Tornike Turmanidze, Senior Fellow at Rondeli Foundation
After the start of the Russia-Ukraine War, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov conducted three diplomatic tours of Africa. On July 23-27, 2022, he visited Egypt, Congo, Uganda, and Ethiopia, on January 23-26, 2023 – the Republic of South Africa, Eswatini, Angola, and Eritrea, and on February 6-9, 2023 – Mali, Mauritania, and Sudan. In addition, the Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum will be held in July 2023, in St. Petersburg, which is to some extent a response to the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit held in December 2022.
Although the African vector has always been more or less active in the foreign policy of the Russian Federation (and before that of the Soviet Union), after the start of Russia’s full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, Moscow’s diplomacy in this direction acquired more intensity and partially a new content. Therefore, it is interesting to explore: 1) what goals the recent active diplomatic moves of Russia on the African continent serve and 2) how are they connected with the Russia-Ukraine War?
By intensifying relations with some African states, Russia, first of all, wants to demonstrate that despite its military aggression and war crimes committed against Ukraine, it is not in international isolation. Lavrov’s frequent visits to Africa are an attempt to compensate for Russia’s estrangement from the civilized world and, in terms of propaganda, target both Russian and international audiences, especially the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, and other African countries. At the same time, the Kremlin is trying to reinforce the message that the international system is multipolar, where not all states comply with the will of the West (the US and its allies), and that Russia is one of the centers of power in the world, with which many countries not only maintain normal relations but also deepen cooperation.
It seems that Vladimir Putin’s regime also wants to express its gratitude to those African states which do not vote for pro-Ukrainian resolutions at the United Nations. A few days after the start of Russia’s full-scale military aggression against Ukraine, the Eleventh Emergency Special Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations was called, and it has so far adopted six war-related resolutions. The first resolution, which condemned Russia’s actions and demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from the territory of Ukraine, was passed on March 2, 2022, by a vote of 141 in favor and 5 against. Although only Eritrea of the African countries voted against the resolution, it is worth noting that of the 35 states which abstained in the vote, 17 were African states: Algeria, Angola, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Senegal, the Republic of South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. At the same time, among the 12 states which did not participate in the vote, there were eight African states: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Eswatini, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Morocco, and Togo. Thus, 26 of the 54 states on the African continent directly or indirectly took a position benefiting Russia. A year after the start of the war, the situation remained largely unchanged: Mali joined the group of opponents of the sixth resolution adopted at the same Special Session of the UN General Assembly on February 23, 2023; Madagascar and South Sudan moved into the group of supporters; while the remaining 22 African states either abstained again or refused to participate in the vote. Sergey Lavrov’s African tours have mainly covered those African countries which belong to the “pro-Russian camp,” and his future African visits will probably be made to other states in the same camp. However, the Kremlin has not ceased its attempts to win over countries in Africa (as well as in other parts of the world) that are in the “pro-Ukrainian camp.” The Russian Foreign Minister also visited Egypt and Mauritania, which have supported the abovementioned UNGA resolutions.
Russia continues the foreign-policy tradition of the Soviet Union in Africa and tries to use the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist sentiments widespread on this continent for its interests – namely, to disseminate its propaganda messages about the Russia-Ukraine War and strengthen anti-Western attitudes. During the high-level meetings held in African capitals, Lavrov actively reiterated the Russian interpretation of reasons for the war against Ukraine, presenting the West as an aggressor and Russia as a victim, which, due to the threat of NATO’s eastward expansion, seemed to have no other option but to launch a “special operation” in Ukraine. Moreover, Lavrov blamed the West for the drop in Ukraine’s wheat exports to Africa and the aggravation of the global food crisis following the war. Unfortunately, in many African countries, there is fertile ground for spreading such propaganda as, for them, Western, especially European, states were historically colonizers, while the Soviet Union was perceived as a supporter of the African peoples’ struggle against colonial rule. For example, the favorable attitude of the Republic of South Africa towards Russia is often explained by the fact that, in the past, the Soviet Union helped the African National Congress party in its fight against the Apartheid regime. Although the South African government officially says that it has a neutral stance on the Russia-Ukraine War, its actions are equivalent to being a Russian ally: Pretoria has refused to condemn Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine and join Western sanctions against Russia, yet it agreed to participate in the next Russia-Africa Summit and condemned the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act passed by the US House of Representatives in April 2022. Also, on February 17-27, 2023, on the first anniversary of the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the Republic of South Africa held joint naval military exercises with Russia and China off its coast. In August this year, South Africa, as the chair of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), is due to host the group’s next summit, where Russian President Vladimir Putin is invited, despite the March 17 warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for his arrest.
Contrary to anti-colonial and anti-imperialist propaganda slogans, Russia itself acts as a colonizer in Africa. Moscow wants to expand its sphere of influence on the continent first by diminishing the political and economic influence of the US and European states, and second by challenging China’s economic expansion. Also, right now, the Kremlin’s priority is to financially support its war in Ukraine, for which it is actively employing African countries.
Under the conditions of Western economic sanctions, Putin’s government desperately needs to maintain the existing schemes of obtaining various types of raw materials (mainly gold and diamonds) and exporting its products (mainly oil, wheat, and other agricultural products) as well as finding new markets in Africa. For example, since Eritrea is located near the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, Russia is interested in developing a partnership with this small country to access the Horn of Africa region.
At the same time, Russia continues to increase its military influence in Africa, mainly through the Wagner Group, a “private military company,” which has been present in several African countries for years, helping incumbent regimes (or parties in civil wars) to stay in power, and extracting useful minerals on their controlled territories in exchange. Examples of such cooperation can be found in the Central African Republic, Mali, Libya, Sudan, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Burkina Faso. For example, in 2017, after the Wagner Group helped Sudan’s former dictator, Omar al-Bashir, to suppress protests, one of the companies of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group and a friend of Vladimir Putin, obtained a concession to mine gold in Sudan. The concession agreement has remained in force after the removal of al-Bashir from power in 2019. In 2018, when the Wagner Group supported Faustin-Archange Touadera, the President of the Central African Republic, Prigozhin’s other company received diamond and gold mining licenses in that country. Furthermore, the Wagner-related “Internet Research Agency”, a notorious troll factory, carries out disinformation campaigns in some African countries in favor of Russia’s economic and political interests.
Russia sells gold and diamonds mined in Africa on the international market and thus funds its military aggression against Ukraine. Deals with African authoritarian regimes and the economic benefits they generate are so important to the Russian government that despite the failure to fulfill military tasks on the Ukrainian front, it does not withdraw its military contingent nor stop expanding its network of military bases in the aforementioned African countries. For example, during his visit to Sudan, Sergey Lavrov once again confirmed the intent to build a Russian military base in Port Sudan on the Red Sea, an agreement which had been reached back in 2019 and is currently awaiting ratification by the Sudanese authorities. It is not yet known whether the Kremlin plays any role in the armed conflict between military leaders in Sudan which began on April 15, 2023; however, based on experience, we can assume that Russia will try to pursue its economic and military interests in this country under any government.
Traditionally, the arms trade has also helped Russia to gain influence on the African continent. Before and after its war against Ukraine, in 2018-2022, Russia was the main supplier of weapons to Africa, accounting for 40% of major arms imports to the continent. It is likely that in 2023 and subsequent years, this figure will decrease significantly because Russia currently needs many of the weapons it produces on the battlefield in Ukraine. This, in turn, will make it difficult for Russia to preserve friendship with some African states.
Thus, Russia’s diplomatic offensive in Africa, on the one hand, serves its traditional, long-term geopolitical interests, which include the expansion of Russia’s military, political, economic, and information influence in Africa; on the other hand, it is directly related to Russia’s full-scale military invasion of Ukraine and is aimed at securing necessary resources and support from African countries to continue this war.
Despite invigorating its foreign policy towards Africa, Russia’s influence on the continent still lags behind that of the US and China. Today, the US foreign policy in Africa is directed more at neutralizing China’s growing economic influence than thwarting Russia’s destabilizing actions; yet, ultimately, Washington is standing up against both rival powers – in Africa and globally. Russia’s attempt to use its partnership with some African countries to fund its war against Ukraine and evade Western sanctions requires more active opposition from the US and its European allies, given that Ukraine has no diplomatic or other leverage in Africa, and needs the help of the United States and the European Union on this front as well.