Putin’s Long Shadow in Sub-Saharan Africa: Russia’s Strategic Interests Without a Strategy

Written by | Tuesday, September 15th, 2020

Since 2014, Russia has notably intensified its policies in Africa, joining the race for local markets and opportunities presented by the rapidly growing and transforming continent. In pursuit of its geo-economic/political objectives in Africa, Russia relies on military-technical cooperation and “security export” mechanisms as its main competitive advantages. Aside from legal tools, such as arms/weaponry deals, training and consulting, the Russian side also relies on illegal tools that include private military companies (PMCs), entities that are de jure prohibited in Russia, and have been, since 2014, involved in conflicts in Ukraine, Syria and Libya.

The Russia-Africa Summit, the first in history, held on 23-24 October 2019 in Sochi, was meant to signify Russia’s comeback to Africa after years of oblivion that followed the dissolution of the USSR. After 2014, and the crisis with the West, Africa — which used to play a very important role in Soviet foreign policy — started to regain elements of its former importance for Russian foreign policy. In its African policy, Moscow highlights adherence to the principles of justice, international law, commitment to human rights, and respect for the sovereignty of African nations, which, in the Russian narrative, contrasts with the “utilitarian stance” of the West (seeking resources and pursuing a “sphere-of-influence” approach).

Unlike other great powers, the Russian empire never seriously considered colonial expansion in Africa. The Soviets also initially allocated a marginal role to Africa. Change came with Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, when Soviet policy in Africa reached its zenith. The Soviet leadership perceived decolonization, accompanied by violence, as a perfect chance to export Soviet ideology. Justifying its involvement in Africa by principles of internationalism and solidarity, the USSR allocated enormous resources, reflected in military-technical cooperation, direct economic support and indirect economic assistance. Consequently, the USSR managed to dramatically increase its military presence in the Indian and Atlantic oceans, and established military bases in Guinea, Angola, Somali, and Ethiopia, which, however, came at an enormous economic cost and unclear economic benefits.

Following the collapse of the USSR, Africa de facto faded from Russia’s foreign policy orbit. This trend started to slowly change in 2006, after Putin’s visit to the Republic of South Africa (RSA), which was premised on a combination of geo-economic and geo-political (BRICS) calculations; yet very few concrete steps ensued. Arguably, this would have continued had it not been for the Ukrainian crisis. After 2014, Russia took steps to break the isolation imposed by Western countries, including intensification of contacts with African nations. Despite some visible progress achieved since then, Russia’s capabilities on the continent are constrained by a number of factors, including Russian economic unattractiveness and a very low level of trade balance — it is by no means clear how this might be changed — with sub-Saharan countries.

On the other hand, Russia’s soft power on the continent is very limited: according to Afrobarometer, the US (30%) and China (24%) are regarded by Africans as the most desirable political models. Russia’s fundamental error is a continuing reference to the Soviet role in decolonization and liberation of African nations, which, among other aspects, include spreading anti-Western — and specifically, anti-French — narratives. This message, though to some extent damaging to France, is not attuned to the rapidly changing sociocultural, political and ethno-religious landscape in Africa, and therefore not exactly beneficial for Russia. Another serious history-rooted mistake is a tradition of personification of foreign policy. The flawed nature of this approach was evident both during Soviet times (Nasser, al-Assad etc.) and, after 1991 (Zuma, Gaddafi, and al-Bashir). Importantly, despite the seemingly huge control wielded by the Soviets in Africa during the Cold War, the results turned out to be disappointing. The Soviet example vividly demonstrated that the lack of a progressive strategy — not the desire to promote ideology and challenge other actors — is a dead end. In this juncture, it would be fair to assume that Russia’s comeback to Africa, particularly stressed after 2014, should be viewed as a reactive move, rather than a comprehensive forward-looking strategy.

Since the reactivation (mid-2000s) and the intensification (2014) of the African vector of its foreign policy, Russia has been able to achieve some notable intermediary results. One of the main factors that has secured this relative success is military-technical cooperation composed of two facets: the legal one, which includes officially concluded arms deals, training of local military and security personnel, and physical protection of critical infrastructure; and the illegal facet, which is premised on “shady” operations, including, among others, Russian PMCs. Many African countries suffering from a terrorist threat have vested hopes in Russia, believing that battle-hardened Russian private security contractors would be able to solve this problem in a cost-effective and efficient manner.

However, the advent of Russian mercenaries has alarmed Western experts and observers, drawing on the experience of the USSR, when Moscow, using its military instructors, was able to challenge the West on the African continent. Those concerns may have been overrated, for four main reasons. First, Russian PMCs are unlikely to achieve a decisive military success and break the back of insurgency in sub-Saharan Africa. Most importantly, this is because the solution of the issue lies in a broad spectrum of integrated socio-economic, political and security-related actions based on the elimination of the core factors that breed radicalism. Second, Russia does not have a comprehensive African strategy (Russia primarily relies on opportunities emerging in particular countries), meaning that in the long run it will not be able to make a decisive advance on the continent. Third, a purported tilt of African leaders toward Russia is a way of pressuring Western countries and creating an image of diversification of foreign policy, not a long-term definitive trend. Fourth, Russian penetration in sub-Saharan Africa will most likely result in growing tensions with other regional players, which has been showcased in Mozambique.

This said, the prospect of the emergence of Russian mercenaries in other regions in sub-Saharan Africa must not be ruled out completely. One of the likeliest destinations is the G5 Sahel region, which is ravaged by the activities of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), al-Mourabitoun, Boko Haram and others. This prospect might materialize if the recently initiated France-led mission in the region does not yield success. Russia is already (tentatively) seeking inroads to the region through bolstering military-technical partnership with selected countries. Specifically, in 2019, Russia signed an agreement on military-technical cooperation with Mali, while Russian presidential envoy Bogdanov met with representatives of Chad to discuss potential military-technical cooperation. This prospect, however, is quite blurry at this time and will depend on a number of factors and circumstances. In effect — and this is well understood among Sahel G5 members — a withdrawal of France from the region would have detrimental consequences for the regional security architecture and would aggravate already challenging economic conditions.

In the final analysis, it needs to be pointed out that Russian activities in sub-Saharan Africa in general and its PMCs in particular, while perhaps not instrumentally important from a strategic point of view, might bring about serious collateral damage; that is, coupled with the gradual weakening of European players and the US, Russia’s actions aimed at challenging or sidelining Western countries, and France in particular, are paving the way for third countries to get a greater hold in the region. There is a prospect of a new configuration in Africa emerging, described as “China — the money, Russia — the muscles”, where Russia could become responsible for rendering military-technical services to some African countries in exchange for some economic benefits and concessions. Undoubtedly, this is merely one of several potential scenarios, yet it is worth considering, given the gradual weakening and withdrawal of Western powers on the continent.

‘Russian Private Military Contractors in Sub-Saharan Africa: Strengths, Limitations and Implications’ – Policy Paper by Sergey Sukhankin – Institut français des relations internationales / IFRI.

The Policy Paper can be downloaded here

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