Russia in Africa: A Mission to Replace the West

Written by: Audrey McGrory

As negotiations between Russia and NATO have intensified following the heightened risk of Russian invasion into its neighbor and former Soviet republic, Ukraine, Russia’s advancements elsewhere—namely in Africa—are also worth monitoring. 

In another example of Russia testing the West in their diplomatic capabilities, the country’s movements in Africa are interesting, though not surprising given Russia’s foreign policy, which in recent years has become more and more aggressive towards the West. As many African nations have found themselves ‘disgruntled’ with Western partnerships that have failed to bring prosperity and stability to their struggling economies and crumbling government structures, Russia has offered itself as an alternative. The underlying benefits—serving economic, diplomatic and military purposes—are substantial. 

President Vladimir Putin outlined Russia’s intentions in the continent at the first Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi. During the summit, Putin reinforced Russia’s role as an economic, diplomatic, and military alternative to the West, stating that Russia was “not going to participate in a new repartition of the continent’s wealth; rather, [Russia is] ready to engage in competition for cooperation with Africa.” By preying on Western failures in the continent, Russia is reinforcing its influence in a continent that has historically sought help from the West, thus weakening the West’s influence in the region. 

From the outside, Russia’s approach to expanding its influence in Africa seems to lie in forging military alliances with African nations such as Libya, Mali, Nigeria and Ethiopia. Regarding Nigeria and Ethiopia, Africa’s most populous nations, Russian military agreements come as the two African nations have failed to secure similar agreements with the West, namely the United States. As for Nigeria, the Russian agreement comes in the wake of the United States failing to pass a “planned $1 billion weapons sale” citing human rights abuses carried out by the Nigerian government as the main reason for the decision. Similarly, in Ethiopia, the U.S. has been resistant to offer aid to the Ethiopian government following its “military response to an insurgency in northern Tigray.” Evident between the two examples, Russia has found opportunity in U.S. hesitancy, quickly organizing diplomatic meetings between the nations’ foreign ministers and involving itself in the nations’ domestic affairs. For example, in Ethiopia, Russia sent “election observers” after the E.U. retracted their own —citing “ongoing violence across the country, human rights violations and political tensions, harassment of media workers and detained opposition members.”

While the securing of military alliances with African nations may seem to be at the core of Russia’s policy in the continent, Russia’s strategy is much more complex, and best summarized as a “cooption strategy.” By employing this strategy, Russia increases its influence in a country by offering security and political support to isolated African leaders, thus making the leaders “indebted to Moscow.” The strategy’s exercise can be plainly observed in the Central African Republic, or CAR, where it found considerable success

Following increasing political violence in CAR in 2018, Russia sent 400 mercenaries from the Wagner Group—an ambiguous “private military company” that has connections to the GRU, Russia’s intelligence agency—to the African nation, seeking to uphold President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s struggling regime. Concurrent to sending mercenaries and weapons to CAR, Russia was playing a significant role in negotiations between the UN and CAR, seeking to implement a waiver to an arms embargo that would allow Russia to establish an “arms-for-resources” deal with CAR. The negotiations were successful, and as a result, the Wagner Group seized control of CAR’s diamond and gold mines, advising peacekeepers from the United Nations to “steer clear,” and subsequently reaping the economic benefits of one of CAR’s most dominant industries.  

Beyond its involvement in UN negotiations and security assistance, Russia has effectively inserted itself into CAR’s political sphere, demonstrating a clear political preference by giving vast sums of money to Touadéra’s presidential campaign. As a result, Russia has “effectively compromised” a state’s sovereignty. 

Seemingly in exchange for Russia’s political donations and security assistance, President Touadéra has tapped a Russian to serve as his National Security Advisor, ousting CAR officials that were skeptical of Russian influence. Finally, Touadéra comprised his presidential security of Wagner operators. While Touadéra still remains in power, roughly 2,300 Wagner mercenaries—a group that has been connected to “extrajudicial killings, rapes, torture and arbitrary detentions”—can be greatly credited for his ability to do so. 

In its operations, the Wagner Group has often employed tactics that have been effectively used by Russia in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Yet, its tactics are particularly effective in Africa, where Wagner can “gain leverage” by offering “security support” to increasingly isolated leaders. By offering assistance to isolated leaders in dire political situations, Russia—by way of the Wagner Group—has forged impressive military, economic and diplomatic ties with many African nations.

Russia’s motivations are clear. As uprisings against authoritarian regimes have continued to gain traction across the world, particularly in countries near Russia such as Belarus and Ukraine, similar uprisings in Russia threaten the government and its influence. In advocating for an alternate governing system in which transactional relationships occur between leaders in an international system less dominated by rules, Russia is able to “blunt any momentum that could [cause similar uprisings] in Moscow” and compete more effectively in the international system as a “non-democratic actor.” 

A testament to Russia’s growing influence in Africa, universities in CAR recently made the study of the Russian language compulsory, replacing the previous options of Spanish and Chinese. While Russian influence over African governments—particularly that of CAR—is easily recognizable, its expansion to a much larger population marks a successful milestone in Russia’s desire for growth in the continent. 

As Russia’s actions in Eastern Europe—namely in Ukraine—have drawn global attention, its actions in Africa—which closely mirror those employed in Eastern Europe—are similarly aggressive, and require adequate attention for the preservation of democracy.