Demonstrators lift Burkinabè and Russian flags after Burkina Faso’s second 2022 coup. (Photo: /AFP/Getty Images Issouf Sanogo)

Moscow’s rising ambitions on the continent are stoking tensions with the West. But the shifting politics of Russia’s Wagner Group mercenaries and fallout from the war in Ukraine could change the calculus.

Introduction

Russian influence has been gaining ground across Africa in recent years, placing the continent at the crux of the growing geopolitical contest between the Kremlin and the White House. U.S. officials say Russia’s efforts to develop a “multipolar” world order, its deployment of disinformation, and its use of mercenaries have undermined democratic stability and driven conflict on the continent. Russian economic and military involvement in Africa still pales in comparison to that of both China and the West. Yet, amid the upheaval of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some African governments, such as South Africa, are moving closer to Moscow. 

Analysts say this shift can be attributed to long-standing frustration with the failures of Western intervention and to many African countries’ simmering resentment over a lack of representation in international institutions. It also stems from a growing desire to avoid choosing sides between major powers, a mindset many Africans see as a relic of the Cold War–era. Experts argue that to effectively stem Russia’s growing influence, the United States and Europe need to build on previous diplomatic efforts and seek more equal partnerships with African nations, pointing to the renewed efforts of the Joe Biden administration to prioritize African agency in global frameworks.

Why does Russian involvement in Africa matter?

Some analysts say that Moscow’s increasing ambitions to position itself as an ally to African countries and stoke anti-Western sentiment could turn the continent into a flash point in the global strategic competition between Russia and the West. They warn that Russia’s support of authoritarian governments, including its backing of a string of coups in recent years, is undermining Africa’s democratic aspirations. Meanwhile, the involvement of Russian private military companies (PMCs) is driving conflict, worsening human rights abuses, and spurring a growing militarization of governance. 

On the economic side, Russia’s interest in the continent’s vast resources will have repercussions for important supply chains, including for some of the technologies at the center of the global push for a clean-energy future. At the same time, the ongoing fallout over the war in Ukraine has threatened Africa’s access to crucial Russian commodities, portending looming challenges to food and energy security.

How does Russia see its interests on the continent?

Moscow pursues a combination of military, diplomatic, and economic interests in Africa. Militarily, Russia mostly focuses on weapons trade, but it is also seeking to expand its operational footprint, including by signing agreements for new military bases. Still, Russia’s official military presence on the ground is currently limited to an agreement to eventually establish a naval port in Sudan.

Diplomatically, Russia’s overarching goal is to gain more support for its vision of a multipolar world order based on weakened Western influence. At the United Nations, it lobbies African allies for favorable votes on issues such as the Ukraine conflict and works to sow distrust with UN peacekeeping missions and other multilateral efforts. Experts say that Moscow looks to Africa to show that Russia is not an international pariah, despite ongoing Western sanctions against it.

Economically, Russia is not a powerhouse in Africa: less than 1 percent of the country’s foreign direct investment goes to the African continent, and its $18 billion in trade with African countries lags far behind the United States’ $64 billion [PDF] and China’s $254 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service. However, accessing valuable natural resources, such as gold, diamonds, uranium, and oil, remains a priority. And amid increasing global demand for the inputs necessary for alternative energies and advanced technologies, Africa’s vast reserves of critical minerals motivate Moscow’s efforts as well. 

To accomplish these goals, analysts say Russia uses its favored strategy of working through low-cost intermediaries, including PMCs or local political allies. Its rhetoric relies on so-called memory diplomacy to tap into lingering anti-colonial sentiment, often using disinformation campaigns to discredit pro-Western forces and frame itself as a better partner than the West.

What is Russia’s history there? 

Though the Russian Empire was not a prominent player in the nineteenth-century “scramble for Africa,” the sweeping colonization of the continent by European powers, it pursued various goals there, starting with seeking trade access to Indian Ocean ports and spreading the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church.

That involvement grew during the Cold War, as the Soviet Union sought to pull newly independent African countries into its orbit. Soviet foreign policy focused on building relationships with sympathetic socialist or non-aligned countries across Africa, as well as supporting local communist political parties and military insurgencies. The latter included sending weapons, advisors, and other aid to allies in the civil wars in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Moscow also formed a close relationship with South Africa’s anti-apartheid African National Congress (ANC), the country’s ruling party since 1994, a relationship that continues today

What is the role of the Wagner Group and other private military companies?

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow had to scale back its ambitions in Africa. In recent years, Russian diplomacy there has become increasingly intertwined with PMCs, also known as mercenary groups, which originated with ex-Soviet troops who independently offered their services to African governments. The most prominent of today’s Russian PMCs, the Wagner Group, was born out of previous outfits [PDF] deployed to Syria in 2013 and Crimea after 2014. 

These groups offer the Kremlin both flexibility and deniability. They are technically illegal under Russian law, which allows the government to deny any connection to their activity. As private companies, they cost the Russian treasury nothing—important especially while Russia is strapped for resources in its costly war against Ukraine—and any loss of life is not reported publicly. However, the groups’ activities are widely linked to human rights abuses, and critics say they disseminate disinformation and worsen existing civil conflicts.

Wagner mostly provides security assistance to local governments, offering troops, weapons, training, and political consulting. In exchange, it profits off of access to local industries and natural resources. Wagner’s first African operations began in Sudan in 2017, and the group quickly expanded to the Central African Republic (CAR) and Madagascar in 2018, Libya and Mozambique in 2019, and Mali in 2020. In the Libyan civil war, for instance, Wagner threw its weight behind the forces of warlord General Khalifa Haftar, shifting momentum in his favor and securing Russian access to Libya’s oil fields.

But Wagner’s self-interest does not always align with that of the Kremlin. Most notably, an attempted coup against the Russian government staged by Wagner’s founder and chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, led to his death in an August 2023 plane crash and prompted widespread questions over the mercenary group’s future. Russian officials indicated swiftly after Prigozhin’s death that they would be assuming the reins over Wagner, though experts note that this could mean the Kremlin loses its plausible deniability; meanwhile, the group is allegedly still undergoing reorganization. They say that Burkina Faso and Niger could be Wagner’s next post-Prigozhin targets, with each possessing unstable governments that Wagner could exploit.

How does that compare to Russia’s formal diplomatic efforts?

Official relations between the Kremlin and African counterparts are modest, but growing. In addition to seeking military bases, Moscow has inked military cooperation agreements with at least nineteen African countries since 2014. These generally involve supplying arms and equipment, with some military training, intelligence sharing, and other cooperation. 

The war in Ukraine has accelerated the Kremlin’s efforts to tilt Africa in its favor—Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has ramped up visits to African countries since 2022, underscoring Russia’s concern over its growing isolation. Moscow’s aims are varied: It has drawn close to Egypt in an attempt to influence the Libyan conflict and bolster access to North African and Mediterranean oil reserves. It has also given diplomatic support to countries such as Ethiopia and Uganda, which both face international criticism over human rights issues.

One of Russia’s most notable political bonds is with South Africa. Beyond Russia’s historical ties to the ANC, both countries belong to the BRICS group (referring to the group of emerging economies established by Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), a negotiating bloc that seeks to build a diplomatic alternative to Western-dominated institutions. Moscow also has economic goals in its partnership with Pretoria, such as in mining. “There’s a sort of synergy around Russia’s desire to see a dismantling of the post–World War II order that no longer really privileges them beyond their Security Council veto, and African desires to see reform of multilateral institutions which were created before most African states even existed,” CFR Senior Fellow Michelle Gavin says. 

Beyond the focus on the BRICS, other attempts at regional diplomacy have been mixed. The Kremlin launched a Russia-Africa Summit in 2019, convening the summit again in 2023 even as it also clashed with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) over the bloc’s intervention in Niger’s July 2023 military coup.

How has the war in Ukraine shaped Russia-Africa relations?

The global ripple effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, coming on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, have battered already struggling African economies. Many of them rely on Russia and Ukraine for critical imports, such as wheat, fertilizers, and steel, and disruptions in the supply have sent prices soaring. 

This reliance on imports underpins an unwillingness to join Western sanctions against Russia, which many African countries see as counterproductive. Indeed, Russian fossil fuel exports to Africa in 2023 skyrocketed to fourteen times pre-invasion levels as the country’s producers sought ways around the sanctions regime. 

Despite opposition to the invasion from the African Union (AU) and many individual African capitals, more than half the continent has abstained from UN resolutions condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Some countries, including Burkina Faso and Mali, support Russia more directly, citing what they see as their marginalization in global fora and their experience of harmful Western intervention. The United States has also accused South Africa, which claims neutrality in the conflict in Ukraine, of supplying arms to Russia, a contention that South Africa denies. South Africa’s hosting of both the BRICS and African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) forums in Johannesburg in 2023 further heightened tensions: U.S. lawmakers pressed unsuccessfully to move the venues, while Putin skipped the BRICS summit amid fears that he would be arrested over his International Criminal Court warrant for alleged war crimes in Ukraine. 

“For African countries that have long complained about being trampled upon by the bigger powers in the system, the expectation was that many would automatically pitch their tents with Ukraine as opposed to Russia,” says CFR Senior Fellow Ebenezer Obadare. But after years of being “dictated to rather imperiously by the United States and other Western countries,” he says, siding with Russia serves as a “reminder that African countries are able to play [the political] game as astutely as any other.”  

Some leaders on the continent seem to have come to regret welcoming Russia in, including Libya’s Haftar, who claims that Wagner’s forces were ultimately ineffectual. Attendance at the 2023 Russia-Africa Summit also dropped precipitously compared to the previous one. Still, Obadare says, that trend can be overstated: the pillars of the Kremlin’s support, including Eritrea and South Africa, have remained steadfast.

How have other countries responded?

Russia’s spreading influence in Africa has raised alarm in some outside countries, while others are eyeing the potential benefits. 

Many experts see China, generally agnostic on the internal politics of its partners, as unlikely to play a role in constraining Russia. The two countries share a desire to edge out the West, allowing for their coexistence on the continent, and Russia’s dependence on China has only grown amid Western sanctions. China has its own PMCs to secure access to minerals, and while they don’t work together, Wagner’s military interventions could open the door for China to extend business to additional unstable countries. Nonetheless, some analysts say divisions will likely persist. Competition over Africa’s resources could eventually become a fault line between Beijing and Moscow, and China’s emphasis on maintaining stability above all else could conflict with Russia’s attempts to foment instability, Gavin says.   

The United States and the European Union, meanwhile, see Russia’s assertiveness as a threat to Africa’s stability. They have imposed sanctions directly on the Wagner Group, and the United States has sanctioned several African individuals and entities for their Wagner connections. U.S. officials have also pushed back on African countries attempting to circumvent Western sanctions on Russian goods. 

But analysts say such pressure could be counterproductive, as many African countries do not want to be forced to choose sides in what they see as a needlessly zero-sum competition, preferring instead to keep their options open and cultivate a diverse array of relationships. Some Africans feel forgotten by Western policymakers, citing the West’s lackluster COVID-19 vaccine distribution, which resulted in major setbacks for African public health, and the unprecedented aid flows to Ukraine at levels African countries have never seen themselves. Western war aid to Ukraine “exposes the true face of the great powers’ action towards the [African] continent,” one Benin diplomatic official told AfricaNews, underscoring how Africa has been “neglected.”  

Others point to what they see as hypocrisy in Western condemnations of Russia; Western countries also deploy PMCs across the continent, which has led the AU to call for the “complete exclusion of mercenaries from the African continent.” Resentment toward former colonizers such as France also lingers, generating skepticism over Western counterinsurgency efforts. Gavin also points to failed U.S. security efforts in the Sahel and broader African frustration over the lack of reform in multilateral institutions as pain points in U.S.-Africa relations. 

Obadare similarly argues that the United States should instead focus on listening to African ambitions. Washington has pursued an array of aid and trade programs in recent decades, such as the 2000 African Growth and Opportunity Act, a preferential trade agreement, and the 2003 President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). While the Donald Trump administration largely overlooked Africa, President Joe Biden has worked to strengthen relationships with African leaders; in 2022, he unveiled a new U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa [PDF], with goals including democracy protection, economic growth, pandemic recovery, and a just energy transition. He has also hosted a U.S.-Africa Summit, championed the AU’s membership in the Group of Twenty (G20), and pledged to provide the continent with $55 billion in aid and investments in 2022–2025, a step up from the U.S. average of less than $8 billion annually [PDF] over the past decade. 

However, experts say there is still a long way to go. “Where possible,” Obadare says, “[the U.S. should] continue to invest in democratic stabilization and in boosting free enterprise across the continent, and continue to show respect for the agency of African countries and African leaders.”

Source: CFR  by Mariel Ferragamo

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