOs. These bot accounts sought to exacerbate racial tensions in the leadup to the 2020 US election using Facebook and Telegram. The IRA has received funding from Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has also been linked to various broadcast media and newspaper campaigns to promote the Libyan National Army in Libya. Similar tactics were used to interfere in Sudanese elections, however have had limited efficacy, being largely not well received by African audiences. Nonetheless, these subversion and disinformation campaigns should not be overlooked, particularly as Moscow looks to improve the complexity and efficacy of their campaigns.
Resurgence in the Soviet Shadow
Despite this increased Russian focus on Africa, we cannot lose sight of the bigger picture. The continent still relies heavily on trade, security, aid and investment from the three largest presences on the continent, the United States, China and European Union. Likewise, Russia's biggest trading partners are still Europe and Asia. At present, African countries and conflicts are opportunities for influence, prestige, and economic gain for Putin, but remain far from critical interests. Without a much wider-ranging resurgence in the economic and political primacy of Russia, it will likely remain largely just on the lookout for opportunities to exploit, rather than attempting to compete with the largest powers.
In the short term however, Russian involvement will likely only become more aggressive. Moscow is establishing itself as a partner and consultant, as we have seen with the recent deal to deploy Wagner militants in Mali, where the European Task Force Takuba and UN missions remain. They are seeking a seat at the table, and to that end, Africa could also be an opportunity for Russia and the EU to establish a strong security dialogue due to the array of overlapping security interests in the region. Outside of security, there are intersecting areas where the EU and Russia can form niche areas for a cooperative relationship, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
After proving their military chops and the efficacy of their equipment in theatres like Syria, Nagorno Karabakh and the Central African Republic, Russia is now ramping their role in the region back up. While they are a long way from the ability of the Soviet Union to project power around the globe, their presence should not be overlooked or underestimated.
At the height of the cold war Russian held sway over nearly a third of the African continent through the influence of the Communist bloc, but now it is free market soldiers opening Moscow's back door into African leadership.
Written by Perri Grace
Edited by Owen Swift