Russia’s engagement with Africa: Understanding mutual Russia-Africa interests in an era of global competition
Russia appears to have returned en force to Africa decades after the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia’s presence is particularly pronounced, and increasingly problematic for states like France and the US in places like Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR). Moscow’s return, however, has been welcomed by many Africans who view Moscow as a useful alternative to former colonial powers, as well as the US and China. The 2019 Russia-Africa summit, held in Sochi, was attended by 43 African states. Russian President Vladimir Putin emphasized the offer of Russian aid and trade deals “without political or other conditions” in contrast to what he termed the West’s “pressure, intimidation and blackmail of sovereign African governments.”
Russia has a lot to offer, and its engagement is based primarily around the sale of defense articles and technology, such as nuclear power generation. Its close ties with sympathetic African political elite in Congo Brazzaville, Mali, and South Africa are also instrumental, and some Africans feel a special affinity for Russia on account of their Soviet-era education. Nevertheless, while the Sochi summit may have been intended to showcase Russia's revitalized engagement with the continent, it may also have been its zenith. The outbreak of the war in Ukraine, in which Russia’s reputation has fared poorly, has certainly put a dent in Moscow’s ability to project power and influence on the continent. In addition, sub-Saharan Africa has become a second front in the rivalry between Russia and the West, with states like France taking an increasingly hard line against Moscow and its African friends. Given the importance of Russia in Africa in terms of the continent’s future trajectory as well as global distributions of power, this article identifies the main drivers of Russian policy in sub-Saharan Africa and gauges their chances for success.
Sub-Saharan Africa: The competition
Mounting rivalries, alignments, and shifting distributions of power on a global level have characterized the past two decades. With the end of the brief era of US unipolarity at the dawn of the new millennium, the international order has shifted precipitously. This has entailed the emergence of a coalition of status quo powers composed of the US, Japan, and multiple European states such as the UK, the Netherlands, and France, whose leaders argue they are attempting to protect a rules-based international order. On the other side are the so-called revisionist powers, foremost China as well as Russia, which seek to exploit the opportunity spaces that have opened up as US power is felt (correctly or not) to have declined.
In this picture, Africa has become, or has returned, to being a highly competitive arena that in some ways mirrors that seen during the Cold War. Former colonial powers – the UK, Italy, and France – as well as the US and Japan now compete for influence with newer actors like China, the Gulf states, and Turkey. Although the body of literature concerning the involvement of these extra-regional actors has mushroomed, some issues remain poorly investigated. Among these is the revival of Russian interest in Africa. This quiet phenomenon has engendered more interest by analysts and the media only in the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. However, Moscow's recent moves in Africa are rooted in a strategy designed and launched some years ago.
Behind Moscow’s choice to increase its presence on the continent are increasing global competition and its desire to secure access to the mineral resources and strategic nodes (ports and other dual-use critical infrastructure sites) across Africa. From the geopolitical point of view, Russia sees Africa as a key potential partner in the vision for a multipolar world order or, at least, one where the US and the West are relegated to a lesser role.
To revitalize relations with the continent, Moscow has launched a strategy characterized by two features. First, its engagement is carried out by state actors, state-backed conglomerates, and politically connected private businesses. Second, Moscow’s engagement is aimed at exploiting the interest of African leaders in the Russian defense and security sector – to include the deployment of theoretically non-state armed actors for security purposes – as well as Russian expertise in propaganda and media control.
Resources, energy and defense
The 2019 Russia-Africa summit, as noted, revitalized and was symbolic of renewed Russian interests in Africa. The summit attempted to highlight the complementarity between the often overlapping and mutual strategic interests of Moscow and various African capitals. On the one hand, many African elites see Russia as an alternative partner to the West as well as China. On the other hand, Russia welcomes these in order to exploit its own interests on the continent, interests that are driven primarily by natural resources and energy as well as security and defense.
In working with African states to further their own natural resource exploitation efforts or security goals, Moscow hopes to increase its strategic footprint across Africa. To accomplish this, Russia has adopted a “loose strategy” that involves various public and private actors. Indicative of this approach are Russians like Igor Morozov, a Senator in Russia’s Duma, a former FSB colonel, and a well-known figure to Russia’s Africa diplomats as well as in African capitals. Morozov knows Africa well, reportedly having served in political and military/intelligence missions during the Cold War in places like Ethiopia, Djibouti, and South Africa. He now heads Russia’s official body for African political and economic engagement as well as Russia-Africa summits, AFROCOM. This was set up to further Russian interests in Africa and Morozov is reportedly charged with facilitating access to African markets for Russian companies. Morozov has strong ties to the Kremlin and thus can count on Putin’s support for projects that may, for example, open certain African markets to Russian industry to exploit the continent’s natural resources. These include Russian industrial giants – such as Lukoil and Gazprom in hydrocarbons; and Rusal, Nord Gold, and Uralchen in mining – that possess the know-how, expertise, and strong backing from the Kremlin to explore, exploit, and export oil, gas and minerals. In turn, this fills the coffers of African leaders and increases resource exploitation efficiencies.
Beyond energy and mining, in which it has won major concessions (Mozambique, Nigeria), Russia has interests in some resources it lacks, such as bauxite, manganese, diamonds, and chromium. Russia also wishes to increase its own gold reserves, which have become depleted due to the Ukraine War that began in February 2022. Moscow also sees the African nuclear sector as promising. Rwanda, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Nigeria have all entered talks to build and/or purchase Russian-built nuclear power plants.
Reflecting some of its Soviet-era, Cold War engagement strategies, Moscow has used people like Morozov. But it has also started to use its status as a weapons and security provider as a vector to increase its influence in Africa. Moscow utilizes three primary mechanisms to do so: security agreements, arms sales, and the use of private military companies. For instance, Russia has signed security agreements with more than twenty African countries over the past ten years. In addition, it has made efforts to increase the level of information sharing between Moscow and African capital such as Bamako and Khartoum.
Officially, the strengthening of intelligence ties is presented as necessary to boost the fight against international security threats. The agreements, however, allow Russia to access sensitive information and data concerning the activities of other international players in the region. To African countries, on the other hand, the intelligence sharing relationship entails Russian advice and tools vis-à-vis media control, propaganda, and disinformation campaigns used for both internal African-state issues as well as for Moscow’s own international purposes. In the months leading up to the outbreak of the Ukraine conflict, for example, Russia exploited African information networks to spread misinformation and anti-Western content. By doing so, Russia hopes to exploit African misunderstandings or rifts with Western actors. Moscow can avoid most of the blame for this because it outsources its activities to a host of non-state actors, which limits risks as well as costs.
Russia has been able to exploit the demand for defense articles in Africa for three primary reasons. First, there are few export controls on Russian arms and Moscow will generally sell weaponry to willing buyers – regardless of messy political and security dynamics in states such Ethiopia, Mali, and Libya. As a result, the sale of defense articles is faster and encounters far fewer restrictions (if any) than arms from Western countries. Second, Moscow has created a system of financing and low-interest loans that helps to facilitate the African the purchase of Russian-made weapons by a variety of African states. Third, Russian military components are in demand on account of their compatibility with old Soviet-made equipment long held by the armed forces of many African countries.
Russia has exploited recent conflicts to increase the sale and supply of its weapons. This has happened in both Mali and Nigeria, where Russia offered deep discounts for its arms. In Cameroon and CAR, Moscow offered certain weapons for free. Sales of combat aircraft such as SU-30K fighters (Angola), anti-tank missiles (Mali), MI-35 (Nigeria), and Mi-171SH (Burkina Faso) as well as helicopter sales are also on the rise. Cameroon has launched an official request to acquire the Russian Pantsir-S1 defense system. These strategies propelled Russia to the top spot as Africa’s main arms supplier in 2020, accounting for a whopping 49% of total arms exports, according to the database of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Russia's security approach to Africa, and its attempts to remedy its lack of military bases, includes the usage – albeit unofficial – of private military and security companies (PMSCs). The most famous and illustrative case of outsourcing in security is the Wagner Group. Due to its reportedly close ties with the Kremlin, the Wagner Group works as an extension of the Russian security establishment. As the cases of CAR and Mali show, PMSCs like Wagner allow Russia to increase its political influence at minimal cost in terms of resources. Moreover, their use as Moscow's proxy actors reduces accountability and political costs. Indeed, PMSCs escape the accountability that applies to regular armed forces. Further, Wagner does not comply with regulations or international standards on security consultancy. This has resulted in numerous reports of abuse and threats toward civilians, as seen by Wagner's violations in the CAR.
The Wagner Group’s effectiveness is questionable, however, as the case of Mozambique shows. The Wagner Group’s 2019-2020 intervention in Cabo Delgado alongside Mozambican forces to counter the threat of the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar Al-Sunna turned into a bloody debacle and Wagner-linked fighters quickly withdrew. Wagner's failure was determined, in part, by the mercenaries’ unwillingness (or inability) to understand the local environment and cooperate with local forces. While some Russian advisers and military personnel remained in Mozambique, their role is marginal and counter-insurgency operations have been led by the Rwandan Defence Force since mid-2021.
An uncertain future
Russia operates in Africa as an opportunist power, exploiting spaces left by Western players due to specific strategic choices or tensions with local governments. At the same time, Moscow exploits certain areas of the defense and security sector to reinforce the indigenous regimes regardless of their democratic or non-democratic character. Russia's actions enhance its political and security acumen in Africa and support the Kremlin’s propaganda campaign – which it seems to believe itself – that it remains a global power. Nevertheless, despite the strengths Russia possesses in its Africa engagement strategies, structural and systemic factors are chipping away at Russian power, both within and without. Russia is a diminished power and a shadow of its Soviet-era self. The fact that Moscow chooses to rely on PMSCs like the Wagner Group, rather than being construed as a sign of strength – or that “Russia has returned to Africa” – should be understood as indicative of its weakness. Russia’s war with Ukraine has only exacerbated these vulnerabilities. Soldiers affiliated with PMSCs are being recalled for active duty in Ukraine rather than opportunistic adventures in Africa. Russia’s arms sales have also taken a beating. Because Russian weaponry has been found, in the main, to be wanting in Ukraine, states that have traditionally bought Russian weaponry are now questioning the very rationale of doing so. In addition, even if they wanted to continue buying, Russian arms are in short supply because Moscow needs them for its war. Added to this litany of woes are economic sanctions and Russia's suspension from global financial systems. While it is too early to count Russia out, the cumulative effect will almost certainly temper Russia’s return to and leverage in Africa.
 Evan Gershkovich, “At Russia's Inaugural Africa Summit, Moscow Sells Sovereignty,” Moscow Times, October 26, 2019, http://bitly.ws/yx8f.
 Brendon J. Cannon and Kei Hakata eds., Indo-Pacific Strategies: Navigating Geopolitics at the Dawn of a New Age (Routledge, 2022). See also, Ash Rossiter and Brendon J. Cannon, “Conflict and Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific: New Geopolitical Realities,” in Conflict and Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific (Routledge, 2020): pp. 1-11.
 Brendon J. Cannon and Ash Rossiter, “Patterns of External Involvement in the Modern Political History of the Horn of Africa States,” in The Gulf States and the Horn of Africa (Manchester University Press, 2022): pp. 15-35.
 Jobson Ewalefoh, “The New Scramble for Africa,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Africa and the Changing Global Order (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020): pp. 309-322. For Gulf-Turkey-Africa engagement, see Federico Donelli and Brendon J. Cannon, “Power Projection of Middle East States in the Horn of Africa: Linking Security Burdens with Capabilities,” Small Wars & Insurgencies (2022): pp. 1-21, https://doi.org/10.1080/09592318.2021.1976573; and Brendon J. Cannon and Federico Donelli, “Asymmetric Alliances and High Polarity: Evaluating Regional Security Complexes in the Middle East and Horn of Africa,” Third World Quarterly 41, no. 3 (2020): pp. 505-524, https://doi.org/10.1080/01436597.2019.1693255.
 İnan Rüma, “Russia in the ‘New Scramble for Africa’: A New Search for Leadership?” in Routledge Handbook of Conflict Response and Leadership in Africa (Routledge, 2020): pp. 172-185. See also János Besenyő, “The Africa Policy of Russia,” Terrorism and Political Violence 31, no. 1 (2019): pp. 132-153, https://doi.org/10.1080/09546553.2018.1555976.
 Cayley Clifford, “The Bear Is Back: Russian Re-engagement with Africa Is Picking Up with Putin in the Driving Seat,” South African Institute of International Affairs, July 8, 2021, http://bitly.ws/yxdX.
 Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom has long insisted on increasing its presence in the African market. See Kester Kenn Klomegah, “Rosatom Empowering Africa,” Modern Diplomacy, April 3, 2021, http://bitly.ws/yxiF; and also Luanda Mpungose, “Russia’s Plans to Develop Africa’s Energy Sector,” ISPI, November 15, 2019, http://bitly.ws/yxiU.
 Paul Stronski, “Late to the Party: Russia’s Return to Africa,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 16, 2019, http://bitly.ws/yxj7.