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Despite the flood of news stories about Russian activities in Africa, far too many Western observers still refuse to take Moscow’s African policies seriously enough.

Many Western observers argue that Moscow lacks the resources to compete with either the US or China, that its interests are mainly economical, e.g. oligarchs’ enrichment, or circumventing sanctions, not strategic. Allegedly, Russia has no genuine African strategy; its activities are limited to a handful of fragile authoritarian corrupt regimes. Therefore, despite is vaulting ambitions, it is not a serious strategic challenge. Consequently, the West need not become unduly alarmed about Russia’s activities across Africa. This essay argues otherwise. Russia’s African policies, like those in the Middle East from which they partly emerge, are fundamentally strategic and long-standing. Though they are constantly evolving, they are by no means as limited as some analysts would argue, and utilise all the instruments of power available to Moscow, often in innovative ways.

Russia’s Return to Africa

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa receiving Russian President Vladimir Putin at the 2018 BRICS Summit in Johannesburg. (Photo: GCIS)

First, Moscow’s return to prominence in Africa did not begin yesterday. Neither is it only due to the impact of sanctions in 2014 though it admittedly accelerated after 2013-14. But, and second, that is not only due to sanctions. Russia’s ongoing record of success in the Middle East has clearly encouraged it to expand all the dimensions of its influence across North Africa, the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa. And in this quest it also has obtained supporters or enablers from the Middle East, most notably the UAE. Russia welcomed the apparently Chinese initiative of 2010-11 to bring South Africa into the BRICS partly to thwart an apparent US-India initiative in Africa. And the BRICS organisation, whose avowed purpose is the reconstruction of a different international order itself is a largely Russian initiative. Inasmuch as Russia regularly invokes the BRICS as an alternative to and mechanism intended to counter US economic-political supremacy, the inclusion of South Africa, even if its inclusion was economically justified, has served as a base from which Moscow could enhance ties to Johannesburg and return to Africa. Moreover, Russia regularly uses BRICS summits as platforms for its African initiatives, like creating the BRICS Development Bank, which sponsors African among other initiatives, and its Russia-Africa summit of 2019.

Third, current bilateral relations do not serve as the only vehicle by which Moscow retains a positive image and basis for lasting influence in Africa. The Soviet Union’s support for many African independence movements during the Cold War still evidently fosters positive African thinking about Russia, at least among veterans of such wars like Angolan President Joao Lourenco, if not others. Certainly Vladimir Putin and his subordinates frequently invoke that support when they are discussing Africa or talking to African leaders.

Moscow’s African policies also span the entire continent. In Egypt, Russia provides weapons, conducts air defence exercises and supports the movement of General Haftar in Libya that Egypt supports; it provides or offers nuclear power to countries like Ethiopia, offers help against terrorists in the Central African Republic (CAR), send political technologists and private mercenaries to influence governments in Libya, Madagascar and Mozambique, offers economic and energy deals, if not weapons, all over the continent, and so forth.

Political Technology

Indeed, Moscow is actively seeking to influence governments across the entire continent. Russia has sent “political technologists” to at least 20 African countries. That is hardly a limited operation. The term “political technology” prevalent across the former Soviet space might perhaps be best described as “a euphemism for what is by now a highly developed industry of political manipulation.” Thus, it is also targeting African voters with disinformation campaigns as in the US and Europe. Election rigging may be commonplace in Africa, but Russia has sought to influence elections in Nigeria, Libya, Madagascar South Africa, Mozambique, and across Africa. In Nigeria, Russian hackers allegedly conspired with the People’s Democratic Party and its candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, to rig the presidential elections. Similarly, the Wagner private military fighters sent to Libya participate in election rigging along with other Russian elements in Madagascar. In Libya, their operatives have discussed rigging elections on behalf of General Khalifa Haftar, Moscow’s chosen candidate against the current Libyan government. In Madagascar they sought to co-opt candidates who could then drop out and allow their favoured candidate to win.

Meanwhile in South Africa, Russian operatives created a think tank to act as a vehicle to tarnish Mmusi Maimane, the DA leader, and Julius Malema, the populist leader of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters. The team drew up documents, obtained by the investigators, that listed its proposed tactics, ranging from “generating and disseminating video content” and “coordinating with a loyal pool of journalists” to find ways “to discredit” the opposition.

This is hardly a record of activity of a country that thinks that it cannot or should not compete with China. Indeed, Russian elites fully grasp that their resources are limited in regard to China or the US. Nevertheless, they do not see this as a barrier to their ability to compete in areas where Russia has a comparative advantage, for example, in nuclear energy, or to utilise the instruments of power available to it in creative and innovative ways, e.g. the use of so called “political technologists”, or private armies, whether they operate in Libya, the CAR, Mozambique, Madagascar, or are selling hydrocarbons or nuclear reactors and power plants to Ethiopia and others. In other words, Russia’s resources are creatively and imaginatively deployed across the entire span of Africa and, as the October 2019 Russia-Africa summit showed, Russia’s sense is that it is only beginning to recover its rightful claim to a place in the African sun.

In recent years, Moscow has been ramping up military and political ties with African nations. (Graphic: Alexandra McClintock / ISW)

Russian Goals

Neither are Russia’s goals primarily or purely economic, e.g. circumventing sanctions or enriching oligarchs. To be sure, those are prominent goals and we cannot deny that those objectives may drive oligarchs along with their desire to respond to the government’s demand for classic (albeit modernised) forms of Muscovite state service or suggestions that contributing to the expansion of Russia’s global influence would stand them well with Putin. Obviously, the support of such people as Yevgeny Prigozhin or Konstantin Malofeev who have bankrolled private military forces in Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans is laced with the expectation of rewards from the state in return for assuming substantial risks. Yet in the final analysis, they are state actors not individual entrepreneurs or even analogies to Western mercenaries or corporations like Blackwater. Since their wealth and position are wholly dependent on the state, like medieval servitors, they are obliged to support or even to anticipate its initiatives, e.g. expanding Russian influence globally, whether it be in Ukraine, Syria, the Balkans, or Africa. Indeed, these private mercenaries exemplify the innovative quality of Russian policy by using so called private forces to minimise the burden of both risk and expenditure in “gray area scenarios” across the globe in order to advance Russia’s agenda.

Apart from minimising the burden of risk and expenditure to the government and the state budget, these private military companies also appear to be important elements in an evolving Russian military strategy for projecting power abroad to prevent or abort so-called colour revolutions, or exploit conflicts in the Third World where they can be turned to Russia’s advantage. Africa, like Syria before it, is plagued with many such conflicts and can duly serve as a laboratory for the refinement of this concept of operations. Considerable evidence suggests that Russia is building a template for global expeditionary forces in these conflicts where it can, at minimal expense and risk to its own budget and military, intervene as it sees fit to exploit either insurgencies against pro-Western regimes or support the regimes against alleged Western-inspired “colour revolutions”. The only political criteria seem to be if there is a pro-Russian force of sufficient capability that can be utilised by Moscow for its objective, and second, as in Syria, if it can keep the level of intervention below the point where it would galvanise a serious Western response.

Force Deployment

Although these deployments of private military forces, advisors, and/or SSpecial Forcesremain small, in the hundreds, there is no authoritative account of just how many private military forces like Wagner, or official Russian military personnel have been deployed to Libya, Mozambique, Central African Republic, and Madagascar. Nevertheless, all these cases of military and political intervention, taken in tandem, reflect not only tactical opportunism, but also clear strategic thinking. Indeed, we see a template for global expeditionary operations along with a matching force structure coming into being.
Specifically, the template consists of a Russian force structure combining Russian regular forces, including Special Forces, as a command and control centre that integrates these regular Russian army, navy, air, and air defence forces as needed, private military companies (PMCs) like Wagner, intelligence assets from the GRU or FSB, or who are linked to these PMCs, irregulars or paramilitary forces, or regular forces in the host country. And this template can then be adjusted or tailored to the specific requirements of the theatre in question while, in the meantime, political operations like election-rigging, intervention and information warfare campaigns in these countries, active measures, and influence operations can occur simultaneously. Thus, Moscow uses Africa to conduct the military equivalent of a laboratory test to verify this emerging new paradigm of foreign wars and crate its own conventional global expeditionary forces.

Russia`s African Laboratory

But these deployments, taken together, suggest the implementation of a new Russian approach to Third World conflicts in which Moscow is essentially creating global expeditionary forces based on small, but integrated land, air, and air naval forces, leveraging private military forces, either insurgents or regular forces in the country, and paramilitaries as in Syria to effectuate pro-Russian political change and resist supposedly Western organised colour revolutions. Essentially, Moscow is now developing in its “African laboratory” techniques first used in Syria to suppress what it perceives as “colour revolutions” against its interests throughout the Third World and/or Europe or to launch its own uprisings on behalf of pro-Russian forces and leaders. In this “laboratory” it is developing a new formula for a global Russian and pro-Russian expeditionary forces melding both Russian and indigenous, regular, private, and irregular forces integrated by Russian command and control centres.

Putin has revived relations with Egypt, which were already very good in Soviet times. Egypt is now one of the strongest Russian allies in Africa. Depicted is a meeting between Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on 11 December 2017. (Photo: Kremlin)

In conformity to this evolving template we see not only intensified efforts to sell African states Russian weapons, but also efforts to lay the basis for expanded joint military operations with them and for projecting Russian military power to Africa. In November 2019, the South African, Russian, and Chinese navies conducted joint exercises off the coast of South Africa for “joint actions to ensure safety of shipping and maritime economic activity”. Similarly, Egyptian paratroopers have participated in annual joint exercises with Russian and other foreign troops in Russia and Egypt since 2017. And as part of this evolving template or concept of operations Russia is also learning how to project power to Africa if necessary. For example, Tu-160 strategic nuclear-capable bombers and their support aircraft flew to South Africa in October 2019 as part of a “diplomatic deployment not unlike a similar earlier deployment in 2018 to Venezuela.

All these activities are intended to give flesh to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s earlier statement that the Russian armed forces are now capable of performing remote missions. In view of the sustained improvement of Russian military and weapons capabilities over the last decade this observation is not merely an apercu but very likely a policy statement. Certainly it conforms to Shoigu’s 2014 statement about the Russian Navy’s global aspirations. At the same time as Moscow was first occupying Crimea, Shoigu proclaimed on 26 February 2014, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced progress in talks with eight governments to establish a global network of airbases to extend the reach of Russia’s long-range maritime and strategic aviation assets and thus increase Russia’s global military presence. Shoigu stated, “We are working actively with the Seychelles, Singapore, Algeria, Cyprus, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and even in some other countries. We are in talks and close to a result.” Shoigu cited Russia’s need for refuelling bases near the equator and that “It is imperative that our navy has the opportunities for replenishment.” And in May 2014, Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov announced that Russia is negotiating to establish support facilities in unspecified Middle Eastern countries, although we can guess that Syria, Cyprus, and Egypt are the most likely ones. These moves show why Russia’s domination of the Black Sea is critical for power projection into the Mediterranean and Middle East. Thus, Russia’s activities in and around the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean comprise parts of a larger, even global anti-American and anti-NATO ambition where naval forces and contingencies play a significant role.

The Russian Navy`s “Ocean Strategy”

In a recent speech the CINC of the Navy, Admiral Viktor Chirkov referred to the Navy’s “ocean strategy” and the large-scale procurement campaign underway to realize this vision. According to Chirkov, the aim of this strategy is “to ensure the state’s interests and the security of its maritime economic activity in the various regions of the seven seas.” Clearly the aspiration is for a global ocean-going naval capability. While the first mission might be homeland defence, naval tasks obviously will far transcend that requirement which is all the Russian navy could effectively do after 1991. Along with the invocation of this strategy, Chirkov outlined a programme to build the capabilities and infrastructure necessary to sustain it: a new carrier, nuclear powered destroyers, frigates and corvettes, and air capabilities.

Given the constraints on shipbuilding, which are formidable and of long standing, i.e entrenched in the system, this can clearly only be a long-term strategy. But if we look at Africa as well as the Middle East, we see real strides being made to realise this vision. In Sudan, Omar Bashir offered Russia a base in return for support against his opponents. This fell through but Moscow is still trying. Somaliland and Eritrea have, however, offered Moscow bases that it now uses. Moreover, there is no doubt that it seeks bases in Alexandria, Egypt in general, Libya, Algeria and probably across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Moreover, the quest for bases also encompasses army bases, not just air and naval bases as in the aforementioned cases. Certainly Moscow appears to be on the verge of obtaining a base in the CAR supposedly at the request of its government. Since “power projection activities are an input into the world order,” Russia’s activities clearly represent an effort to bring African governments into a pro-Russian position on major issues in world politics and crate lasting spheres or a sphere of influence there. Indeed, Russian commentators do not refrain from proclaiming Russia’s objectives and perspectives. For example, the expert Andrew Korybko writes that, Russia’s dispatch of specialists to the Congo Republic (Congo-Brazzaville) in order to maintain military equipment completes Moscow’s plan of creating a corridor of influence across the continent from the Sudanese Red Sea coast to the Congolese Atlantic one via the Central African Republic, which therefore greatly increases the chances that it will ultimately succeed with its grand strategy of becoming the supreme Afro-Eurasian “balancing” force in the New Cold War.

Thus Russia’s presence in Africa aims to reinforce the sources of its domestic elites’ wealth and power, influence African states to follow Russia’s lead and example, and support its policies like the UN. Russia also seeks to corrupt African elites and states and where necessary degrade governance across the continent while also creating conditions for more violence and more foreign military intervention. Those policies also aim to gain leverage on African air, ground, and naval bases to challenge Europe and NATO in the Mediterranean and the West in key waterways like it and the Red Sea. Moscow also seeks to weaponise the Muslim migration issue by its activities and influence here. And it also clearly seeks leverage upon energy sales to Europe, Africa’s natural market. Given the orchestration of all the admittedly limited instruments at its disposal and its now constant efforts to improve its capacities for operating in Africa, including the use of information warfare, influence operations, and so called active measures, it is the height of recklessness or of wilful blindness to grasp the rudiments of strategy to suggest that Russia not only cannot compete in Africa or pose a strategic challenge to the West. In fact, it already does so here as France and the US can attest. And it fully intends to do even more to destabilise the international order and retain a lasting influence in Africa.

Dr. Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is the author of numerous foreign policy-related articles, white papers and monographs, specifically focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former MacArthur Fellow at the US Army War College.