On orders from Russian President Vladimir Putin, his agent Yevgeny Prigozhin—popularly known as “the cook” because of his ownership of a catering company—has inserted “political technologists” in at least 20 African countries. These Russian operatives are meant to ensure the continuation in office of Moscow’s allies or victories in elections of pro-Moscow candidates to create a new “empire” for Russia in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the independent investigative journalist collective Project Group (Proekt.media, April 11). The Kremlin has for years viewed Sudan as an important base for this operation on the African continent. But the recent coup in this country shows how fragile and changeable is the foundation on which that Russian effort is based. And it suggests that political technology alone, however effective and inexpensive it has been elsewhere, will not be sufficient to achieve Putin’s goals.
The Project Group gained access to key documents about this Russian effort in Africa. That documentation was allegedly prepared by St. Petersburg political technologist Petr Bychkov. According to the investigative journalists, the paper work shows that, at present, the Kremlin’s people are working in Angola, Guinea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nigeria, Sudan, Chad, Rwanda, Benin, South Africa, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. For each country, Bychkov and his team have drawn up an action plan involving either support for current rulers allied with Moscow or the identification and support of candidates for president who, the Russian political technologist believe, can be brought under Kremlin control (Proekt.media, April 11).
Overseeing the whole effort is reportedly Yevgeny Prigozhin who, in addition to his lucrative catering contracts to the Russian state (and consequent close ties to Putin), also finances the notorious “private military company” (PMC) Wagner Group (see EDM, February 26, 2018). The Project Group investigators assert that Prigozhin is not some independent agent in this endeavor in Africa but is acting, in every case, at President Putin’s direction and in coordination with the Russian foreign ministry—however much Kremlin and ministry spokespersons deny it (Proekt.media, April 11)
All of this, the Project Group says, is intended to lay the groundwork for “the formation of a ‘gray’ union of African countries or ‘an African empire’ for Russia.” Once inserted in an African state, the Russian representatives are allegedly using many of the same tactics that the Soviets employed a generation ago: playing up anger against the West’s supposed “neo-colonial enslavement” of Africa and making direct payments to those leaders who are prepared to be on Moscow’s side. The Project Group reports that Moscow is spending $15 million in one country alone, although it does not provide a figure for the total cost. But even if it is $300 million dollars a year ($15 million times 20 countries), that would nevertheless be a relatively small investment for such a major enterprise.
Unfortunately, the Project Group analysts say, Russia is having far less success than the Kremlin might have hoped for. That outcome reflects, first of all, Moscow’s unwillingness or inability to invest more in the project. But second of all, the limited success is due to the complexities of life on the ground in the politics of African countries, many of which are teetering between democracy and dictatorship. In contrast to Moscow’s efforts against more well-established democracies, this limits the ability of political technology alone to achieve Russian goals.
Moscow commentator Igor Yakovenko argues that those very limits are now on view for all to see with the overthrow of longtime Sudanese dictator and Moscow friend Omar al-Bashir. The strongman’s sudden downfall means that Prigozhin and his team “have lost the keys” to Africa that Putin thought he already had in his pocket, Yakovenko contends (Yezhednevnyy Zhurnal, April 12).
The now former Sudanese president was one of the most odious rulers in the region. Over his 30 years in office, he brutally imposed Sharia law, provoked a civil war, and conducted ethnic cleansing. As a result, some two million of the country’s residents died and Sudan split in two. For his actions, al-Bashir became “the first sitting chief of state whose arrest was ordered by the International Criminal Court.” But through the last two decades of this, al-Bashir enjoyed the active support of Putin and, more recently, of the Prigozhin team. Ultimately, that backing did not save him (Yezhednevnyy Zhurnal, April 12).
Two years ago, Putin received al-Bashir in Sochi (see EDM, November 29, 2017), even though the Sudanese leader had by then been accused of genocide by The Hague. The Sudanese leader said that “the key to Africa” was to be found in his country and asked that Russia help defend him “from the aggressive actions of the United States,” which he said had been responsible for the secession of South Sudan. Instead of arresting this international criminal, Yakovenko continues, Putin gave him a high-profile welcome and apparently promised assistance (Yezhednevnyy Zhurnal, April 12).
Putin assigned Prigozhin to find this “key” and secure it for Moscow. “The chef” sent in his political technologists and units of the Wagner PMC. This combination succeeded in defending al-Bashir against multiple anti-government demonstrations and protests by unarmed civilians. “But when the [Sudanese] army rose up against Putin’s friend, the Wagnerites turned out to be powerless,” the Moscow commentator points out; and the dictator was overthrown (Yezhednevnyy Zhurnal, April 12). That is hardly an outcome Moscow wanted, especially because it sends a message to other leaders in the region that the Russians can provide assistance only until the going gets truly rough.
Sudan is only the highest-profile example of the failure of Russia’s efforts, Yakovenko says. In Madagascar, for example, the Prigozhin team supported 11 candidates, and only one of them received more than 1 percent of the vote. The man who did become president did so “more in spite of Russian support than because of it.” And other Africans could see that as well. In Cameroon, the local dictator turned aside Prigozhin’s offer of help—and was reconfirmed in office with his usual 71 percent.
Moscow can and will certainly continue to meddle in African affairs. But this influence may matter less than many in the West fear unless and until Russia is prepared to invest more resources than just small PMC detachments and a few political technologists. Other factors—far more deeply rooted and recalcitrant—reduce the effectiveness of Moscow’s current strategy on the continent, however mediagenic it may appear.