Russian Theater: How to Respond to Moscow’s Return to the African Stage
This article was originally published by Lawfare on October 18, 2019.
Russia is preparing to launch its first Russia-Africa summit in Sochi on October 23-24. President Vladimir Putin and the summit co-host, Egyptian leader and African Union Chairman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, invited all of the African heads of state along with the leaders of major subregional associations and organizations. Russia almost certainly will advertise the summit as an emblem of its triumphant return to center stage in Africa. Indeed, Russian deputy minister of foreign affairs and special envoy for Middle Eastern and African Countries Mikhail Bogdanov already has proclaimed that the “Russia-Africa summit is of crowning significance following a series of events dedicated to developing our relations.” Despite the federation’s grandiose rhetoric about renewed influence in Africa, the United States should fight the temptation to elevate Russia’s standing in Africa. It should focus on countering Moscow’s expansion and closing down its malign activities in Africa, instead of wasting time and energy framing Russia’s return as part of “great power competition.”
The Russia-Africa summit is the latest in a series of maneuvers by the Kremlin to present an image of a resurgent Russia in Africa. Senior Russian leaders, including President Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin, have recently increased their security, commercial and diplomatic engagement with African counterparts to advance the Kremlin’s agenda. While Moscow is focused primarily on other regions, it regards Africa as an attractive venue to evade international sanctions imposed by Western nations and deepen ties with old and new partners while scoring points at the expense of the United States.
Part of Russia’s engagement in Africa is military in nature. The Russian military and Russian private military contractors linked to the Kremlin have expanded their global military footprint in Africa, seeking basing rights in a half dozen countries and inking military cooperation agreements with 28 African governments, according to an analysis by the Institute for the Study of War. U.S. officials estimate that around 400 Russian mercenaries operate in the Central African Republic (CAR), and Moscow recently delivered military equipment to support counterinsurgency operations in northern Mozambique. Russia is the largest arms exporter to Africa, accounting for 39 percent of arms transfers to the region in 2013-2017.
Russia also has deepened its economic ties with the continent, especially since Western sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 spurred a scramble for permissive markets and partners. In recent years, Moscow almost tripled its trade with Africa, from $6.6 billion in 2010 to $18.9 billion in 2018. In addition to selling weapons and military equipment, Russia is investing in oil, gas, and nuclear power across the continent. Moscow is also interested in African extractives, including diamonds in CAR, bauxite in Guinea, and platinum in Zimbabwe.
Finally, Russia has courted new friends and allies from Africa to insulate itself from Western condemnation of its actions and to restore its image as a global power. In 2014, Russia persuaded more than half of African governments to oppose or abstain from a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning the annexation of Crimea. It has signed deals with regional bodies, such as the Southern African Development Community, and Volodin recently courted African parliamentarians because “African countries play a prominent role in international affairs.” President Putin will undoubtedly seek to reinforce this message at the Russia-Africa summit.
Most African leaders have welcomed Russia’s renewed interest in part because it aligns with several African political, security, and economic objectives. Russia’s overtures in Africa also enable African governments to play the United States and Russia off each other: If Washington presses too hard on democracy and human rights, African nations can threaten to move closer to Moscow (and Beijing). In some cases, African leaders have used Russian backing to give legitimacy to cynical political maneuvering. In Guinea, for example, President Alpha Conde is testing the waters for a third term in office, a move not permitted under the current constitution. The Russian ambassador enthusiastically backed Conde’s bid, saying, “Constitutions aren’t dogma, the Bible, or the Koran. Constitutions adapt to reality, it’s not realities that adapt to constitutions.” The ambassador’s support of Conde was seemingly rewarded a few months later with an appo intment to lead the lucrative Guinean operations of Rusal, a large aluminum company run by Krelim-connected oligarch Oleg Deripaska. In Central African Republic (CAR), government officials have defended their close ties to Russia arguing, “We presented our problem and Russia offered to help us.” CAR president Faustin-Archange Touadera has appointed a Russian national as his national security adviser.
When African countries have reduced or cooled ties with Russia, it has been because Moscow’s coddling of corrupt leaders backfired when those heads of state fell from power. South African president Cyril Ramaphosa scuppered a deal to buy a nuclear power plant from Russia in part because it was financially dubious and negotiated by Ramaphosa’s corrupt predecessor. Sudan’s new leadership probably will keep Russia at a distance, following revelations from the London-based Dossier Center, run by exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, that deposed dictator Omar al-Bashir hired Russian specialists to smear anti-government protesters.
Russia’s return, even while at times ham-fisted and amateurish, does pose a threat to U.S. interests. Moscow’s engagement enables autocrats, fosters corruption, and sows societal discontent, especially in already-fragile African countries. Moreover, the Kremlin’s activities are designed in part to weaken U.S. leadership in the region. Leaked files from the Dossier Center indicate that Moscow’s goal is to “strong-arm” the United States and former colonial powers like the United Kingdom and France out of the region. Russia seeks to exploit the perceived U.S. retreat from Africa, presenting itself as a more reliable security partner to countries where the U.S. military is reducing its footprint. Russia has also used its own diplomatic wins with African countries to undermine successful U.S. engagement in the continent. In 2017, President Putin welcomed al-Bashir to Moscow just weeks after President Trump lifted some sanctions on Sudan. Similarly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with his Angolan counterpart, Manuel Augusto, in August following Augusto’s successful trip to Washington, D.C. Russian state media reported that in Lavrov’s meeting with Augusto, the pair discussed shared goals of “forming a fair world order, commitment to the primacy of international law and the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign states.”
In responding to these Russian threats, the United States must resist dramatics. U.S. rhetoric that Russia is a “great power” and near-peer competitor to the United States and China in Africa is not only inaccurate, but it actually advances Moscow’s goals. The Kremlin benefits when U.S. officials and international media frame its presence in Africa as a restoration of its status as a global superpower. It serves Moscow’s interest to be perceived as active and influential everywhere in Africa. Moreover, the U.S. government should be wary of hawkish pressure from observers and some national security professionals to redirect resources toward African countries for the sole purpose of countering Moscow’s influence. Not only would it be an overreaction, but it also risks signaling to other African governments that flirting with Russia will garner more attention from the United States. African elites, while publicly rejecting the “great power competition” framework, recognize that geopolitical rivalry increases their country’s strategic importance, and they expect to profit—either as a government or personally—from the surge in U.S. engagement.
There is a smarter response to Russian expansion. It requires understated and proactive diplomatic efforts to preserve U.S. interests, including peace, prosperity and responsible governance in the region. It is imperative to shut down Russia’s current rising tide of influence in Africa, especially where the Kremlin seeks to weaken ties between the United States and its partners. Below are five recommendations to curb Russian influence in Africa.
First, the U.S. government should act before the Russians. It is not hard to predict where Russia will try to expand its influence. Alexis Arieff, an Africa policy analyst at the U.S. Congressional Research Service, likened it to a Venn diagram: “Does the country have useful mineral resources, is the country ripe for challenging the influence of key western actors, is the country a market for Russian arms? Those seem to be key circles that when they overlap may lead to greater Russian interest.” To be sure, there are other factors. Russia courts countries with geopolitical clout like Nigeria and Ethiopia, states like Madagascar experiencing political strife, and governments like Mozambique and countries in the Sahel facing security threats. The United States should focus on these countries to preempt or at least minimize opportunities for Russian engagement.
Second, the United States should work rhetorically to isolate, not elevate Russia’s profile in Africa. There is no strategic value in overselling Russia’s role in Africa. Moscow remains a bit player in the region, despite its recent surge in activities. U.S. politicians and commentators should not describe it as having a starring role in the continent. Russian trade and investment, as well as security partnerships, pales in comparison to that of the United States. Last December, France demonstrated how to use clever public messaging to effectively undercut talk of Russia’s power in the region. France drafted a UN Security Council resolution to extend the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission in CAR, but it made no direct reference to Russia’s efforts there. Paris’s move aggravated Moscow, spurring its ambassador to object that the French-penned resolution did not acknowledge the role of Russian military trainers in the war-torn country. Russia and China decided to abstain on the vote.
Third, the U.S. government should practice positive engagement with African countries. It is more effective to increase U.S. engagement and investments in the region without publicly linking it to “great power competition” with Russia. This approach has the advantage of increasing diplomatic ties with African governments while undercutting the Kremlin's image as a revanchist power and limiting opportunities for African countries to exploit the rivalry between Washington and Moscow. The United States used this approach periodically during the Cold War. In Sudan, for instance, the United States supported an International Bank for Reconstruction and Development loan for an irrigation scheme to prevent the USSR from strengthening its ties with Sudan’s military government. Internally, U.S. government officials regarded the loan in part as a measure to prevent Soviet expansion, but the project was described externally as an initiative to promote development. A retired U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) officer in an oral history interview indicated that the loan succeeded, becoming a cornerstone of the U.S. relationship with Sudan. The project was immensely popular in Sudan, and the USAID official said that when Sudanese learned he was assigned to work on the project, he was treated like royalty.
Fourth, the United States should aggressively enforce U.S. and UN sanctions. It should leverage existing laws to deter African governments from working with sanctioned individuals and Russia’s defense and intelligence sector. Joseph Siegle, who leads the Africa Center for Strategic Studies’s research programs, says the United States could apply provisions of the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act to curb Russian activities in Africa. He also recommends treating Russian private military contractors as organized criminal syndicates. This would enable the U.S. government to apply protocols authorized by the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and a 2017 U.S. Presidential Executive Order to deter cooperation between Russian private military groups and African governments.
Fifth, the U.S. government should challenge Russian propaganda efforts on the continent. The Kremlin has a variety of ongoing information and influence campaigns in Africa. Moscow is investing in soft power by increasing the number of African students invited to attend Russian universities and promoting the Russkiy Mir (Russian World) Foundation, which promotes the study of the Russian language. It is also using Russia Today and pro-Russia social media, as well as African nongovernmental organizations and radio stations, to underwrite its efforts. The United States could use its own platforms to increase awareness of Russia’s destabilizing activities, as well as adopt a proactive information campaign— as it did during the Cold War—to counter Russian activities.
The Russians want the Russia-Africa summit to provide a stage to show the international community Russia’s influence across the continent. They will use the summit as an opportunity to present Africa as another region where President Putin has expanded his influence at the expense of the United States. Moscow will roll out the red carpet for its African counterparts, sign new commercial and security deals, and preside over diplomatic talks between African governments. The United States, however, should ignore the theatrics. The U.S. playbook for responding to the Russian threat is clear: strengthen ties with African leaders and civil society, expose Russia’s subversive activities, and block new openings for Moscow to gain sway in the region.
Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.
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