Russia in Africa – implications of the war in Ukraine

Katja Lindskov Jacobsen

PhD International Relations Lancaster University. She is a Senior Researcher at Copenhagen University, Department of Political Science, Centre for Military Studies. She is an international authority on the issue of humanitarian biometrics and security dimensions and is the author of The Politics of Humanitarian Technology (Routledge, 2015). Her research has also appeared in Citizenship Studies, Security Dialogue, Journal of Intervention & Statebuilding, and African Security Review, among others. She is also an expert on piracy and counterpirac in the Gulf of Guinea as well as in the Horn of Africa

After a post-Cold War period of little Russian focus on the African continent, Russia’s role and influence in Africa has now grown in recent years, notably since around 2017. The invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 illustrates a number of important dimensions of this development. Some Russian para-mercenaries from the Wagner group (explained below) have for example been sent from the Central African Republic (CAR) back to Europe to fight the Putin regime’s war in Ukraine. At a different level, namely in the UN system, much attention has been given to how Russia has received (more or less implicit) support from some African states in relation to the Ukraine War. In addition, the pressure on the Russian economy may is likely to render African markets more important to Russia

Indeed, the war in Ukraine could affect and potentially change Russia’s role and influence in Africa. The war impacts the entire African continent as African states are now navigating, in different ways, an intensified conflict between Russia and the Western countries. This includes making choices where the contrasts have become much starker, not just in security provision and defense cooperation but also in other areas like development policy, foreign investments and the diplomatic scene in the UN.  When for example the UN General Assembly held a vote on the situation in Ukraine, all African countries experienced a sharpened focus on their voting. High-level diplomats explain their efforts in approaching African states to discuss this matter of UNSC voting patterns. 

The war also has implications for Russia itself, encountering both a situation of having fewer political and economic resources to invest in Africa, but also at the same time, an increased need to seek political support and new markets. Finally, the war has implications for Western countries confronting Russia’s multifaceted presence in Africa, which in many respects contrasts with Western principles, but nonetheless gives Russia influence.

This article therefore examines the consequences of the Ukraine War for Russia’s role in Africa, including the struggle for influence that unfolds between Russia and the Western countries. My contribution is based on an analytical distinction between official and very visible – ‘showy’ – dimension on the one hand, and a number of more « shadowy » dimensions of Russia’s engagement in Africa, on the other hand. The analytical category “shadowy » does not mean that these activities are altogether unobservable, but refers instead to the fact that they are not part of Russia’s official policy and are therefore often denied. In elaborating on these two dimensions of Russia’s Africa presence, the article follows a structure whereby, first, these two dimensions are outlined with a focus on how this looked before the invasion of Ukraine. Next, the article explores changes in both dimensions after the invasion. What trends are already emerging? What might it be important to keep an eye on in the coming months? 

Russia’s showy and shadowy return to Africa

With the end of the Cold War, Russia reduced its military, diplomatic, religious and ideological engagements in Africa. After many years of being absent as a significant player on the African continent – during a period where China, the Gulf states and other actors did not waste the opportunity to gain influence – Russia has now increasingly returned to Africa in recent years. It is a return that has several dimensions, some more visible than others.

The visible dimensions of Russia’s Africa engagement

Within the diplomatic, economic, and military spheres, a number of visible aspects of Russia’s renewed presence in Africa are seen. Diplomatically and politically, Russia’s ambition to increase its influence on the African continent became very visible with Putin’s grant Russia-Africa Summit in October 2019 – the first of its kind. Economically, it is noteworthy that Russia has increased arms sales to several African states, with Angola and Algeria as some of its most active buyers. In light of the sanctions against the Russian economy following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia increased its share of the African arms market, while conversely, Russia’s share of the global arms market declined. Some therefore point out that Russia’s focus on Africa is linked to the country’s marginalization in other markets.

Several arms sales agreements were concluded at the aforementioned summit. Regarding the military field, it is of particular interest to note that Russia has also announced the building of various naval bases, e.g. in Eritrea, Somaliland and Sudan. Another aspect of Russia’s official presence in Africa concerns Russian military instructors. In 2017, when the UN Security Council approved a Russian training mission in the Central African Republic and lifted an arms embargo (from 2013) against the country, President Touadéra turned to Russia to ask for support in the form of both military instructors and weapons, as neither the UN nor the EU could accommodate the request.

The visible impact should not be overestimated

Although these dimensions of Russia’s African engagement are visible to everyone, they should not be overestimated. First, at the time of writing, despite several trials and official announcements, not a single Russian naval base has yet been built on the African continent, possibly because the United States managed to prevent this development. Sudan reaffirmed, in March 2022 that the country “remains open to naval base deal with Russia”, but nothing has yet been built. Second, Russia’s current presence is not at the same level as during the Cold War. Thirdly, it is arguably doubtful whether Russia will currently have the resources to implement many of these ‘showy’ dimensions, notably the second edition of the Russia-Africa Summit and the announced military bases. Despite increased presence from around 2017, Russia’s official presence so far has a rather limited scope. However, there are also less visible dimensions to Russia’s current Africa engagements. If these are included, the picture looks different.

Shadowy dimensions of Russia’s African engagement

Of the « shadowy » aspects of Russia’s political Africa engagement, disinformation is an essential means. Russia has used disinformation to try to gain influence through political and ideological support, e.g. by supporting the regime or the opposition – depending on who one wants to see in power – in different African countries. Russia also uses disinformation to increase opposition to Western actors, including France, among others. This often involves referring to Russia as « anti-colonial ».   Russia’s use of disinformation has exacerbated existing local dissatisfaction with the presence of Western actors. In some cases, disinformation-exaggerated dissatisfaction grew so strong that it became an entry-strategy, as Russia was then able to offer alternative assistance, as it seen with the Wagner group in Mali.

The Wagner Group indeed constitutes a central, albeit unrecognized by Russia and in that sense « shadowy », military aspect of Russia’s renewed African engagement. Officially, the Wagner group does not exist. Private security companies are illegal in Russia and the Wagner group does not exist as a publicly registered company in Russia. The group consists of « not-quite-private » mercenaries, and the mastermind is believed to be Yevgeniy Prigozhin, an influential Russian businessman with close ties to President Putin’s regime. Experts estimate that there are at least 5,000 soldiers attached to the group, possibly significantly more. Many have a background in the Russian military, but the group has also recruited in countries such as Syria and is now reportedly doing so in several places in Africa as well, possibly including Ethiopia

In 2014, Wagner soldiers became known as Putin’s « little green men » when they were first used in connection with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and as support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Their presence in various places in Africa has been tried to be kept secret. In 2018, three Russian journalists were killed in the Central African Republic in connection with an investigation into what the Wagner soldiers were doing in the country, including in areas with diamond mines. At the same time, the mercenaries were active in Syria, Libya and in several other African countries such as Mozambique and Mali. Russia does not recognize the Wagner group and therefore no one is held responsible for abuses or other violations of the laws of war.  This is indeed one of the dimensions of Russia’s shadowy return to Africa, which many Western actors find it extremely challenging to respond to.  Whereas before the war in Ukraine it was possible, at least implicitly, to navigate in a largely unspoken co-existence with Russian ‘trainers’ – for example in CAR. Yet, after 24 February 2022, this option no longer seems to be on the table. Western actors increasingly discuss withdrawing from (or being asked to leave) contexts where Wagner group soldiers are committing atrocities. Yet, leaving might not necessarily in the long run be the best way to challenge Russia’s increasing influence in Africa. 

Finally, there are a number of less visible economic aspects. Among other things, unofficial contracts for the rights to operate diamond mines in the Central African Republic are presumably helping to finance the cost of the Wagner Group’s presence. On that note, it is worth noting that the less visible dimensions are not only linked to the Russian regime, but also often interrelated internally in the network of oligarchs around Putin. Prigozhin, the alleged mastermind of the Wagner group, is also behind the Russian « Internet Research Agency« , which has conducted disinformation campaigns in Africa and elsewhere (including the 2016 US presidential election). At the same time, Prigozhin is also believed to have links to private companies, such as diamond mines operators in the Central African Republic and gold mines in Sudan.

The shadowy influence should not be underestimated

There are good reasons why the less visible dimensions should not be underestimated. First, there are peculiar dynamics in the interaction between Russian mercenaries and local African rulers. In Central African Republic, Wagnerian soldiers have begun collecting taxes on coffee. This kind of activity risks leading to a self-reinforcing logic in which the state is eroded because it does not receive the income that the Wagner para-mercenaries collect and is therefore in a worsening position in terms of providing services to its own population. In addition, another critical challenge is the extent to which the Wagner group’s business depends on continued instability as the conditions under which the regime will remain dependent on Wagner soldiers for providing (regime) security. In short, instability and uncertainty can grow if such dynamics spread.

Moreover, by exploiting these flexible and « shadowy » forms of presence, commonly combined with more visible and official activities, Russia has proven capable of gaining influence through relatively modest means. An important question, therefore, is how Russia combines its visible and « shadowy » activities.

Also worth highlighting, Russia’s attempts to increase its influence on the African continent have failed in some cases. This applies to both the use of Wagner soldiers and Russian disinformation, e.g. in Mozambique and Madagascar. Nevertheless, one should take the issue of the « shadowy » influence seriously. There are indications that Russia is using its renewed African commitment to test which combinations of visible and less visible forms of presence work best and are most cost-effective. The examples from the Central African Republic, Mozambique and Mali show that Russia does not apply the same influence strategy everywhere – a dynamic that may be important to keep in mind, both for African countries and for Western intervention actors.

Russia and Africa after February 24, 2022

As for the visible dimensions of Russia’s engagement in Africa, the Ukraine war has so far had mixed consequences. Some initiatives are on uncertain ground. This includes the planned second edition of Putin’s Russia-Africa Summit, which is scheduled to take place in the autumn of 2022. Conversely, other initiatives have been confirmed, including e.g. the naval base agreement between Russia and Sudan. Sources also point out that gold from Sudan’s mines may have played a role in Putin’s strategy for Russia’s resilience to Western sanctions following the invasion.

In addition, African states, like other countries, are feeling the importance of Russia’s war in the form of rising food and energy prices. Somalia, for example, has been severely affected 89% of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine. In Nigeria, energy prices have risen to unprecedented levels, which is expected to increase both oil-related crime and unemployment in the country. Thus, there may be increasing instability in already fragile states.

Voice patterns in the UN and the intensified conflict between Russia and the West

One thing is to explore what has changed if we look at the already visible aspects of Russia’s African relations. Another thing is how the war has highlighted some of the effects that Russia has achieved through its African engagement. Here, the voting patterns of the UN General Assembly are interesting. At an Emergency Special Session on Ukraine on March 2, 2022, Member States were to vote on a UN resolution demanding that Russia « immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all its military forces from Ukrainian territory« . With this and subsequent votes, many African states are facing an increasingly difficult balancing act in a very tense situation. Russia as well as Western states pay increasing attention to voting patterns – viewing these as a significant indicator of which states in Africa are with, against or seeking a neutral position vis-à-vis Russia.

In the March 2 vote, only Eritrea voted against the resolution. Conversely, 28 out of 54 African states voted in favor of the resolution. Kenya, for example, has been very explicit in its distancing itself from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ghana, Gabon and Nigeria have also publicly condemned Russia’s aggression. The other half either voted « blank » (17 states) or did not vote at all (8 states). Some see the « neutral » voices as a sign that these countries do not support the West. In some cases, that is true. For example. Sudan confirmed its continued support during a visit to Moscow following the beginning of the invasion.

In other cases, the « neutral » voices are probably more an expression of ambivalence or a desire for neutrality among states that occupy a pragmatic position in order to continue to be able to cooperate with both Western and Russian actors. For example, South Africa has close ties to the West, but also a historical relationship with Russia – a position that South Africa has wanted to use to become a kind of mediator. Egypt also balances between the West and Russia as a country with ties to both, including to Russia, for example as co-host of the first Russia-Africa Summit in 2019.

The nuances across the African continent are important, not least in relation to the countries that fall into the middle category and that Western states « compete » with Russia for in the larger game of influence. A harsh « either-or » rhetoric can push some African states onto Russia’s half of the field. For the African countries themselves, the war in Ukraine has clarified a (formerly more latent) contrast between Russia and the West. The contrast is not new, but has gained a new character and meaning.

The « shadowy » significance of the Wagner group

All indications are that Wagner soldiers are taking part in the Putin regime’s war in Ukraine. According to sources, Wagner soldiers flew to Russia as early as December 2021 to prepare for the coming invasion. Since then, they have been observed on the ground in Ukraine. Analysts point out that the group has used various conflicts to « practice » and gather experience. In Syria, Wagner soldiers have used violent methods without being held accountable. An episode in Mali in March 2022, in which Wagner soldiers are believed to have been involved in a massacre in the city of Moura, in which 300-500 civilians lost their lives, exemplifies the group’s brutal actions. While the episode met with international condemnation, Russia has conversely congratulated Mali on a successful anti-terrorism effort. Conversely, in Mozambique, Wagnerian soldiers failed to fight rebel groups. It is thus with mixed experiences that the Wagner group takes part in the Ukraine war.

However, the question is also what the war means for the group’s future activities in Africa. While in some African countries – not least the Central African Republic – there is now reportedly less Wagner presence than before, the opposite trend may apply elsewhere. The rationale is that while everyone in the West is focusing on Ukraine, Russia can relatively unnoticed send more Wagnerian soldiers to, for example, Mali. It is particularly interesting in this context that the group’s recruitment may have changed after the start of the war – as noticed above concerning potential recruitment in African contexts – and may now have better conditions in several African states, for example due to rising food insecurity and unemployment. In other words, the Ukraine war – with all its derivative international effects – reinforces the combination of insecurity and instability that the Wagner group lives on in Africa.

Acknowledgment : Katja Lindskov Jacobsen (2022) « Russia in Africa – Implications of the War in Ukraine, » Chapter 6 (pages 54-63) in Kristian Søby Kristensen and Niels Byrjalsen, eds., « After the peace: The significance of the Ukrainian war for Danish and European security », CMS Report, Center for Military Studies, June 2022.