Russia's Plan for Making Friends in Africa

7 MINS READJun 15, 2019 | 09:30 GMT
Angolan President Joao Lourenco, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin exchange documents during a signing ceremony in Moscow on April 4, 2019.

Angolan President Joao Lourenco, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin exchange documents during a signing ceremony in Moscow on April 4. As Russia pushes to play a greater role on the global stage, the Kremlin has developed a robust strategy for influencing African leaders and strengthening ties across the continent.

(MIKHAIL METZEL/TASS via Getty Images)
  • Russia will continue to execute its broad-spectrum diplomacy strategy across Africa, using both political interactions and economic, security and diplomacy engagements to secure alliances.
  • Moscow has limited resources to devote to its Africa strategy, but it will benefit from its ability to exploit African leaders' concerns over cooperation with the West or China.
  • Russia will more regularly compete with other global great powers in Africa, engaging in direct confrontations as well as complex domestic political competitions in the countries they back.

Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2019 Third-Quarter Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis of key developments over the next quarter.

Since Russian private military contractors began appearing in the Central African Republic in 2018, Russia's strategic ambitions in Africa have grown with every interaction between Moscow and any actors on the continent. For a long time after the end of the Cold War, Africa was relatively unimportant to Russia's foreign policy. But as Russia began moving into a new international role over the past five years, Africa has returned to prominence in Moscow's foreign policy because of its value to Russia's goals in the global great power competition. And though Russia has fewer resources than its competitors for fostering ties with African nations, it also offers more flexibility and fewer strings attached.

The Big Picture

As part of its resurgence, Russia has continued to establish itself as a global actor. Though it may not have the same capabilities or resources as other great powers, Moscow has inserted itself in local dynamics across the globe — particularly in Africa, where it has developed a coherent strategy far beyond a bilateral approach to grow relationships across the continent as a whole.

From Cold War to Russian Resurgence

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin rose to power at the beginning of the 21st century, the Russian government has strived to regain a prominent role as a geopolitical power. After Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 and Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea intensified its polarization from the West, Moscow's foreign policy grew even more assertive. And while this initially played out in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, it is now moving into the African continent.

Not coincidentally, Russia has modeled its current African policy on that of the former Soviet Union. Changing global dynamics have altered some elements of the Russian Africa strategy, which no longer revolves around the forward deployment of nuclear-capable strategic bombers or the spread of Marxist economies. But Russia is still utilizing ideological concepts of Pan-Africanism and African nationalism to generate deep connections between African postcolonial activists and Moscow's internationalist agenda.

Today, rather than working with revolutionary movements, Russia has seen the potential for ideological alignment with African rulers, particularly when it comes to opposing democracy and human rights-based initiatives and intervention by the West. Much like Russia, many African rulers are feeling Western pressure on subjects such as transitions of power, democratic values, human rights and economic liberalization. Russia can fan that sentiment of African nationalism among those rulers, encouraging an independent course of African states — or at least a course independent from the West.

Moscow's Motivations

These goals are in tune with Russia's pragmatic interests. For one, Russia's more assertive foreign policy strategies have typically included a reluctance to allow the collapse of authoritarian regimes. This commitment to maintaining global stability is something various Kremlin officials have attributed to the chaotic aftermath of Arab Spring events and the NATO intervention in Libya. Stabilizing policies have contributed to Russia's willingness to back leaders like Syrian President Bashar al Assad or Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, and Russia is applying the same reasoning in Africa, where it has actively backed the rule of President Faustin-Archange Touadera of the Central African Republic, and, until recently, former Sudanese President Omar al Bashir.

Much like Russia, many African rulers are feeling Western pressure on subjects such as transitions of power, democratic values, human rights and economic liberalization.

But while stability in Africa may benefit Russia by helping prevent militancy spillover or economic hurdles, it's not the biggest prize on the continent. What Russia needs most in its current standoff with the West is alternative, supplemental relationships throughout the rest of the world. In Africa, this cooperation comes in many forms but usually revolves around economic opportunities such as market access, natural resource deals, arms sales and diplomatic alignment in the United Nations or other international organizations. Unlike Russia, with its veto power as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, African states don't hold key positions in the organization. But, together, the 54 African U.N. members amount to nearly a third of the total votes in the General Assembly.

Implementing Strategy

The ways in which Russia has been trying to expand its influence in Africa are rather ambitious in scope, especially since they even focus on military — or private military — engagements with African states, which are particularly critical for the ongoing great power competition. Russia has deployed private military contractors to the Central African Republic to deliver arms, train government forces and provide personal protection to the president. It has taken similar action in Libya, developing ties with different parties in the ongoing conflict, and in Sudan, where Russian advisers supported al Bashir and must now navigate the complex transition of power. In May, Russia announced plans to deploy technical experts to the Republic of the Congo to train local forces to use Russian military equipment.

Other parts of Russia's Africa strategy are subtler. Throughout the continent, Russia is engaged in information operations, development support, economic relations, arms sales and more. All of these activities are coordinated to establish strong and reliable ties with African leaders and keep them in power. According to a recent leak by Mikhail Khodorkovsky's "The Dossier" and The Guardian newspaper, the portfolio for this vast web of activity is managed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a prominent politician with a focus on unofficial Russian activity abroad.

A map showing how 14 African countries rank in the degree of their cooperation with Russia.

Through Prigozhin and a number of private entities linked to him, Russia is able to provide the security guarantees of Wagner, a private Russian security firm, influence local media organizations and nongovernmental organizations, and directly advise African leaders. The unofficial structure offers a great deal of flexibility that overt state activity would not allow.

However, Russia does engage in direct economic and military contacts with Africa, and the overt interactions are not to be minimalized, serving important symbolic and practical purposes. One big step in this direction is the large Russia-Africa summit planned for October in Sochi, which leaders of nearly all African nations will attend. This summit is not only a symbolic gesture to Africa; it also offers a very real pragmatic opportunity for Russia and African leaders to explore sustainable, mutually beneficial economic interaction. On the economic front, Russian plans have allegedly also included vast infrastructure plans such as the construction of railways or highways connecting the Red Sea coast to West Africa. Such plans have been floating around in Africa for a long time, but the vast financing hurdle that comes with them has prevented implementation.

Ambition Meets Reality

While Russia so far has had several successes in Africa, materializing the full extent of its ambitions would come at a great cost. And the country does not have the vast financial resources of other global powers that could allow it to simply buy its way into African states or finance the infrastructure projects. Especially in a theater where several other powers are actively protecting or acquiring influence as well, Russia's constraints can set it back significantly. A country like China, for example, has the benefit of much deeper pockets from which it can provide economic incentives to African leaders — although domestic economic challenges have somewhat reduced the lavish nature of Chinese infrastructure spending in Africa. Western actors such as the United States or France, meanwhile, can offer more sustainable connections to their economic markets, as well as highly sophisticated defense and security support.

These relations come with strings attached, however, and many African leaders are wary of Western demands for political liberalization which threatens their leaders' positions as well as Chinese economic practices that can rapidly put weak economies in debt. So, while Russia itself may be constrained in resources it can apply, concerns over Western and Chinese practices provide perhaps Russia's greatest tool in the competition for influence in Africa.

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