The Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum (Interaffairs.ru, October 17), to be held in Sochi, on October 23–24, is expected to become a regular event of huge importance for Moscow (Summitafrica.ru, accessed October 21). In many ways, this Summit is viewed by the Russian side as a pivot, signifying a new stage in Russia’s “return to Africa” strategy. Already visible in the second half of the 2000s, this strategy received a powerful impulse after 2014, following the breakdown in political relations between Russia and the West (YouTube, February 1).
Africa has resurfaced as an important foreign policy priority for Moscow for three main reasons. First, Russia sees African countries as important allies in major international institutions/organizations—including the United Nations or the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) grouping of rising developing powers—as well as counterweights against the isolation imposed on the Russian Federation by Western governments (YouTube, December 19, 2018). The second objective is linked to the African continent’s rich natural resource deposits, many of which are also strategically important (but difficult to extract domestically) for key Russian industries (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 6, 2018). Third, Africa is viewed by the Russian side as a virtually unexplored but potentially hugely lucrative venue for Russian businesses, ranging from defense industry producers and nuclear power sector enterprises to processing/extraction corporations and agriculture companies (Valdaiclub.com, March 5, 2018).
To try to solidify its posture on the continent, Russia has been employing a number of diverse instruments. The key one, however, is the so-called “security export” mechanism (see EDM, October 12, 2018), which has already been tested in other regions. The implementation of this mechanism is carried out using two frequently interrelated approaches:
– Legal military-technical cooperation with countries of sub-Saharan Africa: Aside from arms sales per se, this also includes anti-terrorist training programs offered by the Russian side. In one notable example, Nigeria expressed deep interest in accepting “Russian special forces” to train/consult the local military on how to carry out anti-terrorism operations (Arms-expo.ru, October 16, 2019);
– Illegal (yet, much sought after by some African leaders) services: These involve the deployment of Russian mercenaries or private military companies (PMC) to carry out various tasks, including, as some outlets have reported, the forceful (and exceptionally brutal) suppression of public revolts and anti-governmental protests (Svoboda.org, January 10).
The target markets for the two above-mentioned military cooperation “packages” offered by Russia tend to diverge. The licit and public military-technical cooperation and services are generally reserved for larger, relatively economically and politically stable African states. And the key roles in building these business and defense-sector relations are allocated to Russian state-sponsored companies as well as government ministries. By employing this open approach, Russia aims to increase its international reputation and credibility both in Africa and beyond. The second type of security export mechanism—i.e., illegal and furtive mercenary-type services—tends to be offered mainly to highly resource-endowed but politically unstable and often internationally isolated states. Such activities primarily benefit “shadow” (though state-related) individuals who are able to profit using legally dubious schemes established through various direct or oblique contacts with local regimes.
Practical demonstrations of this dual-track policy are worth analyzing in light of the upcoming Russia-Africa Summit. In this regard, two specific cases deserve a closer look. The first is Russia’s relationship with South Africa (SA), which Moscow views as its key strategic partner on the continent and (as a member of BRICS) one of the central pillars of a Kremlin-backed multi-polar world architecture (Interaffairs.ru, March 15, 2017). Ahead of the Russia-Africa Summit, Moscow has conspicuously promoted Pretoria’s international profile by agreeing to participate in the first ever trilateral Russo-Chinese-SA naval exercises, near Cape Town, which are scheduled for late November. According to Russian military officials, the main objectives of building this relationship will be to “develop the maritime economy” as well as “foster cooperation and ties between the navies of the participating parties” (Tvbrics.com, October 18, 2019). Furthermore, on October 21, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced plans to dispatch to South Africa two Tu-160 heavy strategic bombers (as well as an Il-62 airliner and an An-124 strategic airlifter) within the scope of “bilateral military-technical cooperation” (RIA Novosti, October 21).
Russia’s true goal, however, might be more ambitious and complex than what is seen on the surface. By overtly demonstrating a strengthening of ties with the SA, the Russian Federation effectively aims to encourage Africa’s most heavily populated (and resource endowed) country, Nigeria, into similarly tightening military-technical cooperation with Russia. Such a tightening of cooperation would presumably include signing lucrative arms contracts as well as inviting in Russian military experts. More broadly speaking, therefore, boosting official contacts with the SA could be seen as part of Russia’s attempt to solidify its position in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.
Russia is employing a qualitatively different strategy vis-à-vis weaker African countries, such as Zimbabwe, Madagascar, the Central African Republican (CAR), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Gabon and others. Namely, Moscow’s approach is characterized by extensive employment of non-conventional/illegal means—for example, sending in furtive mercenary groups—as a way to compete with outside (namely, Western) powers that the Kremlin regards as relatively inept opponents (primarily, Italy, Portugal and France). For instance, Russia’s actions in the CAR—a “hybrid”-style information warfare operation, classic public relations campaigns, as well as explicit military support and weapons sales to the government, which is embroiled in a civil war—have already resulted in a partial marginalization of France, despite the latter’s large financial injections into the local economy (see EDM, January 23). Similarly, according to Russian and Portuguese sources, Russia has reportedly sent a (para)military contingent to Mozambique to help the local leadership wage a counter-terrorist operation in the country’s northern province of Cabo Delgado, which is endowed with natural gas but plagued by internal strife (see EDM, October 15). That said, Moscow’s main objective may not be solely related to reaping profits in Mozambique; rather, it may also be designed to signal to the SA (which itself has various strategic interests in this neighboring country) Russia’s growing role in the region.
Ahead of the October 23–24 summit with African states, Russia has activated a variety of instruments that could (and most likely will) be used to cultivate these regional partners over the long term. Importantly, Russia is seeking to achieve its objectives via bilateral approaches designed to exploit individual, country-specific weaknesses.