Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
The day after the military staged a coup in Burkina Faso in January, supporters of the new regime took to the streets waving Russian flags. The scene may sound like a throwback to the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union competed for influence in Africa, but the demonstrators were taken with more recent examples of the Kremlin’s actions on the continent. They spoke approvingly about Russia’s deployment of mercenaries in Libya, Mali, and the Central African Republic (CAR) to fight off Islamist insurgents. “The Russians got good results in other African countries,” a supporter of the coup told The New York Times. “We hope they can do the same here.” According to the Daily Beast, the lieutenant colonel who led the coup, Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, had tried and failed to get the incumbent president to invite in Russian military contractors to counter threats to the government—and now that he is in charge, he may well ask Moscow for military help.
Russia is not expanding its influence in Africa just through the use of military contractors; it has also made a hardcore diplomatic push across the continent. In 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi co-chaired the first Russia-Africa Summit, which assembled 43 African heads of state in Sochi. Although the COVID-19 pandemic stalled progress toward actualizing the $12.5 billion in deals that Russia signed with African countries, Moscow used the conference to forge new diplomatic partnerships.
Russia has figured out how to capitalize on popular frustrations with U.S. and French counterterrorism policies in Africa, as well as anxieties about neocolonial influence. The rise of Russian influence has grown with U.S. disengagement across the continent. The Russians see Africa as a place where it can expand its global reach and simultaneously extract valuable natural resources for its state-owned enterprises.
None of this is good news for Africa. Russia’s indiscriminate arms sales fuel conflict, its shadowy commercial deals empower kleptocracy, and its autocratic bent undermines democracy. Nor is the flurry of activity good news for the United States and its allies, which are seeing their soft power in Africa dissipate. To counter the Kremlin’s influence, then, the West needs to turn its attention to the continent once more—without turning Africa into an arena for great-power competition.
Russia’s reemergence as a great power in Africa began in the late 1990s, as Moscow reversed the drawdown that began with its divestment from Ethiopia and Angola earlier that decade. Russia sought to rebuild Soviet influence in Africa by providing military-technical assistance and development aid, while ending the Soviet Union’s focus on ideological proselytization. Under the stewardship of Yevgeny Primakov, who served as foreign minister from 1996 to 1998 and prime minister from 1998 to 1999, Russia expanded its partnerships in the region. It found common cause with South Africa, sharing opposition to NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo and support for a multipolar order. It forgave debt in Angola and Mozambique, winning favor with the governments of those countries. It sold arms to Sudan and Ethiopia, which created the foundation for lasting security partnerships.
When Putin came to power in Russia, he expanded on Primakov’s playbook for power projection in Africa. Russia used debt forgiveness to reset its partnerships with Algeria and Libya, which stagnated because of disputes over Soviet-era loans and Moscow’s support for UN sanctions against the regime of the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. It publicly supported “African solutions to African problems” and provided arms to anti-Western regimes such as Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan and Isaias Afwerki’s Eritrea. In 2009, Dmitry Medvedev, then filling in for Putin as Russian president, reaffirmed Moscow’s great-power ambitions in Africa by touring the continent, visiting Angola, Egypt, Namibia, and Nigeria. The diplomatic push resulted in pledges to cooperate on counterterrorism, nuclear energy, and gas pipeline construction. NATO’s 2011 military intervention in Libya, which deeply polarized Africans, gave Russia an opening to frame itself as a foil to Western policy and a guardian of state sovereignty. This image appealed to U.S. partners who were disgruntled about pressure from Washington on human rights, such as Egypt and Nigeria, as well as to authoritarian regimes.
Russia views Africa as both a provenance for resources for its state-owned companies and a potential market for Russian goods. In 2020, Russia’s state arms vendor Rosoboronexport signed $1.5 billion in contracts with ten African countries, and the next year, it secured an additional $1.7 billion in new deals at a summit in Côte d’Ivoire. Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy giant Rosatom views Africa as a promising venue to sell reactors: chronic electricity shortages and concerns about climate change are prodding governments to look to carbon-free energy sources. The company has just one full-fledged project in Africa—the El Dabaa nuclear reactor in Egypt—but it is trying to peddle reactors in Ghana, Nigeria, and Rwanda, as well. Russian mining and energy companies, including Lukoil and Gazprom, now boast a continent-wide commercial presence.
Russia has made a hard-core diplomatic push across Africa.
Russia also sees Africa as offering a chance to enhance the country’s global stature and showcase a distinct model of security. In capital after capital, Moscow has marketed what it calls the “Syrian model” of counterinsurgency, which prioritizes authoritarian stability, as the most effective antidote to extremism. As part of such efforts, Russia has dispatched private contractors to fragile states such as the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, and Mozambique and to authoritarian partners such as Guinea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While Western deliveries of COVID-19 vaccines to African countries have been slow, Russia has aggressively promoted its homegrown shot, Sputnik V, on the continent and has announced that it will distribute the vaccine for free to combat the Omicron variant. Russia has also partially revived its Soviet-era educational diplomacy programs and sent wheat shipments to alleviate food insecurity in Africa. Notwithstanding its destabilizing conduct in Africa and on the world stage, Russia is leveraging these humanitarian and soft-power initiatives to promote itself as a constructive player in global affairs.
Moscow’s growing interest in Africa has been particularly notable in the Central African Republic. In 2016, France ended Operation Sangaris, a three-year military intervention in the CAR that unsuccessfully sought to disarm militia groups, allow inflows of humanitarian aid, and facilitate a democratic transition. Russia quickly seized on the opening. Through a combination of economic investment and counterinsurgency assistance, the Russians acquired valuable assets, including preferential stakes in the country’s gold and diamond reserves. To guard these mining assets and create a security situation that would be amenable for large-scale mineral extraction, a group of private military contractors arrived in 2018. They worked for the Wagner Group, an ostensibly private security company with close ties to Russia’s military intelligence service.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of Putin’s close associates, oversees the Wagner Group’s mining assets via subsidiary companies such as Lobaye Invest and M-Invest. Roughly 1,200 to 2,000 private military contractors aided the CAR’s authoritarian president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, and battled Islamic rebels on the outskirts of the capital, Bangui. In 2020, Russia deployed military instructors ambiguously described by the Kremlin as “not the army nor the special forces.” In the months since France suspended security cooperation with the CAR last June, the government’s reliance on Moscow for security has only grown.
Russia’s economic and military interventions in the CAR are profitable ventures for Prigozhin, but they also augment Russia’s prestige in Africa. Russian diplomacy facilitated the 2018 Khartoum declaration, which created a CAR opposition alliance and temporarily eased tensions between the two main rebel factions. Russia advertised the Syrian model to Sahel countries facing insurgencies, and it appears to have found a taker in Mali, whose government has received Wagner Group fighters. The Central African Republic has also served as a testing ground for Russia’s projection of soft power in Africa. The Russians have hosted beauty pageants and ballet shows in Bangui, and the Russian language is now part of the country’s school curriculum. In April 2021, Russia also announced plans to invest $11 billion in the CAR’s postconflict reconstruction.
Russia’s involvement in the CAR, however, has not been an unmitigated success. Although Moscow has framed its intervention as a means of countering French neocolonialism and protecting state sovereignty, its heavy-handed approach has provoked a polarized response. Many CAR residents were appalled when Touadéra appointed Valery Zakharov, a former Russian intelligence agent, as national security adviser in 2018: it was widely perceived as an encroachment on national sovereignty. As a recent UN report documented, the Wagner Group fighters also have been implicated in committing human rights violations, further sullying the contractors’ reputation in the CAR. Russia’s influence in the country is shallower than it appears.
Russia’s interest in the Sahel is linked to U.S. disengagement and French missteps.
After the CAR, the Sahel is the part of Africa where Russia’s presence can be seen most clearly. Although its footprint in the Sahel is lighter, Russia’s interest in the subregion is also inextricably linked to U.S. disengagement and French missteps. Russian media outlets have stoked neocolonial discontent in Mali toward France and portrayed French counterterrorism policy as driven by resource extraction rather than security imperatives. With France’s military operations in the Sahel failing to curb extremism, Russia has doubled down on its security presence there. In 2014, after the United States refused on human rights grounds to sell fighter jets and advanced helicopters to Nigeria, Russia marketed its own jets to the Nigerian military. From 2016 to 2019, Russia signed a military cooperation agreement with Nigeria, as well as Chad, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Niger, and Sierra Leone. When Guinean President Alpha Condé attracted international condemnation when he announced he would seek a third term in 2020, Russia’s aluminum giant Rusal strengthened its presence in Guinea’s bauxite mines, and the Wagner Group deployed private military contractors to guard mines in the country.
In August 2020, Mali’s pro-French president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, was overthrown in a coup d’état, giving Russia even more latitude in that country, which is now the center of its Sahel strategy. Days later, Malian demonstrators, discontented with French counterterrorism policy, took to the streets waving Russian and Chinese flags. A subsequent coup in Mali in May 2021 paved the way for France’s military drawdown from the country and strengthened Moscow’s hand. Later that year, Russia dispatched helicopters, weapons, and ammunition to Mali after the new prime minister accused France of “abandoning” the country. The Wagner Group, for its part, sent 500 private military contractors.
Yet for all of Russia’s recent wins in the Sahel, long-term success is far from guaranteed. Countervailing pressure from the United States and the European Union—including proposed economic sanctions on Mali—could ultimately deter the government from relying on Russian private military contractors. In Guinea, moreover, a September 2021 coup toppled Russia’s most reliable regional partner, Alpha Condé. And in Nigeria, Russia has struggled to convert its arms deals into a diversified partnership. What all this suggests is that Russia will remain a spoiler of French interests in Africa—and not a great power with far-reaching influence.
American and European leaders have taken notice of Russia’s resurgence in Africa. In 2018, John Bolton, then U.S. national security adviser, lambasted Russia’s “predatory” practices on the continent. France has repeatedly sounded the alarm about them, too, and British and EU officials have condemned the Wagner Group’s activities in Mali. Aside from a smattering of statements, however, Western powers have struggled to develop a coherent response to Russia’s efforts in Africa.
To stymie Moscow’s plans, Western powers need to resist the temptation to view Africa through a great-power competition prism. Instead of treating Russia and China as a monolithic anti-Western bloc in Africa, the United States and Europe should capitalize on fissures between Moscow and Beijing. The two powers in fact disagree over the central question of stability in Africa: China’s Belt and Road Initiative requires a calm Africa, whereas Russia has a fondness for disruption. Given these disagreements, Western powers could find common ground with Beijing on issues such as preserving stability in Sudan.
Western policymakers should also deploy soft power to further their goals. U.S. President Joe Biden’s appointment of special envoys to the Horn of Africa and Libya are good first steps, as are the EU’s efforts to multilaterally supplant France’s declining military presence in the Sahel. More consistent engagement by Western powers with regional institutions—the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, and the Southern African Development Community—could help counter Russian influence. Western countries should also actively encourage African countries’ conflict resolution initiatives, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s mediation in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam dispute between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan. These measures would counter Russia’s often fatuous rhetorical support for “African solutions to African problems” and stem Moscow’s ability to play off perceptions of Western neocolonialism. Coordination on vaccine diplomacy and educational diplomacy through intergovernmental initiatives between Western nations would also help combat Russia’s nefarious conduct in Africa.
Russia’s influence in Africa today may pale in comparison to the power it wielded during the Cold War, but the campaign is far from over. This fall, the second Russia-Africa Summit is scheduled to take place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. At a time when the United States and Europe seem consumed with other problems, the meeting will provide the Kremlin an opportunity to capitalize on Western distraction and make the case for even greater Russian influence on the continent. Western countries need to present a united front and replace their single-minded focus on great-power competition with a comprehensive strategy that blends hard and soft power. If they can up their game in Africa, Western forces will not just help diminish Russian influence but better the lives of millions of people on a continent that is too often an afterthought in international affairs.