Sweep of Putin’s African Ambitions Coming into Sharp Focus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 142

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangawa with President Vladimir Putin (Source: Getty Images)

Last January, Rosbalt commentator Aleksandr Zhelenin suggested it was a mistake to try to find some “grand political design” in Russia’s deepening involvement in Africa. The explanation for what has been occurring, he said, is “both simpler and more disturbing”: it is a reflection of the greed of Russian elites rather than any concern about Russian national interests. Having completed the dividing up of Russia’s domestic natural resources, the parts of “the corporation” known as “Russia” have decided that Africa could be a new source of wealth—both from the extraction of raw materials and as a market for the sale of Russian military equipment (Rosbalt, January 19).

While many in Moscow undoubtedly want to profit off of Africa, the intervening months have shown that, actually, what the Russian government is doing there reflects a broader vision of Vladimir Putin. In the Kremlin’s view, the advantages that involvement in Africa can bring Russia not only relate to competition with the West in general but also with the United States in particular. Among Russia’s myriad activities in Africa over the last nine months, the following stand out and collectively call into question Zhelenin’s negative assessment:

  • Moscow has carried out an ambitious propaganda campaign to recall the Soviet Union’s contribution to African independence and to play up threats to African countries that Russia is ostensibly uniquely equipped to counter (see EDM, September 18).
  • Russian commentators and officials have portrayed the continent as a key battleground in the new cold war with the West and sought military and political agreements with some 30 countries in Africa during that period. Moscow has been selling them increasing quantities of arms, sending Russian military personnel to train African armies, and securing Russian participation in the national security planning of some of these states (see EDM, June 4, July 25).
  • Moscow has dispatched not only businessmen and military figures, both overt and covert, but has also sent its “political technologists” to help those African leaders it favors to stay in power or to weaken or overthrow those it opposes (see EDM, September 19).
  • Russian military analysts have suggested that Russia should be following the French model of neo-colonialism, Françafrique, which would give Moscow the power to intervene to help its friends, hurt its enemies, and prevent the entrance into key countries of outside competitors (ru, August 28).
  • Russian officials have openly sought military bases in Sudan to be able to project power into the Indian Ocean (ru, October 13) and ultimately into Antarctica as well (Profile.ru, September 2).
  • And there have even been reports that Russian “private military companies” (PMC) are planning to use Africa as a training site for African Americans, who could then supposedly be reintroduced into the United States to stoke racial hostilities (center, May 21; NBC News, May 20).

Not all of these Moscow efforts, of course, have been successful or even come to fruition (see EDM, April 16, 2019 and November 6, 2018), but they suggest that Russia’s strategy in Africa is far broader than many have thought. And that new conclusion will only be reinforced next week (October 23–24), when Putin convenes a summit with senior representatives of more than 40 African states in Sochi.

In a commentary for Nezavisimaya Gazeta Sunday (October 13), Leonid Fituni, the deputy director of the Institute of Africa of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says that the upcoming Sochi meeting is “unprecedented” and reflects both Moscow’s recovery of its positions on the continent that it lost in 1991 and the radically increasing importance of African countries not only geo-strategically but for the Russian economy and its modernization (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 13).

Over the last two decades, the academician says, “many countries, including Russia, have come to an understanding that Africa is the Klondike of the 21st century,” a place of enormous natural wealth, growing markets and, consequently, geo-economic and geopolitical competition as world powers seek to become involved there to advance their own interests while defending them against others (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 13).

Fituni suggests there are three main reasons for that, all of which lie behind the upcoming Sochi summit: First, the explosion of global trade means that the wealth of Africa is available to anyone who gains a foothold there and can export its natural resources and sell its goods to the growing populations of African countries. Second, Africa is where the redivision of the post-1991 world order is taking place, as those who were not there earlier (like China) and those who were pushed out a generation ago (like Russia) seek to carve out positions of power for themselves, thus putting them at odds with former colonial powers (like France and the United Kingdom) and their backers in the United States. And third, and this is “most interesting from the point of view of the actual requirements of the economic development of Russia, Africa is rapidly developing, creating unprecedented opportunities for the acceleration of the development of partner countries who have the wisdom to use it.”

One Chinese analyst said that 20 percent of his country’s economic growth over the last generation came from its involvement in Africa, the Moscow scholar contends. The same can be true for Russia. It can export raw materials from Africa to its advantage now, but it can also sell manufactured products to the growing economies of that continent, thus helping to transform Russia from a raw materials exporter to a manufacturing power (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 13).

“For Russia,” Fituni says, “it is thus extraordinarily important to strengthen its positions in these markets,” especially since its trade with Africa now amounts to more than $20 billion, with its exports to Africa being five times as great as its imports. That advantage can continue, even as trade is projected to double over the next few years.

Clearly, the Kremlin has a grand plan for Africa; and countering it will be impossible unless it is first recognized for what it is, not simply a scramble among oligarchs for money but a major move directed at expanding Russian power far beyond the borders of that continent.