Portuguese military journalist Nuno Felix tweeted, on September 8, that a group of Russian military personnel—not private military company (PMC) employees—had landed at the Nacala Airport, in Mozambique. The journalist claimed this information came “from a credible local military source” (Twitter.com/Felix_Nuno, September 8). A month later (October 2), the British outlet The Times reported that “Russian mercenaries and military hardware have arrived in Mozambique to help the government fight jihadists in the latest example of an African country turning to Moscow for help”; the group was reportedly composed “of about 200 soldiers, including elite troops, three attack helicopters and crew.” In response, the press secretary for the president of Russia, Dmitry Peskov, categorically denied the presence of any Russian military personnel in the country (Interfax, October 8).
At this juncture, it is worth mentioning that, in 2015, Russia and Mozambique—a country once among the staunchest regional allies of the Soviet Union—signed an agreement on technical-military cooperation (Svoboda.org, October 3). And currently, Mozambique “usually supports Russian foreign policy initiatives at the United Nations and other international institutions […] this creates a very good foundation for Russian-Mozambican cooperation on the international stage” (Mozambik.mid.ru, May 26, 2018).
Writing last month for Observador.pt, Portuguese commentator José Milhazes attributes Russia’s increasing interest toward Mozambique to two main factors. First, Moscow sees an opportunity to diversify its imports/exports and soften the impact of Western economic sanctions. Second, the Russian authorities “are also seeking to compensate the increasing costs associated with the extraction of much more expensive [Russian] natural resources with inexpensive [African alternatives].” Milhazes argues that, according to his information, Russia has sent 160 elite Russian military men to the country with an ultimate goal “to create [in Mozambique] a mobile GU [military intelligence] base and a permanent naval military base.” He also points out that Russian military personnel may have been invited to Mozambique to take part in the eradication of Islamist fundamentalists in the Cabo Delgado province (northern Mozambique), which is endowed with natural gas but suffers instability due to the problem of Islamist radicalism—thus, “replicating the Syrian model.” Another reason for Russia’s involvement in Mozambique, as identified by Milhazes, pertains to Russian state-controlled VTB Bank, “one of those financial institutions directly involved in the local ‘Mozambique hidden debts affair’ scandal—a shadow scheme that has caused serious economic losses to the local economy” (Observador.pt, September 28).
It is essential to note that a new stage in Mozambican-Russian relations was ushered in on August 22, 2019, when President Filipe Nyusi met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. The leader of Mozambique urged Russians to invest in his country, promising a wide range of lucrative deals and contracts (Komsomolskaya Pravda, August 21). In his speech, Nyusi specifically highlighted “the huge role played by the USSR [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics] in liberating his country” and the fact that the Russian Federation has forgiven 90 percent of the debt, which in his words “makes us highly appreciative of such partners… [Russians] are always welcome in our country for various business projects” (RBC, August 21). For now, according to Yuri Ushakov, the assistant to the president of the Russian Federation responsible for international affairs, Russian companies including Rosneft, UAZ, Kamaz, Inter-RAO, Rosgeologia, Gazprombank and others have already expressed their interest to start working in Mozambique (RIA Novosti, August 16).
Cooperation between Mozambique and Russia has also been experiencing a visible upsurge in the realm of military affairs. Specifically, their respective defense ministries last year signed a memorandum on strengthening ties in the naval-military domain (RBC, April 4, 2018), to some extent corroborating Milhazes’s argument about the prospect of a future Russian naval military base in the country. Moreover, the two sides concluded an agreement on the mutual protection of secret information. Although Russia asserted that the legislation had a non-military origin, pointing to the fact that the document was signed by Federal Security Service (FSB) Deputy Director Alexander Kupriyazskin, the Mozambican signature came from Minister of National Defense Atanásio Mtumuke. At the same time, collaboration has been strengthened between the two countries’ internal affairs ministries, via the signing of a special agreement (RIA Novosti, August 22).
Russia’s renewed interest in Mozambique is undoubtedly driven in part by the African partner’s hydrocarbon sector. In 2010, after the Italian oil and natural gas corporation ENI discovered substantial gas fields (putting Mozambique in the top 14 countries in terms of deposits), the country experienced a “natural gas rush”: at that time, all major world players (including the United States’ Anadarco Petroleum Corporation) expressed considerable interest to Mozambique. However, as argued by Russian sources, the country was not able to attract large (and much anticipated) investments—instead, Western players “placed floating LNG [liquefied natural gas] terminals on the shelf [of Mozambique… and] brought their own highly skilled Western experts and engineers. The locals were allocated low-paying and low-prestige jobs.” In response, the Mozambican authorities introduced protectionist quotas and regulations as a means to secure certain percentage of the local labor forces in extraction and processing of local natural resources (Vzglyad, August 21). Nevertheless, Mozambique still failed to attain its desired levels of economic growth
The main problem that warded off potential foreign investors (aside from endemic corruption and aggressive protectionism) has been Islamist radicalism. The Islamist insurgency in Mozambique paralyzed Cabo Delgado Province in October 2017 and jeopardized the extraction of natural resources in the whole region. Ill-prepared for this challenge, the local armed forces were dragged into a quagmire (Voaportugues.com, December 4, 2017). During bilateral negotiations between their defense ministers, the Mozambican side claimed it was ready “to host Russian military advisors” (Lenta.ru, September 8). Officially, the Russian government gave no clear response; but the most recent news of incoming Russian troops might, in effect, have been an answer to this “invitation.”
As lucrative as this opportunity may seem, Russia’s involvement in Mozambique may generate an overtly negative reaction from some African players. Namely, South Africa (Russia’s key partner in Sub-Saharan Africa and BRICS) may potentially feel its interests are being undermined. With the Russia-Africa Summit approaching (October 23–24), this is surely the last thing Moscow wants.