‘Make Africa Safe’: Russia’s Competitive Advantage in Sub-Saharan Africa

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 127

The JSC Rosoboronexport expo booth at Shield Africa 2017 (Source: JSC Rosoboronexport)

On October 23–24, the southwestern Russian resort city of Sochi will host the first ever Russia-Africa Summit (Ravision2030.com, accessed September 14). Sharing his expectations of the upcoming event, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov underscored its “pivotal importance” and “unprecedented nature.” At the same time, Lavrov emphasized that Russia “never took part in colonial takeovers and barbaric looting of [African] natural resources […] we have always stood against various expressions of racism […] rendering support to African nations in their struggle against colonialism […] and in supporting their national economies” (TASS, June 20).

The Kremlin is building up anticipation first and foremost about the potential economic agreements it expects to come out of next month’s international forum. For now, however, despite some achievements, Russia’s economic attractiveness to African countries is no match for such players as France, India, Germany and South Korea—to say nothing of the United States and China. Yet, Moscow does enjoy one competitive advantage: cheap (compared to US-produced) and more effective (compared to Chinese) weaponry that is extremely popular in Africa. Moscow believes that robust arms sales could pave the way for increased involvement in other sectors of the African economy, including “heavy industry, energy, nuclear power and agriculture” (Politobzor.net, accessed September 10).

Incidentally, JSC Rosoboronexport—the Russian state’s monopoly intermediary agency handling exports/imports of defense-related and dual use products, technologies and services—proclaimed 2019 “the year of Africa,” thus underscoring the continent’s growing importance for Russian arms sales. Concrete corroboration of this strategy came about on January 22–24, when the corporation took part in Africa’s largest annual defense and security forum, Shield Africa 2019, held in the Ivory Coast. Russia presented a broad spectrum of weaponry at the event. As Rosoboronexport representatives noted, African buyers “are interested in virtually everything […] particularly in weaponry/arms that could be used within the scope of anti-terrorist and policing operations.” The company’s CEO, Alexander Mikheev, added that Russia could offer African customers all types of weaponry, including pieces recently tested on the battlefield. According to Rosoboronexport, African customers are likely to be most interested in BTR-80A and BTR-82A armored personnel carriers (APC), Tiger armored vehicles as well as Mi-35M and Mi-17 helicopter, in addition to various types of non-lethal weaponry (RIA Novosti, January 22). In this regard, Yevgeny Valiayev, a member of the Public Diplomacy Foundation, noted that the upcoming Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi should be seen as an event of strategic importance for its expected role in popularizing Russian-made defense-sector products, which is “particularly crucial in light of Western economic sanctions” (Riafan.ru, April 2).

Last year, the director of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSVTS), Dmitry Shugaev, outlined the essence of Russia’s strategy regarding military cooperation with African countries. He stated that, in 2018, the overall procurement portfolio with sub-Saharan African countries (40 states) was worth approximately $3 billion, with annual profits for the Russian side reaching $900 million (Interfax, September 20, 2018). Shugaev’s reflections draw on a number of factors that have secured Russia’s strong position on the African market.

The first factor is that of continuity and tradition: before 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) took an active part in creating and supplying the militaries of almost 20 African countries, meaning that, even today, the vast bulk of weaponry used by many of those continental powers originated in the USSR and still requires Russian expertise. Moreover, between 60 and 80 percent of the African officer corps was trained in the Soviet Union. Taken together, these factors still largely contribute to the positive image of Russian military equipment and education in African countries.

Second, Russian military technology satisfies several requirements and preferences of many African governments. Namely, African customers are interested in: (a) combat and military transport helicopters that, aside from the aforementioned models, including the Mi-28, Ka-52 and Ka-226T. These rotor-winged aircrafts’ high technical characteristics gain additional value due to their ability to be employed under challenging weather conditions; (b) fixed-wing aircraft, including MiG-29 fighter jets and Il-76MD-90A and Il-112B airlifters; (c) 9M133 Kornet and 9K115-2 Metis-M man-portable, anti-tank guided-missile systems; (d) Amur-class submarines for protecting territorial waters; and (e) air-defense systems such as the Pantsir-S1 and Tor-M2E short- and medium-range surface-to-air missile systems. Russia’s defense-industrial complex can ensure deliveries of these products at a comparatively low price and with the possibility of a broad range credit options.

Third, there is a desire for a deeper level of engagement, including on joint production of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), armored vehicles, artillery systems and other types of weaponry. Currently, Moscow is ready to launch joint manufacture of advanced weaponry with South African producers. Furthermore, the Russian side is currently considering establishing a broad network of service-repair centers across Africa (for now, Ethiopia, Uganda, Nigeria, Cameroon and South Africa) that could offer Russian customers “not only the delivery of a final product, but all necessary services covering the whole life cycle of goods [arms and weaponry] purchased in Russia” (Tvzvezda.ru, September 19, 2018).

The final factor is that of training and consultative services in non-linear or paramilitary operations. This (potentially lucrative) side of Moscow’s involvement in Africa is mainly boosted by the results of the Russian operation in Syria. Notably, Oumar Mariko, a member of the Malian parliament, voiced a strong desire for his country to learn from and adopt Russia’s experience in this realm. During his April 2019 trip to Russia to attend the MCIS-2019 security conference, Mariko stated that “Russia is fighting terrorism […] and has experience [engaging in an anti-terrorist] struggle. We would like Russia to provide us with her experience.” Incidentally, the forum (which attracted more than 1,000 participants from 101 countries) generated particular interest from the governments of the Central African Republic (CAR), Cameroon, Congo, Sudan and Namibia (Tvzvezda.ru, April 25). Later, during the ARMY 2019 International Military and Technical Forum (June 25–30), Russia signed inter-governmental contracts on military cooperation with several African players, including Mali (Tvzvezda.ru, June 30).

A closer look at Russia’s evolving posture on African affairs (its so-called “return to Africa”) points to ever growing interest in the G5 Sahel group, consisting of Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad (Inopressa.ru, January 25)—countries that are resource-endowed but plagued by multiple security-related problems. Unable to defeat Western competitors in Africa on the economic field, Moscow has, therefore, been increasing its emphasis on security-related aspects as it strives to carve out its “place in the sun.”