Moscow Expands Military Influence in Africa

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 41

(Source: Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Executive Summary:

  • Russia’s advances in Africa are moving to a new political-strategic level by establishing further military and economic ties across the continent.
  • Moscow has long worked to gain influence across the Sahel and is now aiming to establish footholds throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn of Africa
  • The increased presence of Russian paramilitary forces in Africa looks to protect the Kremlin’s investments and secure the long-term tenure of pro-Moscow coup plotters who are invoking the Islamist threat to justify their ambitions.

Since Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Moscow has substantially increased its presence in Africa as part of its ploy to restructure the international order in its favor. Besides the long-running campaigns to obtain air and naval bases in and around the Mediterranean and Red Sea, the Kremlin seeks semi-permanent army bases in Sub-Saharan Africa (see EDM, September 11. November 6, 14, 2023). Moscow’s primary target is the Sahel where Russian influence operations in the Central African Republic (CAR), Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Chad have intensified in recent years. These efforts are concurrent with plans to secure naval and air bases in Libya and the Horn of Africa (see EDM November 6, 2023, March 12). The Kremlin has even “reclaimed” the Wagner Group’s operations on the continent as a means for projecting power while its conventional army falters in Ukraine. 

In January, Fidel Ngouandika, presidential advisor to the president of the CAR, announced that the country is preparing to establish a new Russian military base on its territory (TASS, January 16). Moscow hopes to build a chain of military bases throughout Sub-Saharan Africa to effectuate a fundamental change in the governance structure and power dynamics of countries in the region (Voice of America, August 3, 2022). Over the past few months, Kremlin officials have regularly met with African officials to establish a more robust foreign policy connection (see EDM, February 23, 2023). Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently met with his Malian counterpart, Abdoulaye Diop, to reaffirm Russia’s support for Mali’s leadership, which came to power in a coup in August 2020 (Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MID), February 28 [1], [2]). Lavrov has held similar meetings with other foreign ministers on the continent to increase Russia’s leverage over various African governments (MID, February 8, 2023, August 24, 2023, September 20, 2023, March 6).

Military agreements with the governments of the Sahel are being signed that call for Russian troop deployments to these countries. On March 17, CAR Prime Minister Félix Moloua announced that Russia and the CAR are conducting negotiations to expand their military-technical partnership. In July 2023, Putin stated that a partnership with the CAR would allow Russia to help protect democracy in the country and avoid civil war (Izvestiya, March 17). At this level, Moscow’s increased involvement in African countries has enabled the Kremlin to influence these governments more directly. More military agreements will allow Russian military forces, rebranded from Wagner to the African Corps, to deploy up to 20,000 conventional or paramilitary troops across the Sahel (see EDM, March 12).

These Russian units will function as expeditionary forces operating from a network of bases to protect Moscow’s, formerly Wagner’s, investments in Africa, especially in the mining sector. Russia has consolidated Wagner’s former holdings into a state-controlled mechanism to continue its influence policies and expand the scope of Russian interests to better control economic matters in the Sahel (Vedomosti, December 22, 2023; see EDM, March 12). The Russian government has reportedly made more than $2.5 billion from the African gold trade through the Wagner Group’s operations since the beginning of the war against Ukraine. In numerous African countries, including the CAR, Sudan, and Mali, Wagner controls mines and oil refineries, giving the group significant control over the gold trade (Ukrainska Pravda, December 13, 2023, January 30). The newly constituted Russian forces who are taking over these operations in the wake of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s demise have already carried out brutal operations in Mali and the CAR to protect those mining interests (Human Rights Watch, May 3, 2022; African Defense Forum, January 16).

These forces also aim to keep authoritarian, pro-Moscow forces in power and will function as foreign guards for African rulers from Chad to the CAR (Anadolu Ajansı, 2021; RFI, January 24; Izvestiya, March 17). In some cases, such as in Burkina Faso, leaders openly state that one critical mission of Russian forces on the continent is regime protection (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, December 27, 2023; African Defense Forum, February 20). Additionally, Moscow is ready, willing, and able to help other African states confront Islamist rebels, such as in Mozambique (, March 27, 2023; TASS, May 31, 2023; The Insider, March 11).

The Kremlin intends to set up pro-Moscow blocs throughout Africa to undermine existing regional security organizations, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and compete with Western influence. Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger have all left ECOWAS, allegedly because it failed to deal effectively with terrorists. These countries also likely left because ECOWAS condemned the coups that brought their current regimes to power (Anadolu Ajansı, January 30). Many observers believe that Moscow or pro-Moscow forces supported these coups.  For example, Niger, acting through Mali, requested support from Wagner forces against ECOWAS (Voice of America, August 5, 2023; Hastoyashchyeye vremya, August 8, 2023). Fortified by Russian troop deployments, impending bases, and promises of aid, these states seemingly seek to form their own rival bloc to ECOWAS. The Kremlin denies encouraging these states to leave ECOWAS, but some observers dismiss these denials (TASS, February 13).

Russian actions in Africa seek to destabilize the continent. Moscow is conducting a neo-imperialist campaign that belies its endless propaganda claims of anti-colonialism (TASS, September 12, 2023). With military bases and troop deployments in Africa, the Kremlin intends to change the regional and international order for its benefit. Despite Western alarm and a depletion of forces and resources in Ukraine, Russia is still on the offensive in Africa conducting a sophisticated, multi-dimensional strategy of elite capture wherever possible (Voice of America, May 29, 2022; Guild Hall, January 23, see EDM, March 12). Although Ukraine is increasingly combating Russian influence and disinformation in Africa, Moscow’s hold on the continent is set to expand (RBC, June 16, 2023; Novyny Live, March 14). Russia’s increased international isolation due to the war has forced Moscow to find new footholds elsewhere in the world to exert its influence, with a concerted focus on the resource-rich countries of Africa.