Russia’s Play in African Security

09 June 2021   ·   Elor Nkereuwem

Russia is increasingly pursuing its economic and political interests on the African continent using both official and unofficial means. This threatens to destabilize the countries in question. International actors should recognize and effectively counter Russia’s policies by supporting strong institutions, as well as small and medium businesses and independent media.

Russia’s rising footprint in Africa is part of its global ambitions, seeking more influence in international politics. On a larger scale, Russia’s foreign policy agenda competes directly with other global players like like the United States, the European Union, or China. In Africa, this competition for influence and access to natural resources plays out in the types of economic and security engagements it participates in. 

Although Russia’s re-engagement with Africa has been tentative and characterized by many false starts, Russia’s recent strategic engagements indicate an evolving strategy. This strategy is centered in fragile states and has wide reaching implications for the nature of existing conflicts in those states. In this sense, Russia’s involvement in African peace and security is characterized by a complex weave of official and unofficial engagements, some of which directly impede democratic institutions and may have possible destabilizing long-term effects in vulnerable states like Sudan, Libya, and Central African Republic (CAR). 

In particular, the growing spillover effects of instability in Libya throughout the Sahel, especially downward to the West African Sahel, make it pertinent to consider how Russia’s play in the sub-region affects existing inter-related conflicts. Furthermore, it is important to consider the policy implications of Moscow’s behavior, particularly for local and international actors actively involved in peacekeeping and peacebuilding in the Sahel and Africa at large.

Russia Uses Official and Unofficial Forms of Engagement to Exert Influence 

In Africa, Russia’s bilateral arrangements with individual states and participation in multilateral arrangements have seen some subtle evolution, especially since the early 2000s. This has occurred on two levels: 

Officially, Russia’s policy on the use of its mobile military forces abroad focuses on the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). For this reason, its troop deployment is limited to Russia’s periphery. In turn, its involvement in African peacekeeping consists of logistical support for UN missions. In 2016, Russia had contributed a modest 64-person peacekeeping support team (including five troops) to only two contemporary missions in Africa, the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and the Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO).

Regarding its bilateral engagement in Africa, Russia has made significant arms trades or other military exchanges with multiple countries and focused on other economic activities in natural resources and other energy resources. Like China, Russia’s primary foray into the continent stems from economic pragmatism. This means that, for the most part, Moscow’s growing involvement in peace and security on the continent also reflects an agenda to ensure the protection of its economic interests. For instance, in 2017, one year after sending its largest ever peacekeeping personnel to the DRC, a Russian bank began negotiations for a $1 billion investment in the mineral rich but war-torn African state. 

Unofficially, Russia has engaged in more covert activities in Africa. Using private military operators, reportedly linked to the Defense Ministry, Russia has created bilateral arrangements with individual states like Libya and CAR, where Moscow’s contributions have included locally embedded personnel. Other means of Russian support to these countries include political support for local politicians and military training for the presidential guards. In CAR, Russia’s support has included the official deployment of over 500 military experts as well as unofficial Russian-linked private military companies. In Libya, Russia has supported multiple local factions in the power tussles that followed the ousting of former authoritarian ruler Muammar Gaddafi. For instance, about 1,200 Russian private military contractors from the Wagner Group participated in a 2020 offensive in Western Libya. Moscow has also allegedly backed local warlords with military hardware, further destabilizing the fragile peace agreements in the country. Officially, Russia denies linkages between the government and these private actors.

By Pursuing Its Economic and Political Interests, Russia Fuels Conflict Across the Continent

Russia’s re-engagement with African security serves its economic and geostrategic interests. Specifically, Russia’s strategic involvement in fragile states like Libya, CAR, or Mozambique have helped to secure access to natural resources, support Russian exports, and strengthen Russia’s foreign policy interests. Through its collaboration with east Libyan groups, Russia has ensured a strong presence in an advantageous geopolitical location by providing strategic support for rebel groups and protection for the war-torn country’s oil installations. While Russia’s domestic oil reserves appear secure, its control of Libyan oil reserves allows it to control oil export to global competitors in Europe. In CAR, official and private military presence in the conflict ravaged country allows Russia to sell military hardware despite existing arms embargoes.

Yet these covert and official actions have real consequences in conflict outcomes in the region, particularly in the West African Sahel and Chad Basin: Firstly, Russian involvement in the region can further exaggerate existing cleavages and conflicts. For instance, an unstable Libya implies the continued spillover of fighters, light weapons, and other conflict catalysts through the region. Such outcomes are particularly conducive for rising extremist violence, which is already ravaging states like Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad. A weakened central government in Chad due to the recent demise of the Chadian president Idriss Déby, as well as long standing hostilities between Chad and sub-state groups in the surrounding countries Libya and CAR— allegedly trained by Moscow-linked security forces— further expose Chad’s fragile democratic institutions to pressure. 

Secondly, African states remain proxy theatres for great power contentions, decades after the end of colonial rule on the continent. With multiple francophone states located in the affected subregion in the Sahel and Chad Basin, France’s interests remain square and center in contention with both Russian and the domestic interests of the African states. Moscow also calculates that its bilateral relationships with African states can strengthen its influence in the General Assembly and the Security Council of the United Nations, where the collective votes of African states can often determine the outcomes of contentious issues put to vote.

Finally, the active involvement of a strong external player is likely to undermine existing military multilateral arrangements and alliances in the region, including the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) and the G5 Sahel Joint Force. Whereas the alliances draw from the support of central governments in the affected states, Russia’s support for sub-state and rebel groups can potentially damage state security arrangements and help sustain the longevity of rebel groups. 

Germany Should Recognize Russia’s Role, Counter Russian Narratives and Support Local Businesses 

Given this premise, what are the best ways for African states to circumvent non-altruistic external actors? In what ways can other external actors support peace and security in Africa, and in the West African Sahel and Chad Basin, in particular?

  • Recognize the role that Russia plays in fragile states in the region. Given multiple EU and German policies in the region, it is important to consider foreign actors, including state-backed private military groups, as key players in the conflicts in the region. This will assist in all strategic planning.
  • Identify weak states in the region and provide practical support and institutional building for government agencies in those states. In countries like Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, the now decade-long conflict has depleted military institutions. Germany and other international partners should target specific structures within these militaries to improve processes. This should include practical support like payroll and logistical support or personnel welfare. In return, Germany and other international partners must demand neutral evaluation systems in exchange for continued support for such projects. Through this, international partners can help build domestic resilience against foreign-linked sub-state actors.
  • Create community-based solutions. Research on the root causes of extremist violence emphasize recruitment patterns that take advantage of vulnerable populations, including disadvantaged and marginalized youth. Germany should work with local civil society groups to counter local recruitment. This can help build community-wide resilience and resistance.
  • Support medium and small businesses in individual states. Germany must continue to build programs to support local businesses, including creating lines of credit and access to finance. This is particularly important since it can replace conditional finance from bad faith foreign actors like Russia, whose entry into these vulnerable countries is often facilitated by such financial aids.
  • Counter Russia’s Actions in the region on all levels. Russia has employed information warfare as a means to create alternative narratives about itself in the region. Russia’s communication strategy in Africa has been in place since 2012. It has expanded beyond a simple public image campaign to disinformation interventions to support Russia’s Africa agenda, as seen in its use of traditional and social media to rally support for multiple groups in Libya. Yet media influence is often ignored in development programs. Germany can support strong media institutions, to build resilience and provide good journalism in vulnerable communities that counter Russian narratives. 
Russia Development Africa

Elor Nkereuwem

Elor Nkereuwem is rounding off a PhD in International Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, D.C. She has recently completed a research fellowship with Transparency International, Defense and Security, where her work covered defense sector corruption in sub-Saharan Africa and the MENA region. @eloresin