Moscow is returning to sub-Saharan Africa in a big way by exploiting ties and themes developed in Soviet times: it is talking about anti-colonialism, providing university training for Africans in Russia, dispatching nominally “private” military companies to provide security, and exploiting the power of its largest businesses. It is thus challenging both the declining Western presence and the rising Chinese one. Importantly, it is gaining some needed political allies as well as securing access to critical raw materials, including rare earth metals—one of the few natural resources Russia does not have a surplus of. But because Russia is doing this less with state institutions than with nominally “private” ones, its return to Africa has passed largely under the radar screen. Indeed, in some cases, Russia’s return has even been welcomed by some Western governments more concerned about combatting the spread of Islamist terrorism than by the expansion of Russian power (Svoboda.org, April 25).
As a result, the geopolitical and geo-economic consequences of Russia’s return to Africa have largely been ignored. To be sure, Russian conduct in North Africa has attracted some level of concern (see EDM, April 17; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, April 9). But its actions on the continent south of the Sahara have generally escaped notice or been encouraged for counter-terrorism reasons, with one important exception—Russia’s activities in the Central African Republic (see EDM, April 30, May 15). That combination is leading to a situation in which Moscow may be able to force out Western and Chinese companies from the countries there and restore many of the political positions it enjoyed in Soviet times.
The nature and sweep of Moscow’s return was highlighted earlier this year by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visits to Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. In each of these countries, he pushed for three things: expanding security and political cooperation, opening their economies to Russian investment, and training their specialists in Russian universities (Mid.ru, March 3). Yet, its military moves are the most obvious indication of what Moscow hopes to achieve.
As Moscow-based political commentator Ruslan Gorevoy points out, “[T]oday, Russian military advisors predominate in Sudan and the Central African Republic. Soon they will appear as well in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” following Kinshasa’s willingness to revive a 20-year-old security cooperation agreement with Moscow. “And so, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Angola” now represent a Russian-dominated “diagonal from the Red Sea on the northeastern part of the continent to the Atlantic Ocean in the southwest, a kind of Central African belt where security in the near future will be provided by approximately 10,000 Russian military specialists” (Versia.ru, June 3; Novaya Gazeta, Newsru.com, June 13).
According to Gorevoy, there are three reasons for why Moscow has been successful in projecting power in sub-Saharan Africa. First, neither the current governments nor the former colonial powers are capable of maintaining order, whereas Russia is effective—albeit, often in ways that some might object to. Second, Russian firms invest in the local economies in ways that allow local elites to become wealthy, a strategy that works better than those employed by either the Chinese or the West. And third, in the name of stability, Moscow is not challenging the current authoritarian rulers of these countries, instead going out of its way to support them. It has dispatched political technologists to many of them to help them “win” staged elections in the same way Russian officials do at home and without any of the human rights criticism that Western countries engage in. For all these reasons, many governments in the region are grateful—and Moscow is reaping the benefits by securing new contracts, cooperation and loyalty (Versia.ru, June 3).
“The Soviet Union spent fabulous sums in African countries,” the Moscow commentator says. But “in the end, it was left with nothing. Now in Africa, America and China are spending their money. Washington in this century has spent some $75 billion; and only in the last year, Beijing has given $100 billion in Chinese credits and investments.” But Russia has simply written off Soviet-era debts of about $20 billion,” while spending only around $2 billion to promote Russian-African trade.
Given that monetary imbalance, he continues, one might expect things to be going against Russia. But that is not the case. Moscow’s support of the local governments has won it more loyalty than either the United States, with its human rights obsession, or China, with its heavy-handed effort to control its investments. And Russian companies are making enormous profits, far exceeding their investments, thus giving Moscow both the ability to buy off local elites as well as establish effective control over many of the critical raw materials, such as rare earths exported from Angola.
Earlier this year, some European commentators suggested Russia was on track to recover Soviet positions in Africa in about 20 years, the Moscow writer says. But they failed to recognize that “Russia has already returned.” This has created a new political reality on the continent, one the West and China will have to take into account eventually, even if they are failing to do so now.