Author: Paul Stronski
Affiliated organization: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Type of publication: Report
Date of publication: October 2019
After a decades-long absence, Russia is once again appearing on the African continent. The Kremlin’s return to Africa, which has generated considerable media, governmental, and civil society attention, draws on a variety of tools and capabilities. Worrying patterns of stepped-up Russian activity are stirring concerns that a new wave of great-power competition in Africa is now upon us. U.S. policymakers frequently stress the need to counter Russian malign influence on the continent.
On a visit to Angola in early 2019, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said that “Russia often utilizes coercive, corrupt, and covert means to attempt to influence sovereign states, including their security and economic partnerships.”1 Advocates for a more forceful Western policy response point to high-visibility Russian military and security cooperation in the Central African Republic and the wide-ranging travels of Russian political consultants and disinformation specialists as confirmation that Russia, like China, represents a major challenge in Africa.
Yet is that really the case? Are Russian inroads and capabilities meaningful or somewhat negligible? Hard information is difficult to come by, but any honest accounting of Russian successes will invariably point to a mere handful of client states with limited strategic significance that are isolated from the West and garner little attention from the international community. It remains unclear whether Russia’s investments in Africa over the past decade are paying off in terms of creating a real power base in Africa, let alone putting it on a footing that will expand its influence in the years to come.
Russia’s Return to the Global Stage
Since 2014, when Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea upended the post–Cold War security order, its image on the world stage has undergone a major transformation. Previously thought of as a defunct superpower in retreat, Russia’s ambitions and reach were largely confined to its immediate periphery. However, it is now viewed as a serious actor in distant parts of the world, where its presence has not been felt since the heyday of the Cold War.
The 2015 military intervention in Syria radically changed the course of that country’s civil war and Russia’s ability to project power in the broader Middle East. Russian meddling in the domestic politics of the United States, France, and Germany is treated as a clear example of the threat it poses to Western democracies. Russian diplomats and security personnel have been busy reestablishing old ties and establishing new ones around the globe.
New Tools, Old Playground
Nowhere has this posture manifested itself more visibly than in Russia’s attempts to return to Africa—an arena it abandoned three decades ago, when the burden of global ambitions became too much to bear for the disintegrating Soviet economy. The Soviet Union enjoyed extensive relationships across Africa for decades through its support for national liberation movements in Angola, Mozambique, or Guinea-Bissau, its involvement in the Ogaden or Congolese conflicts, and its courtship of Ethiopia’s leftist regime.4 As the Soviet Union collapsed, these relationships came to an abrupt halt. The cost of maintaining them was completely nonviable for a post-Soviet Russia struggling to overcome cataclysmic political, economic, and societal challenges
Gradually, however, as the economy and domestic politics stabilized, and as the Kremlin’s foreign policy horizons expanded, Russia began reestablishing a small foothold in Africa. 6 In the mid-2000s, its outreach focused mainly on South Africa and the African Union—two entities it hoped could serve as partners to support its vision for a multipolar world. Russia then expanded its activities, buttressing its involvement in African peacekeeping operations and participating in the international anti-piracy task force off the coast of Somalia.
Manifestations of increased Russian influence and presence in Africa have grown exponentially since. Relying on all instruments in its toolkit— political, military-security, economic, diplomatic, and informational—Russia has gamely sought to rebuild old ties and develop new ones. The track record of the past five years is a prime example of how Russia’s brand of activist and agile foreign policy can be done on the cheap and create the appearance of paying outsized dividends.
The Kremlin frequently tries to take advantage of Europe’s and the United States’ missteps on the continent as well as of the growing wariness in Africa about China’s oversized economic clout and ambitions. Yet as this survey of Russia’s activism and priorities makes clear, the scorecard since 2014 provides telling examples of the limits of its power, the exceedingly modest size of its toolkit for pursuing its global ambitions, and its continued predilection for the showy and symbolic over concrete deliverables.
A Useful Legacy
In many respects, Russia’s reemergence in Africa is an earnest attempt to resume relations where they were left when the Soviet Union departed the scene. The Soviet Union was an influential actor in Africa for much of the Cold War. As part of its ideological confrontation with the West, it backed postcolonial independence movements and sought to exploit the colonial legacy to undercut Western influence on the continent and beyond. The Soviet Union sponsored large-scale military, cultural, and educational exchange programs across Africa, cultivating relationships with political, economic, and academic elites.
Moscow relied heavily on close security and intelligence relationships with leaders of African independence or resistance movements. Two postapartheid presidents of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, went through military training in the Soviet Union as part of its outreach to the African National Congress during the apartheid era. Zuma’s frequent meetings with Putin suggest Moscow eagerly tried to revive those Cold War–era ties and that the former South African leader was a receptive partner.
Like the Soviet Union previously, contemporary Russia has tried to capitalize on a lack of association in the minds of many Africans with colonialism and imperialism. Marxist-Leninist ideology—which the Soviet Union sought to spread across Africa throughout the Cold War—was embraced by many, if not most, national liberation movements.
The appeal of Marxism-Leninism obviously has faded since then. But the absence of a colonial or imperialist legacy and the record of support for national liberation movements amount to a reputational advantage Russia still enjoys in dealings with many African partners. Moreover, Russian officials eagerly portray U.S. democracy promotion efforts as a form of neocolonialism. 13 This rhetoric holds appeal to authoritarian-style politicians and regimes where democratic governance is still fragile or under assault.
Taken together, these economic, political, historical, educational, and military-security ties create a useful springboard for rebuilding relations with African countries. However, while the legacy of this Soviet outreach to Africa is important, it only goes so far. With its economy struggling, Russia lacks deep pockets. Russian investor interest in Africa is quite narrow, focusing primarily on natural resource extraction and energy opportunities that often have already been thoroughly explored or exploited by other players. Cultural ties between Russians and Africans are now quite rare.
Russia’s Diplomatic Push
Opportunism is a hallmark of Russia’s current foreign policy, and its behavior in Africa is hardly an exception. Russia’s return to Africa in recent years has been facilitated in part by the drop-off in U.S. attention to the continent under President Donald Trump’s administration. In 2018, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs was confirmed, and then national security adviser John Bolton sketched out a broad Africa strategy in a December speech at the Heritage Foundation.
In keeping with the emphasis in the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy on great-power competition, Bolton highlighted the importance of containing Chinese and Russian influences on the continent. But the lack of senior U.S. engagement with Africa and the president’s racially charged comments have created plenty of running room for Russia and other actors. The late 2018 decision to scale back U.S. troops in Africa similarly provides openings for Moscow in the security sector.
At the very moment Trump fired secretary of state Rex Tillerson while the latter was on a diplomatic mission to Africa in March 2018, the Kremlin was launching a diplomatic surge that will culminate in the Sochi summit meeting in October. When Trump tweeted about his dismissal of Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was on a five-country African tour.20 Since then, neither Pompeo, Bolton, nor Bolton’s successor Robert O’Brien have visited the continent nor devoted much attention to Africa-related policy issues.
Lavrov returned to Africa in June 2018 to visit South Africa and Rwanda. By October, Russia had signed multiple military, economic, and security cooperation agreements with a handful of African countries. Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev visited Angola, Algeria, and South Africa in summer 2018, where he warned of U.S.-inspired color revolutions and other Western plots to stoke chaos on the continent. Putin made a low-key visit to Africa to attend the BRICS summit in South Africa in 2018.
A parade of senior African leaders has visited Moscow during the subsequent period, and a surprising number are granted courtesy calls with Putin and other senior officials. Twelve heads of state from sub-Saharan Africa have visited Russia since 2015—six of them in 2018.
Creating a Multipolar World
Africa plays an outsized role in Russia’s long-standing pursuit of a multipolar world order. Russian diplomats routinely look to it for potential partners in efforts to dilute the influence of the United States and its allies in international bodies. The same goes for the African Union (AU), the Organization of Islamic Conference (with its large African membership), and African development organizations such as African Import-Export Bank (Afreximbank).
The United Nations (UN) is by far the most important arena for such Russian diplomatic efforts. Africa accounts for about one-quarter of member states, which helps explain the impetus behind frequent visits to Africa by senior Russian officials, the numerous “strategic partnership agreements” signed with African countries, and offers of debt relief. Debt relief has proven to be a useful tool, allowing Russia to count on backing from African partners on key UN votes such as the 2014 General Assembly resolution critical of the Russian annexation of Crimea. Twenty-nine African countries voted against or abstained from that resolution; six did not show up for the vote.
Russia has also relied on its African partners to support its position on key UN votes on Syria and a December 2018 resolution condemning Russia’s militarization of Crimea, the Black Sea, and the Sea of Azov. Russia has cultivated authoritarian regimes in Africa as potential allies in blocking international efforts to promote human rights and democratic governance through UN-affiliated organizations and agencies.
Twelve heads of state from sub-Saharan Africa have visited Russia since 2015—six of them in 2018
Africa is allocated three rotating seats on the UN Security Council, generally referred to as the “A3.”
The A3 seats are currently held by South Africa, Equatorial Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire. Recently, Russia has made a deliberate effort to court the A3, which has resulted in an informal alignment that frequently manifests itself on Africa-related issues, often where Russian interests are involved.
Russia’s participation in African peacekeeping missions or training exercises has facilitated its relationships with African militaries as well as arms sales, with security relationships also opening doors for potentially broader political relations and commercial access to natural resources. However, Russia’s actual participation in African peacekeeping operations is smaller than commonly believed. Its contribution to the UN stabilization mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, makes up less than 0.2 percent of the mission’s personnel, despite being the largest concentration of Russian personnel in any UN peacekeeping operation in Africa. Russia also offers scholarship programs to train African peacekeeping personnel and specialists at Russian military facilities.
Limited Economic and Soft Power Tools
Russia has tried to tap the limited economic tools at its disposal to reestablish its presence in Africa. The continent’s booming population, need for stable long-term energy supplies, and abundance of natural resources hold a certain appeal for various Russian private and state-owned corporations, even though Russian players have few competitive advantages.
The A3 seats are currently held by South Africa, Equatorial Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire. Recently, Russia has made a deliberate effort to court the A3, which has resulted in an informal alignment that frequently manifests itself on Africa-related issues, often where Russian interests are involved
It is hard to overstate the structural constraints imposed on Russian ambitions in Africa by basic geoeconomic and geopolitical realities. Russia has arrived at the party quite late. It offers remarkably little that African states actually need. Its moves are far outmatched by those of China, the United States, Japan, and the European Union, whose aid and investments in Africa count in the many tens of billions of dollars.
China, India, the United States, and Germany remain by far sub-Saharan Africa’s top trading partners. According to the World Bank, sub-Saharan Africa’s exports to Russia were worth about $0.6 billion in 2017, while its imports from Russia amounted to about $2.5 billion. This puts the total sub-Saharan-Russian trade turnover at about $3 billion, which pales in comparison to the region’s trade with China and the United States, worth $56 billion and $27 billion respectively.
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