Russia in Africa: Resurgent great power or bellicose pretender?

14th December 2022 By: South African Institute of International Affairs

 Russia in Africa: Resurgent great power or bellicose pretender?

A review of Samuel Ramani’s forthcoming book that examines Russia's engagements in Africa for every post-Cold War Russian administration.

The Disruptor – A recent history of Russia in Africa

It is said that concerns by former French President Jacques Chirac on the need to contain the United States as it expanded its role in Africa in the late 1990s prompted French backchannel communications with Russia, lamenting Moscow’s retrenchment from the region in the decade following the Cold War. Responding, in part, to such prodding from French officials, Russian President Vladmir Putin began elevating Africa’s place in Moscow’s foreign policy in 2001.

This anecdote is just one of the many revelations captured in Samuel Ramani’s captivating book, Russia in Africa: Resurgent Great Power or Bellicose Pretender? The irony, of course, is that today Russia is actively undermining French relationships on the continent with a relentless disinformation campaign blaming France for a litany of security and economic travails facing its former colonies. The ensuing vacuum of external partners is one Moscow has been happy to fill.

Ramani’s work is impressively researched with nearly 1 400 references drawing from English, French, Russian, and Arabic sources and first-hand interviews. By providing a detailed review of Russia’s engagements in Africa for every post-Cold War Russian administration, the book will be a rich resource for years to come. At times reading like a spy novel, the prose is accessible, yet dispassionately narrated. With extended cases from some dozen African countries, the study provides indispensable context and sequencing to the often complex and opaque events defining Russia’s relationships in Africa. As with any historical work of this breadth, the narrative at times relies on generalisations and the skimming over of alternate explanations for the outcomes observed. Nonetheless, the book fills a major gap in the literature and will elevate readers’ understanding of Russia’s engagements on the continent.

Putin’s strategy to maximise Russian influence

Having few enduring ties on the continent and an economy roughly a 30th the size of that of the European Union in 2000, the strategy that Putin settled on was to be a disruptor – in line with his vision of a multipolar international system. Russia’s focus would be anti-Western, anti–democratic, counter-coloured revolutions, and, over time, anti-UN.

Drawing on the tactics and policies initially formulated by Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov in the late 1990s, Putin’s strategy was intended to carve out a Russian sphere of influence in an otherwise competitive geostrategic landscape for Moscow. In practical terms, this mostly entailed partnerships with ostracised authoritarian regimes who welcomed Moscow’s explicit rejection of democratic and human rights norms while offering political cover at the UN. Omar al-Bashir (Sudan), Isaias Afwerki (Eritrea), and Lasana Conté (Guinea) were early beneficiaries of Russia’s renewed interest in the continent.

Typically lacking substantial economic investment, the arrangements were presented as Russian soft power, a commitment to non-alignment, and hedging against Western dominance. They were often supported by opaque debt relief and Russian arms sales in exchange for Russian access to natural resources and key markets. Over time, Russian supported disinformation campaigns, election interference, and mercenary deployments would help keep Russia’s African allies in power.

Africa took on greater importance within Russian foreign policy calculations as Moscow sought to evade international isolation following its illegal annexation of parts of Georgia (2008) and of Crimea (2014), as well as its seizure of areas of eastern Ukraine (2014). This was dramatically amplified following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. In each case, there were enough African abstentions on critical UN resolutions to provide Moscow a veneer of validation.

Ramani’s systematic stocktaking also reveals a clear normative framework in Russia’s Africa strategy – to uphold non-democratic governance models. Western or UN sanctions against an African regime for human rights or governance violations – in Burundi, Central African Republic (CAR), Cote d’Ivoire, Libya, South Sudan, and Sudan, for example – became a signal for Moscow to obstruct (and enable the regime in question to evade) international censure and thereby gain leverage. Moscow also set out to undo nascent democratic transitions or popular revolutions (including in Algeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Egypt, Guinea, Libya, Mali, Sudan, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe). Not only would this expand the pool of potential partners for Moscow but it would lessen scrutiny of Russia as democracy was spreading across the globe.

Ramani also attributes Russia’s steadily expanding influence in Africa to US and French passivity. When Moscow saw little pushback from Washington to Russia’s military deployments and election interference in Libya, Sudan, CAR, Mali, and elsewhere, Russia assumed there was a green light for further forays on the continent. France’s ongoing behind-the-scenes cooperation with Russia in Libya, Algeria, and Egypt – despite Moscow’s aggressive anti–French messaging in West and Central Africa – sends further mixed signals.

The disruptive implications for Africa

A takeaway from Ramani’s historical review is that Putin’s view of multipolar order in Africa should not be confused with multilateralism. In fact, Russia under Putin has consistently eschewed multilateral cooperation. This contrasts with policy under Mikhail Gorbachev and the early years of Boris Yeltsin where Russia supported international condemnations of Sani Abacha in Nigeria and Muamar Qaddafi in Libya while rebooting ties with Egypt and South Africa as the latter transitioned to democracy under Nelson Mandela. Instead, Putin chose the path of demonising the West and undercutting the UN – as a means of enhancing Russia’s influence.

The costs to African sovereignty are high, though. Russia’s elite-based strategy effectively aims to revert Africa to a norm of unaccountable and repressive governance that the continent had made much progress in leaving behind since the Cold War. While ostensibly beneficial for Russian leverage, this path has been disenfranchising to hundreds of millions of Africans whose rights to select their own leaders have been frustrated. Citizen priorities – on development, creating jobs, attracting investment, and human rights – have been relegated in place of authoritarian regime consolidation. From Ramani’s narratives, one also infers the fraught nature of the murky relationships Russia has cobbled together in Africa. Once Russia intervenes in domestic politics to keep a partner in power, it can be just as inclined to play domestic actors against one another – or dismiss them altogether.

For example, now that Russia has gained access to port infrastructure, military bases and hydrocarbon fields in eastern Libya, it really does not need warlord Khalifa Haftar, the front man who provided Moscow its initial entry point to this strategically important North African country. Russia has moved on to strike deals with Haftar’s rivals in Libya, hedging Moscow’s bets. And just how does any Libyan actor reel Russia in at this point, much less ask them to depart?

In Sudan, Russia’s Wagner mercenaries have secured gold mines in the west and trafficking routes through CAR to the United Arab Emirates. In March 2022, Wagner was implicated in the killing of dozens of miners in this region along the Sudan, Chad, and CAR border. This mirrors allegations of Wagner human rights abuses in CAR and Mali. Once Russia has gained a foothold, local communities and even national authorities are intimidated into exclusion – within their own countries. This represents a form of natural resource annexation that starts under the pretext of security.

In CAR, a Russian is the national security advisor and Wagner serves as the presidential guard. Russians also have taken control of key positions at the Minister of Finance and Customs. Russian is now the third official language in the country. Reflecting on Ramani’s review, one questions the premise that Russia is intent on advancing a multipolar order. Instead, Moscow appears to be pursuing its own order – a network of client states bound to Russia. In this way, it is not so different from the Soviet model for which Putin is so nostalgic.

This may not seem like the basis of a very sustainable partnership. Prospects are bleak for economic growth and stability in each African country where Russia has gained influence. Moreover, there are bitter resentments toward Russia for actively subverting democratic transitions in places like Sudan, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Uganda, the DRC, and Zimbabwe. Public opinion surveys cited by Ramani indicate Putin and Russia are decidedly unpopular with ordinary African citizens. But under Russia’s elite co-option model, African public opinion doesn’t matter. From Moscow’s perspective, the disruption strategy is unfolding according to plan.

Original review published by Joseph Siegle (2022) Russia in Africa: Resurgent Great Power or Bellicose Pretender?, South African Journal of International Affairs, Vol 29.4, DOI: 10.1080/10220461.2022.2154832

Research by Joseph Siegle, the South African Institute of International Affairs