Vladimir Putin has stated that Africa is one of Russia’s main foreign policy priorities. There are a number of triggers for this, increasing involvement of Western powers on the continent is one but the immense economic and strategic opportunity the continent offers may be more important. In 2018, the US ramped up its involvement in Africa to counter the influence of China and Russia, signifying Russia’s potential to benefit.
The Kremlin’s aim to build new alliances on the continent is proving to be successful. Back in 2014 they persuaded more than half of African states to oppose or abstain from the UN General Assembly’s resolution condemning the annexation of Crimea. Whilst these nations are not global players like EU states are, it is still of major significance that Russia has this support.
The recent coup in Mali is a huge blow to French diplomacy in West Africa but a triumph for the Russian Government, who were reportedly involved in the coup. Strategically this is very important, the French were heavily invested in the previous regime. This now opens opportunity for Russia to supplant French influence in the region.
Russia is a favourable ally for many African nations compared to Western powers as an alliance comes with increased abilities to manoeuvre around international rules. A tool used by many developing nations is to play the US and Russia against one another. When Washington pushes for improvements on democracy and human rights, governments threaten to increase their relationship with Russia, prompting an easing of diplomatic pressure.
It’s main export to Africa is a problematic one, its security expertise. The over reliance on private military companies, such as the Wagner Group, risks upsetting stability across the continent. Toppling reluctant governments to advance their own agenda is a fear many western states have. The Malian coup d’état is thought to be a case of just this. There have been several reports that high ranking members of the Malian army had not long got back from two months of training in Russia before the Coup. Local media outlet ‘aBamako.com’, reported that they had in fact been in Russia for more than a year. Although not confirmed, the Wagner Group were thought to be involved militarily in the coup. Having said this, the US is training the militaries of more than 20 African nations. It is hardly surprising that Russia are doing something similar.
Russia’s alleged use of mercenaries across Africa is proving an effective tool to exert influence within the region and internationally. The Wagner Group is reported to be operating alongside Russian troops in the CAR and independently in Sudan. If used in the Malian coup it provides perfect evidence of their effectiveness. The Russian state can claim innocence while benefiting diplomatically. The Kremlin has bolstered Russian presence in the region at the expense of the French because of its alleged involvement. These companies are a comparatively low cost and low risk military option increasingly used in modern conflicts.
There are clear economic incentives for involvement in Africa. Natural resources are a key part of the Russian economy and Africa is a resource rich continent. Russian companies are aggressively pursuing lucrative deals. They have a agreement to mine Bauxite in Guinea confirmed, in the process of securing a diamond mining contract in Angola and offshore gas rights in Mozambique to name just a few. The damage done to French diplomacy in West Africa also gives an advantage to Russian owned Nuclear power company, Rosatom, to invest in the region over its French counterpart, Avenda.
Russia’s push for increased ties in Africa could be in part down to the Crimea-related sanctions imposed in 2014. Traditionally they have been an arms supplier to the continent, but as has been mentioned, they are going far beyond that. It has tripled its trade from $6.6 billion in 2010 to $18.9 billion towards the end of the decade. The most important trade deals in the Sub-Saharan region are still with the US, China and India. The same trend is seen with development aid with the EU, US, China and Japan outspending Russia. It is true that Russia is increasing its influence, but currently is only tied to a handful of states that offer limited strategic importance.