Russia is back in Africa after a nearly-two-decade-long hiatus (see EDM, June 14, 2018; September 4, 2018; November 6, 2018). In some respects, contemporary Moscow is pursuing the same goals of securing political allies that the Soviet government had. Yet, the Russian government is simultaneously trying to accomplish other key objectives and doing so by novel means, such as the use of private military companies and social media campaigns. And it appears that some of those newer aims, including securing access to profitable natural resources, are even more important to Russia than the goals that guided Moscow in Soviet times. One major continuity, however, must be stressed: the Kremlin still views its actions in Africa as an opening round in, and an integral part of, a broader cold war against the West. This perspective makes it far more important to pay attention to what Russia is doing on the African continent than many suspect.
In an important commentary in Kyiv’s Delovaya Stolitsa, Yekaterina Shchetkina makes exactly that point (Delovaya Stolitsa, July 14). The Ukrainian analyst says that it is a mistake to view Moscow’s actions in Africa simply as a desire to expand its geopolitical influence there or to gain access to and profits from valuable natural resources. Indeed, she suggests that approaching Russian actions in Africa from those perspectives could lead to the conclusion that Moscow has suffered as many failures as successes. But if one understands that what Moscow seeks to do is to sow chaos more broadly, then it becomes obvious that the Kremlin’s African actions are part and parcel of its larger “new cold war against the West.” Such activities—no matter how costly, ineffective or even counterproductive they may appear—are in fact much cheaper in Africa than they would be elsewhere, Shchetkina argues. Therefore, she contends, Moscow has chosen the continent as a testing ground for what it may eventually do elsewhere.
To act in this way in Africa, according to Shchetkina, “is much more convenient and simpler than to do so in the United States or Europe,” where governments have greater control than in many African countries and where they can be expected to react far more seriously to Russian interference (Delovaya Stolitsa, July 14). Indeed, as a result of forceful reactions in Europe and North America, Moscow has concluded that it can undermine the interests of the West much more readily with stepped-up activity “on the periphery”—in Africa, in particular.
The Russian Federation today has far fewer resources than did its predecessor. And more generally, Russia is far weaker than the West compared to the relative balance of power during the Cold War. As such, Moscow today cannot hope to readily win over African governments to its side as the Soviets did, except perhaps for dictators who welcome the Vladimir Putin regime’s support for “stability” and its lack of criticism of their human rights abuses. Additionally, Russia is not nearly as autarkic as the Soviet Union was and is therefore constantly searching for new resources and new profits for its kleptocratic elite.
In this situation, Shchetkina argues, Russia has behaved entirely rationally in its own terms by shifting the fight from Europe and North America to Africa and by sowing chaos through the promotion of instability (Delovaya Stolitsa, July 14). This means that even ostensible failures of the kind Moscow recently suffered in Africa are, from its point of view, successes. That is because they nevertheless have positive consequences for Russia’s larger game of disrupting the West. This can involve anything from “raising [global] prices on raw materials to sparking humanitarian catastrophes,” which result in new refugee flows into Italy, Greece and France, thereby creating new problems for Western governments. Acting in this way is less expensive and dangerous to Moscow than directly seeking leverage in larger European countries that are more suspicious of Russian behavior. Furthermore, there are also important side benefits to this strategy, including opened access to sources of new wealth and, in some cases, the formation of alliances that give Russia votes at the United Nations or in international sports federations that decide whom to award the privilege of hosting various championships and olympiads.
Russia is no longer pushing African countries to adopt its political and economic system, as the Soviet government did before 1991 (Delovaya Stolitsa, July 14). Indeed, it is not offering much that African countries would want to emulate. Instead, Moscow today is seeking economic advantages while promoting the spread of chaos. In those terms, it is succeeding far more than many think, especially with regard to disturbing the global order—which is likely more important for Putin than any economic or financial boons.
At the same time—and this should not be forgotten either—Moscow has displayed relatively less interest in Africa that one might have expected, a reflection both of its diminished capacity and the internal inconsistencies of its multiple interests. Sometimes, Moscow’s efforts to achieve political influence work in tandem with its efforts to gain access to and control of natural resources; whereas, in other cases, the pursuit of one may undercut the other. Hence, efforts to cultivate local African elites may be undercut when those elites see that Moscow is actually most interested in controlling the foundational sources of their own wealth and power. Nonetheless, while the current rulers in the Kremlin are not succeeding in ways their Soviet predecessors would have wanted, or that many in the West view as the only important measures of success, they are “winning” in Africa on their own terms—something many in the US and Europe have been slow to recognize and even slower to counter.