Are the Russians Really Coming? — The Implications of Russia’s Growing Presence in Africa for European Policy

Written by | Saturday, June 25th, 2022

The growth of Russia’s presence across Africa over the last decade has generated significant international concern, further exacerbated after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s engagement can affect the interests and policies of the European Union and its member states in Africa. How should European policymakers understand these developments and respond to them? Looking at Russia’s engagement in Africa, we can reach three main conclusions.

First, Moscow’s engagement with Africa has so far remained limited as compared to that of other global players, particularly in the economic domain. The current level of (media) attention devoted to Russia’s role in Africa is thus not supported by sufficient evidence of its actual engagement in the continent. At the same time, however, the growth of Russia’s presence is a real trend.

Second, Russian actors are guided by a rather loose strategy when it comes to Africa. The Russian state has some interests that act as a broad framework. However, the actual engagement is carried out not only by state actors, but also by state-backed conglomerates and politically connected private businesses. These latter actors have their own specific interests, which are not always fully aligned with those of the Russian state. While state actors are often driven by geopolitical considerations, Russian companies are more interested in economic opportunities.

Third, Russia’s engagement in African countries is significantly shaped by the different national contexts and by the interests of African governments. For instance, in a strong state like Ethiopia, Russia’s engagement takes place exclusively at the governmental level. By contrast, in Sudan and Mali (contexts with weaker state structures), other Russian actors like PMCs and private businesses are involved. Yet, in all three cases, Moscow’s presence tends to grow when relations between African governments and their international partners (especially in the West) deteriorate, often in the wake of authoritarian turns. This shows the opportunistic nature of Russia’s engagement, as well as the complex trade-offs faced by EU/MS governments when engaging with African governments.

This has significant consequences for the policy response of the EU and its member states. First, rather than trying to respond reactively to Russia’s presence, the EU and its member states should focus on strengthening their own relations with relevant African partners. Addressing some of the political and economic imbalances in the Europe-Africa partnership may be an effective way to strengthen such relations, and by doing so to reduce the chances of an increase in Russia’s influence. Second, in countries where this preventive strategy is difficult to implement (e.g. when facing authoritarian governments), decisions on whether/how to engage should go beyond debates about Russia’s (potential) presence, and be based instead on a comprehensive understanding of the EU and its member states’ interests and norms. Partnerships with non-governmental actors (e.g. the private sector, traditional authorities) may allow the EU and individual governments to remain engaged despite souring ties with the government.

Third, in countries where Russia’s presence is already established, evidence-based and context-specific assessments of this presence should inform the EU and its member states’ policy response. This can allow them to avoid overreacting to Russia’s influence, while also not underestimating its dangers. Fourth, to pursue their interests in an increasingly multipolar world, the EU and individual European governments should try to strengthen their leverage vis-à-vis Russia (as well as other actors). To do so, EU policymakers should leverage more strategically the engagement of European businesses across Africa. Overall, intelligent and thoughtful engagement based on EU/MS interests and norms may well be the best antidote against the influence of Russia, as well as that of any other geopolitical actor.

‘Are the Russians Really Coming? — Russia’s Growing Presence in Africa and Its Implication for European Policy’ — Policy Paper by Guido Lanfranchi and Kars de Bruijne — Clingendael / The Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

The Policy Paper can be downloaded here

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