Arms, investment and ‘instructors’: Russia boosts Africa role

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Image: Getty Images

Touting military cooperation and “instructors,” arms deals and investment, Russia is making a comeback in Africa after years of inactivity and now aims to rival European countries and even China, analysts say.

Moscow has worked hard over the last three years to strengthen its position in Africa, a pace that seems to have accelerated in recent months, they say. Its effort is most prominent in the Central African Republic (CAR), a grindingly poor and unstable country that traditionally has turned to the former colonial power France for help.

Since the start of the year, Russia has supplied weapons to the CAR army after gaining UN authorisation to do so and provides security for President Faustin-Archange Touadera, whose security advisor is Russian. It has also sent five military officers and 170 civilians as “instructors” for CAR’s armed forces, even though its troops are already being trained by the European Union.

Experts believe the “instructors” could be from a shadowy mercenary group named Wagner whose forces are reportedly fighting in Syria — three Russian journalists were killed in the CAR last month while investigating their activities.

Elsewhere, Russia is shipping arms to Cameroon for its fight with Boko Haram jihadists and forged military partnerships with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burkina Faso, Uganda and Angola and cooperation on nuclear power with Sudan. It is also working with Zimbabwe’s and Guinea’s mining industries — sectors where China is an emerging force in Africa.

Africa remains “at the bottom” of Russia’s foreign policy priorities, but is “starting to gain more importance,” said Dmitry Bondarenko of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Since 2014 and the annexation of Crimea, Russia is in confrontation with the West and openly demonstrates its desire to become a global power once again. Therefore it can’t ignore this part of the globe.” But the interest, he argued, is less for economic gain and more for “political advancement“.

The Soviet Union maintained a very strong presence in Africa as part of its ideological war against the West, backing African liberation movements and sending tens of thousands of advisors to countries that had ended colonial rule. But the collapse of the Soviet Union, economic problems and internal conflicts in Russia during the 1990s caused Moscow to abandon its African projects.

Lack of funds meant many embassies and consulates closed, aid programmes were cut short and ties drastically reduced. A decade or so ago, the Kremlin started to rebuild its old networks and gradually return to the continent, seeking new partners as ideological concerns gave way to contracts and arms deals. President Vladimir Putin began the process with visits to Algeria, South Africa and Morocco — the countries that, with Egypt, it had traditionally had close ties.

His successor for one term, Dmitry Medvedev, visited Angola, Namibia and Nigeria, pitching for business with a delegation of 400 people. This year, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov toured five African countries, Putin flew to Johannesburg for a BRICS summit that was also attended by Angola, Rwanda, Senegal and Uganda, and Russia showcased African business at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum.

For some African countries, improved ties with Russia are attractive, enabling them to play the competition card with Europe and China, say commentators. It means “having another partner, that is, another channel for investment and development and the support of a country that’s powerful on the international scene,” said politics expert Yevgeny Korendyasov, a former Soviet and Russian ambassador to several African countries.

In addition, Russia has none of Europe’s colonial burden in Africa — something that may appeal to African countries, where many top officials received university education in the Soviet Union. The CAR seems to be the first example of the benefits of Putin’s shift.

During the Cold War, the country was never close to the Kremlin, but it now eyes Russia to help its troops roll back the militias who control most of the country’s territory. “Before, the countries that the West did not want to cooperate with, such as Sudan or Zimbabwe, could only turn to China,” said Bondarenko.

“Now Russia is presenting itself as a tangible alternative.” This new situation “could perceptibly change the geopolitical order on the continent.” 

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