After a brutal disengagement from the African continent following the fall of the USSR, Russia has been working to regain its influence there since the 2000s. The country, which has a GDP equivalent to that of Spain, still trades relatively little with Africa – 10 times less than China and Europe – and does not provide much development aid either. Nevertheless, it has managed to gain some leverage, by using its best cards, even though it means playing by its own rules to achieve its goals.
Since 2018, trade between Russia and the countries of the continent has continued to increase. At the same time, diplomatic visits have increased significantly, as have the signing of bilateral agreements on strategic subjects, particularly in the military field. Moscow has become Africa’s principal wheat and arms supplier. Russian public companies are also involved in mining, hydrocarbons and even civil nuclear power.
Mercenaries and disinformation
Russia does not exert the same amount of influence everywhere. It is particularly prevalent in Libya, the CAR, Sudan and, for the past few months, Mali.
Each time, Moscow has put in place a “nimble combination of mercenary interventions and disinformation campaigns to support isolated leaders or proxies,” says Joseph Siegle, a researcher at the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies. The most recent and spectacular example is the private company Wagner deploying mercenaries in Mali.
Moreover, General Mohammed Hamdan Daglo, the Sudanese government’s number two, visited Moscow on the eve of the Ukraine invasion on 23 February. This event has given new impetus to a project that the Kremlin is keen on, which is to create a Russian naval base on the Sudanese coast, at the mouth of the highly-strategic Red Sea.
This offensive is even echoed within the UN, where Moscow has made considerable efforts to woo African “votes.” For example, the A3 (African rotating seats at the UN) and Russia were both against reviewing the DRC’s disputed election results in January 2019 and in April of that same year blocked a statement condemning the coup in Sudan and then a proposed ceasefire in Libya.
This strategy paid off. On 2 March, during the vote on the resolution “demanding that Russia immediately cease the use of force against Ukraine”, apart from Eritrea, which voted against, 16 of the 54 African countries abstained and 9 did not vote.
To better understand how Moscow, in just a few years, has managed to regain influence on the continent, we have drawn up a cross-map of Russian interests in Africa, from arms sales to the exploitation of mineral resources, including the way in which Russia relies on powerful intermediaries up to the highest level of government in certain countries.
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