Russian Entrenchment in Africa

Russia’s involvement in Africa is growing, as it increases its military cooperation, trade, and energy cooperation with African nations. While there are concerns about Russia’s motives and the human rights records of some of the African nations that Russia is cooperating with, it is clear that Russia sees Africa as an important partner in its efforts to increase its global influence. Russia’s involvement in Africa dates back to the Soviet era when it supported African nations during the Cold War. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s interest in Africa waned. In recent years, Russia has been making a renewed effort to strengthen its ties with African nations.

But Russian entrenchment in Africa could be detrimental to the continent for several reasons. Firstly, it could lead to increased competition between global powers for access to Africa’s natural resources, which could result in further exploitation of these resources and exacerbate existing conflicts. This will likely have a negative impact on the continent’s economic and political stability.

Secondly, the proliferation of foreign arms and military equipment could fuel existing conflicts and contribute to the rise of extremist groups. This could further destabilize the continent and threaten the safety and security of its people.

Thirdly, foreign involvement in Africa could undermine the efforts of African countries to establish their own sovereignty and economic independence. This could be particularly damaging for countries that are already struggling to emerge from poverty and underdevelopment.

Fourth, it could have a negative impact on democracy and human rights in the region. Russia has a history of supporting authoritarian regimes and suppressing political opposition, and its involvement in Africa could reinforce these tendencies.

Russia’s decision to sell weapons and military equipment to African nations is driven by a combination of economic, political, and strategic interests. While this has generated controversy and concern among some, it is likely that Russia will continue to pursue these sales as a means of advancing its interests in the region.

As an arms supplier, Russia is one of the largest exporters in the world, and selling to African countries provides a lucrative market. Many African countries have experienced conflicts and political instability, which has created a demand for military hardware to address security challenges. Russia is able to supply these nations with a wide range of weapons and military equipment, including fighter jets, tanks, and small arms.

By selling such hardware to African nations, Russia is able to establish and maintain relationships with key players on the continent, which can be leveraged for diplomatic and geopolitical gains. Russia has also been known to use arms sales as a tool to counterbalance other countries’ influence in the region, such as the United States and China. Russia is also able to advance its strategic interests by gaining access to ports and airfields on the continent, which could be used for military operations.

Russia has also increased its trade with African nations. In 2019, with Africa reached $20 billion, with the majority of this trade coming from the export of oil and gas. Russia has also been investing in infrastructure projects, such as the construction of railways and ports. Energy cooperation is another important element of Russia’s influence in Africa and it has provided expertise in the development of nuclear power there. One example of this is the construction of the El Dabaa nuclear power plant in Egypt, which is being built with Russian assistance.

Critics have raised concerns over Russia’s heavy involvement in Africa, with some arguing that, like China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it is part of Russia’s efforts to increase its global influence and counter the influence of Western nations. Others have raised concerns about the human rights records of some of the African nations that Russia is cooperating with, such as the Central African Republic.

China’s BRI is a massive undertaking aimed at building infrastructure
and increasing connectivity across Asia, Africa, and Europe. By building
ports, highways, railways, and other infrastructure projects in
countries along the routes of the ancient Silk Road, China hopes to
increase its trade and economic ties with these countries, as well as to
extend its geopolitical influence.

Notably, Russia’s investment in Africa is significantly smaller in scale compared to China’s BRI, Russia’s investment has primarily been focused on military cooperation and arms sales, rather than large-scale infrastructure projects.

In addition to its other activities on the continent, Russia has been involved in Africa’s mining industry through various means, including investment, exploration, and providing mining equipment and technology, mainly through partnerships. Russia has also invested in gold mining operations in countries such as Guinea and Sudan. Russian mining companies such as Alrosa and Norilsk Nickel have been active in Africa, particularly in diamond and nickel mining respectively. These companies have operations in countries such as Angola, Botswana, and South Africa. Russia has also provided mining equipment and technology to several countries including Rwanda.

Some experts believe that with China’s increasing investment in Africa and numerous western countries focusing on the continent’s potential, the stage is set for a swift expansion of Russia’s presence on the continent. However,
following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, the competition for influence between the three power blocks could potentially become a destabilizing force in certain areas of Africa.

According to Miguel Garrido at Modern Diplomacy, “Africa should liberate herself from the turbulence Russia brings to her soil. That, however, may not be all that simple… Many African countries have come to depend either on Russia’s assistance, or on imports of Russian grain or defense equipment. Russia’s ties with Africa even seem to have played a part in multiple African countries’ decisions not to sanction Russia, nor vote against Moscow in UN General Assembly resolutions on the war in Ukraine.”

Chatham House Africa programme director Dr. Alex Vines also noted that “most abstentions (51 per cent) condemning Russia’s invasion at the UN came from African countries, marking a partial resurgence of what was many African nations’ default position in the Cold War.”

In Garrido’s view, African nations must decide if they want to free themselves from Russia’s harmful influence. As noted by a recent study for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, “the West can and should support such a purpose, by means of policies encouraging the strengthening of democracy in the African continent, promoting regional security, and backing Africa’s economic development.”

And according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Through the infamous Wagner mercenary group, Moscow is inserting itself in countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso and is taking advantage of Western policy missteps, growing anti-European sentiment, and longstanding failures of international and local actors to address the root causes of regional instability.”

It is clear then that African countries face a period of severe instability if they continue to allow other countries to interfere in their internal politics. But if they allow Russia continued influence, they face an even more detrimental challenge. The future of Africa lies in each of the continent’s countries’ ability to prevent Russian entrenchment in the region.

Chloe Atkinson is a climate change activist and consultant on global climate affairs.