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Date: 21 August 2023
Why should we be concerned about Russia’s ideological imperialism in Africa
Russia’s ideological imperialism knows no boundaries. Leaders of several African countries met with Russian leader Vladimir Putin during the Russia-Africa Summit hosted in St. Petersburg on the 27th and 28th of July 2023.
On this occasion, Moscow pledged to ‘cancel’ the outstanding debts to several African countries worth $23 billion. Among other pledges, Russia’s president announced military cooperation agreements with over 40 African countries, of which only 17 heads of state attended.
Before the war, fifteen African states received more than half of their grain imports from either Ukraine or Russia.1 In addition to the rising costs of grain and food inflation, energy was also among the topics discussed during the Summit, being the presidents of Egypt and South Africa among the most outspoken on the need to resume the grain deal. During the allocated time, the president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa expressed that “we would like the Black Sea initiative to be implemented and that the Black Sea should be open.” In a natural contestation, the president added that “We are not here to plead for donations for the African continent.”2 Moreover, Russia’s withdrawal from the deal was perceived as a ‘stab in the back’ for drought-hit countries like Kenya, whose President, William Ruto did not attend the Summit. Undoubtedly, Russia’s weaponisation of food reflects an ill approach to the countries’ values and current moral standings.
While several media outlets expressed Russia’s export relief of grain to African countries, the reality was slightly different. The relief in question was targeted at the transportation fees rather than the cost of the grain itself, which countries were still obliged to pay in full. Eventually, Russian President Vladimir Putin committed to free grain shipments to Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, the Central African Republic, and Eritrea – countries which have currently Wagner troops on-site and have long-standing alliances with Russia. For instance, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki denied the existence of a Russia-Ukraine war and instead spoke of a NATO war on Russia.
Rising energy prices triggered by Western sanctions on Russian oil and gas exports have also magnified the struggle faced by many African countries that now encounter lower credit and borrowing opportunities in the global financial mechanisms. Against this backdrop, the US has a prevailing interest in the Sahel to deter the world’s new epicentres for violent extremism from reaching a renewed momentum against financial adversities faced by the region. The United States has supported French counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel since 2013, providing
airlift of French troops into Mali, and intelligence collection support in Niger.3 Currently, both the US and France operate military bases in Niger as part of operations to disrupt jihadist groups operating in the wider region.4
Africa is one of the largest regional voting blocs in the United Nations, but it is also the most divided on General Assembly resolutions vis-a-vis Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Africa’s ambivalence towards Russia has consequences in the international phora as well affecting development programmes and financial aid. Currently, at least ten countries in Africa have experienced a coup d’etat in the last five years. More recently, a military Junta in Niger overtook the democratic power by force early in July. Niger’s elected leader Mohamed Bazoum was confined to house arrest by the presidential guard. Deprived of electricity and medicines, elected president Mohamed Bazoum remains in home detention witnessing how the illegitimate Junta garners pro-Russia support domestically while leaders around the world condemn such undemocratic actions.
In a more recent meeting, the regional leadership of ECOWAS is being set to the test giving a second ultimatum to the Junta in Niger to restore order in the country. The first ultimatum passed without any reaction from the Junta controlling Niger, setting once more in doubt the capacity of ECOWAS to respond to regional strifes. As ECOWAS continues to discuss and disagree between diplomatic solutions and the recourse of force to intervene in Niger, the Junta enjoys support from its neighbours Mali, Burkina Faso and Lybia – the former two also controlled by military Juntas. In this regard, military intervention or use of force could set a new security landscape in Africa. Against this backdrop, Russia continues to be Africa’s biggest arms supplier. According to a report in 2022 by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the main suppliers to Africa in 2018–22 were Russia, accounting for 40 per cent of African imports of major arms, and the US with 16 per cent.5
Siemon T. Wezeman, a senior researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Program, told the French newspaper Le Monde, “Even if there is a UN embargo, the weapons are coming in and they are coming in with Wagner.”6 Founded by Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, The Wagner group operates as a complex constellation of businesses and mercenary groups whose operations are closely tied to the Russian military and intelligence community. It is estimated that approximately “some five thousand members are stationed across Africa – a combination of former Russian soldiers, convicts, and foreign nationals.”7
Following a strategy of divide and conquer, the Wagner Group, as an extended arm of Russia in Africa, provides paramilitary assistance to different regimes in the continent most notably in Mali, Burkina Faso, Libya, Mozambique and the Central African Republic. Firstly in Sudan and currently in Niger, political instability has succeeded in inciting a coup d’etat that is accompanied by waves of disinformation, fake news and pro-Russian propaganda. The regimes in question have a tendency to be more pro-Russia, thus extending the Russian sphere of influence across the Sahel. Although no concrete evidence has been presented attributing the coup in Niger to Russia, it is undoubtful that both Russia and Wagner group seek to capitalize on the country’s current instability. With an open invitation from the coup plotters across the continent and their regional allies, the entire central Sahel region could fall to Russian influence via the Wagner Group.
Disinformation campaigns are supplementary techniques employed by Russia to continue its strategy of divide and conquer. Beyond aiming at achieving Russia’s political objectives in relation to its aggression against Ukraine, disinformation campaigns across Africa seek to alienate the continent from Western values and allies promoting anti-Western and pro-Kremlin ideas.
Russia launched disinformation campaigns for troubled regimes in exchange for resource concessions and diplomatic support. In a study conducted by The Africa Center for Strategic Studies, records show numerous disinformation campaigns across the continent with significant impact on military recruitment, intimidation, harassment, and political support for Russia. From the campaigns that have been detected and publicly documented, three main stand out including campaigns in 2020 in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali. Most notably, Russosphère “a network in defence of Russia”, operates all across Africa utilizing social media and traditional propaganda to disseminate pro-Russia content.
Putin praised Africa as a rising centre of power in the world while shaming countries like France for their colonial history in the continent. Although the US has not been very vocal, and not active in the African country, its presence is still respected. However, more recently this respect has been set into question when Reuben Brigety, the US ambassador to South Africa, accused the country of having provided weapons to Russia via a cargo ship (the Lady R vessel) in May. Brigety failed to provide evidence for his claims. As pressure continued to mount, South Africa speaks of a possible expulsion of the dignitary from Pretoria.8 President Cyril
Ramaphosa has yet to determine the outcome of such an accusation and the subsequent actions in this regard.
There is no question that the US priorities are more narrowly focused on Ukraine and Taiwan, leaving Africa on a secondary stage. Notwithstanding, it is worth noting that the stability of the Sahel and the African continent entirely is highly relevant for the outplay of regional and world politics. The security dilemma has never left the global sphere but it is more market today than ever. Russian ideological imperialism continues to spread across the African continent. From concessions to material gifts, such as grain and armament, Russia has extended a long-dismissed tactic of influence rooted in violence and extorsion, instating its own ‘backyard’ in the Sahel.
As Russia continues to garner support across the globe to finance its war against Ukraine, the Western powers will have to measure its priorities within their strategic boards. Africa is the second largest continent and also the second most populated one after Asia, with around 1.37 billion people, or 17.4% of the world’s population. Thus, what turns in Africa will have long-lasting repercussions in terms of security, terrorism, migration, illegal smuggling, piracy and democratic backsliding across the region and beyond. Although direct military is not an option, indirect efforts and diplomatic venues should prevail and be given the necessary focus at this particular time more than ever.
Katja-Elisabeth Herrmann Katja-Elisabeth works as a research fellow at the Warsaw Institute. She graduated with an MA in Transatlantic Affairs from the College of Europe (Warsaw, Poland) and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, cross-registering as a student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (Boston, MA). Additionally, Katja-Elisabeth holds a BA in International Relations and International Organizations, which she combined with a degree in International and European Law (LLB) from the University of Groningen.
Her research is mainly devoted to transatlantic security and defense topics, particularly emerging and disruptive technologies. She was recently awarded the Squire Patton Boggs Foundation public policy fellowship in 2022 to conduct research on U.S. domestic politics and the Three Seas Initiative. She is also interested in cybersecurity and crisis management.
She recently presented her research at the Fletcher School on semiconductor technologies’ political and industrial landscape in the U.S. and the EU. She will continue her research, focusing on the challenges and opportunities for military procurement for NATO allies.
Armstrong Kathryn and Nduka Orjinmo, “Niger coup: US envoy holds ‘difficult’ talks with junta” BBC News (August 8, 2023). https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-66424858
Armstrong Kathryn, “Niger coup: Wagner taking advantage of instability – Antony Blinken” BBC News (August 9, 2023). https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-66436797
ADF Magazine, “Russia Emerges As Top Weapons Supplier To Sub-Saharan Africa” ADF Magazine (Apr 21, 2023). https://adf-magazine.com/2023/04/russia-emerges-as-top-weapons-supplier-to-sub-saharan-africa/
Finucane Brian, “Still at War: The United States in the Sahel” Just Security (April 7, 2022). https://www.justsecurity.org/81028/still-at-war-the-united-states-in-the-sahel/
Gadon Justine, Siemon T. Wezeman and Pieter D. Wezeman “Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2022” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (March, 2023). https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2023-03/2303_at_fact_sheet_2022_v2.pdf
Madia Tshidi, “Pressure mounting for US Ambassador Brigety’s expulsion from SA” Eye Witness News (August 8, 2023). https://ewn.co.za/2023/08/08/pressure-mounting-for-us-ambassador-brigety-s-expulsion-from-sa
Rampe William, “What Is Russia’s Wagner Group Doing in Africa?” Council on Foreign Relations (May 23, 2023). https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/what-russias-wagner-group-doing-africa
The Associate Press, “African leaders leave Russia summit without grain deal or path to peace in Ukraine” NPR (July 30, 2023). https://www.npr.org/2023/07/30/1190968770/african-leaders-leave-russia-summit-without-grain-deal-or-path-to-peace-in-ukrai
The Africa Center for Strategic Studies, “Mapping Disinformation in Africa” The Africa Center for Strategic Studies (April 26, 2022). https://africacenter.org/spotlight/mapping-disinformation-in-africa/
Zaytsev Vadim, “Second Russia-Africa Summit Lays Bare Russia’s Waning Influence” Carnegie (July 31, 2023). https://carnegieendowment.org/politika/90294
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