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Jun 5, 2018 | 00:00 GMT

5 mins read

Russia Chases Cold War Spectre Across Africa

(FLORENT VERGNES / Contributor / Getty Images)

The Russian resurgence has not limited itself to the more prominent geopolitical theaters of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Over the past year the Russian hand has become more apparent in the African continent as well, particularly in central Africa. This activity may raise questions as to the true intent behind the newly developing relationships and arrangements, but the answers may be situated more in the worldview held by Russian policy makers than in Africa itself. This worldview, while responsive to perceived threats in many regards, appears to have been influenced for a great deal by the memory of how Russia acted as a global superpower during the Cold War.

In what may perhaps be more of a self-fulfilling prophecy, the manner in which Russia has found itself sucked back into the position of a great power through crises it faced in Ukraine and Syria, Russian leaders have come to consider Russia a global superpower again. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s role on the international theater had been relatively limited for a long time, and in a sense its capabilities today still lag a long way behind the strength it was able to project in its Soviet days.

Russian leadership is definitely pushing hard to reboot that strength, particularly in the military sphere where ambitious modernization programs and the development of new technologies to upgrade the Russian nuclear capabilities are shaping the perception of Russia’s international reach. However, regardless of Russia’s attempts to boost its abilities, with this perception of course also comes a desire for Russia to act as a superpower. In most theaters clear challenges and interests result in a coherent Russian strategy, but when it comes to Africa, the shape and form of Russian activities appears more difficult to connect to true strategic intent.

The belief, in Moscow, that Russia has returned to the stage of superpowers, despite its severe limitations, causes a risk of bypassing actual strategic need and skipping straight ahead to acting like a superpower. Historically speaking, Russia still is in a very weak position. Its military capacity is still much less than it was in the past, especially in comparison with its potential opponents, and the Russian economy is dangerously dependent on the export of hydrocarbons. The need for Russia to react to perceived threats such as western encroachment on its borders or the rise of jihadist movements in the Middle East with ties to segments of Russia’s population, has installed the idea of great power activity regardless of capabilities. With this idea, comes the compulsion to also act as a global power in Sub Saharan Africa, even if there is no immediate interest for Moscow to chase there, other than a memory of Cold War Africa strategy.

One of the most visible Russian relationships that has developed in Africa recently is the one in the Central African Republic. Russian arms sales, as well as increasing reports of Russian private military companies training the Central African Republic army, guarding President Touadéra, and protecting mining interests, all suggest a very intensive spread of Russian influence in the country. In a geopolitical sense, however, the Central African Republic has mostly been regarded barren ground with little to gain from it. Other than serving as a borderland of the French colonial empire in Africa, and some limited natural resource reserves, the country could hardly be considered the main prize in a strategic offensive.

In addition to the Russian appearance in the Central African Republic, Moscow is also suddenly in conversations with Rwandan President Kagame about the potential supply of S-400 air defense systems in addition to pre-existing plans for cooperation in nuclear energy cooperation. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Russia is offering investments, military cooperation and help in the fight against Ebola. With all of this emerging in the course of a few months, it would seem Russia is trying to make the central African region its own.

By any means, geopolitical competition with other actors is definitely at a lower level in most of central Africa than anywhere else. France lost its hand in the Central African Republic several regime changes ago during the rule of President Bozize, and Kinshasa isn’t exactly on good footing with anyone in the west over humanitarian and electoral concerns. China, on the other hand, which has been a major player throughout Africa, still isn’t willing to get its hands dirty through too direct of an involvement. This generates opportunities for Russia, and while Moscow may not be clear on what its Africa strategy should look like in this newfound superpower condition, it appears to be taking the path of least resistance.

Again, this isn’t Russia’s first rodeo in the Africa of course. During the Cold War the Soviet Union was extremely active throughout the continent. At that time it even managed to penetrate those spaces that had previously been under strong European control as the era of decolonization opened up many avenues. During this era, the strategic benefits of the Soviet Africa policy were also much more obvious in the context of a global polarization. Right now, Russia doesn’t even appear capable to truly challenging other powers acting in Africa, and instead its presence seems to be channeled into those exact regions where others see little gain.

Today, the gains for Russia are not as clear in Africa, but if the country wants to project itself as a global power it had better be acting globally. There is definitely some gain to be gotten from their individual activities in central Africa. Energy and natural resource opportunities, or arms trade, in these countries can be profitable, but this hardly presents a truly strategic objective. The real motivation behind the Russian actions in Africa may be based more on a memory of the Cold War Africa strategy than it is on actual current strategic requirements.

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