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Russia/Africa: Upping Its Stake in Multi-Player Field
January 13, 2020 (2020-01-13)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
The Russia-Africa summit in Sochi, Russia in late October 2019
prompted a flurry of news coverage, highlighting such headline figures as sales agreements
amounting to more than $12 billion. But it was not clear how
much this was a real sign of significant expansion of Russian
influence or primarily a public relations gloss on more limited
involvement. Among the more analytical articles covering the summit
was a well-informed article by Joe Penney in Passblue on October
28, which noted that ”While many memorandums were signed, actual
contracts were few and far between, inviting speculation as to
whether the summit was more about power projection than real
While this article and other sources cited below focus on Russia in
particular, it is important to keep Russian involvement in Africa
in context. Whatever may be the case going forward, its base for
influence on African affairs is far less than that of the European
Union, the United States, or China. And any serious analysis would
have to focus on particular countries, regions, or issue areas
rather than generalizing about the entire continent. Russia´s
comparative advantage is significant only in arms sales, and those
are primarily to Algeria and other North African countries. In
economic terms, the European Union, China, and the United States
far outpace Russia´s less than 1%
share of Africa´s external trade, whether exports or imports.
France and the United States are the principal bilateral military
actors in West Africa. In the strategic Horn
of Africa, Russian military presence is minimal in comparison
to the United States, France,
China, and a host of regional actors, including Turkey, UAE,
Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. The Russian private military company the Wagner
Group, reportedly linked to the Kremlin, has been active in the
Central African Republic and Libya, as well as potential ties.
But this is small in scale, compared to U.S.
military training missions, special operations forces, and bases
which are spread around the continent, under the aegis of Africom
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains the full text of the Passblue
article, reposted with permission, as well as brief excerpts from a
Carnegie Endowment report on the failure of Russian efforts to push
through a nuclear power project in South Africa, initiated during
the Jacob Zuma. administration, and from the latest report on
international arms sales to Africa from SIPRI (Stockholm
International Peace Research Institute).
Additional recent sources on Russia and Africa are available in
press reports from The
Guardian, Al Jazeera, and the
Washington Post; and blog posts from the Brookings Institution and
the Carnegie Endowment. On current
Russian and other external powers now actively involved in Libya,
see recent articles from the United States Institute for Peace
and National Public Radio. According
to recent report in the New York Times, Russia and Turkey, on opposite sides of the conflict
in Libya, are offering their services as mediators.
Also of interest, with reference to Libya in particular, is Stephen
critique of conventional U.S. analyses of the role of Russia,
which ignore the critical decisions under President Obama to opt
for military action rather than diplomatic alternatives in Libya
and Syria in 2011-2012.
++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++
Of Oil and Kalashnikovs: At the First Russia-Africa Summit, Putin
Makes Power Plays
by Joe Penney
Passblue, October 28, 2019
[Article is slightly condensed for length. For full text
see original at
Sochi, Russia — As the Turkish presidential plane carried President
Recep Tayyip Erdogan across the Black Sea from Sochi, Russia, back
to Ankara last week, dozens of African heads of state arrived in
this resort city for the inaugural Russia-Africa Summit the next
During two days at a convention center in the Olympic Village in
Sochi, President Vladimir Putin and his administration signed $12.5
billion worth of memorandums with more than 40 African governments
for mining, oil and exploitation, nuclear energy, military
cooperation and more, according to Russian statistics.
Having wrapped up a deal on Monday, Oct. 21, with Erdogan to take
over parts of northeastern Syria — after American forces beat a
hasty and confused retreat there — by the end of last week, Putin
had made major plays for power across two continents.
An anti-colonial narrative
Amid balmy temperatures in Sochi, Putin set the tone early for the
narrative that echoed throughout the summit. Building on the Soviet
legacy of funding anti-apartheid and anti-colonial struggles in
Africa, Russia pitched itself as offering a second independence for
African countries reliant on the West or on China. The Soviet Union
was a major power in Africa for decades, helping prop up political
entities against the West, including Patrice Lumumba in the Congo,
Sekou Touré in Guinea, José Eduardo dos Santos in Angola and
Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia.
Putin’s rhetoric was well received at the summit, especially by
countries that collaborated with the Soviet Union in the past. In
his bilateral meeting with Putin, Namibian President Hage Geingob,
whose political party SWAPO received training and arms from the
Soviet Union during Namibia’s independence war against the South
African apartheid regime, told Putin: “During the difficult times,
we were together. Now is the time that our old friends can come,
and we’ll see how we can cooperate to what we call our second
liberation struggle: that of economic emancipation.”
Ayanda Dlodlo, the South Africa minister of state security, was
similarly enthusiastic about Russia’s return, brushing off concerns
that the relationship could be potentially dangerous.
“Russia will never dictate to South Africa what South Africa needs
to do,” she told PassBlue. “If anything, it’s one of those
countries that never had an appetite to colonize or even bully any
other nation. We’re happy with our relationship to Russia.”
True intentions or power projection?
Russia began taking Africa more seriously in 2014, when the United
States and the European Union placed debilitating sanctions against
Russia for its illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea in
Ukraine, forcing Russia to find new trading partners. In the last
decade, it has tripled its annual trade with Africa to nearly $20
billion, and Putin announced that he wanted to double that amount
in the next five years.
Top members of the Russian cabinet and officials from state
nuclear, oil, mining and military export firms were present and
signed numerous memorandums worth billions of dollars. Russia’s
major oil company, Lukoil, inked deals for hydrocarbon exploration
and exploitation in Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria and Rwanda. The
Russian mining firm Rosgeologia signed sweeping deals with South
Sudan, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Angola and others.
Summit attendees spoke highly of the economic potential that
Putin’s interest in Africa could deliver. “There are a lot of ways
African countries can work with Russia to develop key
infrastructure, create industries and bring themselves to middle
income,” Pravin Gordhan, South Africa’s public investment minister,
Sierra Leone’s mines minister, Fodat Rado Yokie, encouraged such
Russian investment in his mineral-rich country, saying on a panel
that the Russian state mining firm is known for sharing its data,
which would help Sierra Leone leverage its resources against
Western companies. “We have always negotiated from a position of
weakness because we don’t know what we have,” Yokie said.
While many memorandums were signed, actual contracts were few and
far between, inviting speculation as to whether the summit was more
about power projection than real business.
Russian and Nigerian officials announced an ambitious memorandum to
build a railway from Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, to
Calabar, in the southeast of the country. Despite the fanfare
coming from this memorandum, its implementation is muddled: the
Nigerian transport ministry’s own website announced an agreement
for the railway in 2016, in partnership with a Chinese firm. A top
Nigerian official told PassBlue that maybe the deal with Russia “is
just to send a message to [the Chinese] that you’ve got
Likewise, skepticism surrounds the biggest announced deals in the
nuclear energy sector. Although Russia’s state nuclear firm,
Rosatom, has signed MOUs with 18 African countries, its chief
executive, Alexey Likhachev, told reporters that only Egypt, Rwanda
and Zambia have shown they are serious about getting started.
Officials from Rwanda and Zambia, however, said they first needed
to conduct feasibility reports. They estimate they are two decades
away from developing nuclear energy.
Nigeria signed an MOU with Rosatom in 2017 to develop two nuclear
power plants, but no progress has been made because Nigerian
officials were never serious about such projects, according to a
Nigerian energy consultant who asked not to be named.
It is also hard to assess the exact results of the MOUs because the
vast majority of them were signed behind closed doors. Moreover,
few heads of state offered press appearances to outlets other than
Russian media or their own state-run media. Few American media made
the trip to Sochi other than PassBlue, and only a handful of French
journalists were present.
Most leaders and other top officials rebuffed reporters’ questions.
The deputy head of analytics and forward planning of Russia’s state
arms exporter, Rosonbornexport’s Andrey Kryukov; Ethiopian Prime
Minister Abiy Ahmed; Guinean President Alpha Condé; and Burkina
Faso’s President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré all refused to answer
questions from PassBlue, giving no reason other than “I am not
Russia, of course, is not known as a haven for free press, and the
suspicious killing of three Russian journalists who were
investigating Russian mercenaries in the Central African Republic
in 2018 does not bode well for public accountability of its
increased engagement in Africa.
Military encroachment and consequences
Russia is perhaps most serious about exporting arms to the
continent. It is now Africa’s largest arms supplier, although 80
percent of the weapons go to one country, Algeria, according to
Pentagon officials quoted in The New York Times.
African countries have been eager to develop defense ties with
Russia, much to the chagrin of the American military. Namibian
President Hage Geingob told Putin, “Our military people say they
want to go back to the olden days and have Russian military
advisers,” while Russia flew two nuclear bomber aircraft to South
Africa for a military visit right before the summit.
A lack of American interest in Africa and Trump’s racist comments
about the continent (calling it a “shithole,”) have helped opened
the path for Russia to return to the fold. John Bolton, the former
US national security adviser, said in his December 2018 outline of
Trump’s Africa strategy that Russia “continues to sell arms and
energy in exchange for votes at the United Nations — votes that
keep strongmen in power, undermine peace and security, and run
counter to the best interests of the African people.”
Nearly 2,000 businesses were present at the summit, according to
official figures, and though visitors were intrigued by stands
selling Russian vodka, agricultural products, health care
technology and other goods, the Russian weapons manufacturer
Kalashnikov had probably the most popular stands. Delegates from
African countries and Russia stopped to try out models of the
latest assault rifles and admire rocket launchers, model tanks and
helicopters on display. They tried out a virtual-reality shooting
A booth featuring Kalashnikovs, one of the more
popular items displayed at the summit. Credit: Joe Penney
Across from the Kalashnikov stand, the Ivory Coast delegation
advertised coffee and cocoa to potential Russian suitors. One
delegate told PassBlue that while many people were admiring the
guns and posing for selfies with them, military diplomacy “is an
old way of doing business, and I think we in Africa are past that
Other leaders disagreed. Central African Republic’s President
Faustin Archange-Touadéra talked up the idea of a permanent Russian
military base in his beleaguered country, while South Sudan’s
embattled President Salva Kiir, who flew to Russia on a RwandAir
jet because South Sudan doesn’t have a presidential plane, attended
the conference with big hopes. The United Nations has placed an
arms embargo on South Sudan, which will be angling for an exemption
similar to the one that the Central African Republic got in 2017.
(Days earlier, Kiir met with the UN Security Council in its trip to
Juba, the capital of South Sudan.)
Nigeria has shown a clear intent on collaborating with Russia in
the defense sector, especially after American human-rights concerns
held up a contract to sell Nigeria some American fighter jets. The
Russian news agency RIA reported that Nigeria bought 12 attack
helicopters at the summit, but this has yet to be confirmed by
France has the most to lose
At the request of France, in 2013 the UN Security Council
restricted the sale of arms to the Central African Republic without
UN approval. In 2017, Russia sought and was granted a controversial
exemption to sell arms to the Central African Republic government
by the Council. Russia then doubled down on its commitment by
sanctioning the deployment of Kremlin-linked mercenaries from the
Wagner Group to assure the personal security of Central African
Republic’s president and his administration, as well as training
its armed forces. In exchange, the Wagner Group gained access to
diamonds and other lucrative mineral deposits.
The move angered France, whose troops have been based in the
country on and off since it colonized the territory in the late
1800s. In 2016, France withdrew its most recent military
peacekeeping mission, Opération Sangaris, after accusations that it
was not protecting civilians and that some of its soldiers had
sexually abused children.
While disturbed by the speed and efficiency with which Russia
upended France’s control over the Central African Republic, the
Quai d’Orsay – France’s foreign ministry — is much more concerned
now about a possible Russian military foray into an area vital to
its interests: the Sahel region of West Africa.
With 5,000 troops stationed there and billions of dollars committed
to Opérations Serval and Barkhane for more than half a decade,
France regards the Sahel — and West Africa generally — as an
integral zone to secure resources, win important votes at the UN,
prevent a dangerous jihadist takeover of friendly countries and
stop migration from Africa to France and elsewhere in Europe.
France guards these interests through military means by securing
the stability of the countries under its sphere of influence: Chad,
Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Senegal, to name a few
of the Francophone nations.
If Russia were to make a similar push to establish military ties in
any of these countries, as it did in the Central African Republic,
it would upset a political balance and threaten French hegemony.
Some West African countries like Burkina Faso have already signed
military cooperation memorandums with the Russians, and Niger has
made favorable moves toward one as well.
Burkina Faso’s foreign minister, Alpha Barry, tweeted that
Burkina’s president asked Russia “to help the Sahel and Ecowas
countries in the fight against terrorism.” [Ecowas is the Economic
Community of West African States.]
Barry said that Putin responded, “We will help the Sahel.”
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita of Mali said, “It is clear we need
your help” in defense matters. (The UN has one of its largest
peacekeeping missions in Mali.)
Even the Ivory Coast president, Alassane Ouattara — whose friend
Nicolas Sarkozy ordered the French helicopter strikes that tipped
the balance against Ouattara’s rival Laurent Gbagbo after he tried
to annul the 2010 election results — was open to the idea of
Russian influence in the region.
Ouattara told Russian media at the summit: “We’re all aware of the
important role Putin plays internationally. Thanks to him, peace
reigns in multiple regions of the world.” Ouattara also pointed out
the importance of collaboration at the UN, noting, “Côte d’Ivoire
is on the Security Council right now, and we have an excellent
collaboration with the Russian ambassador.”
Russian officials at the summit were clear that they were counting
on resistance from Western nations in their continent-wide push.
“The countries that always thought of Africa as their own territory
will try to hinder our economic partnerships,” said Mikhail
Anichkin, the head of Peacemaker International Security Center, a
program of the Russian government.
Russia’s renewed interest in the continent could be characterized
as a simple power projection designed to irk China, the US and
France. Or it could be viewed as a real, concerted effort to
overturn Africa’s economic and political alliances.
Either way, everyone is now watching Putin’s next move in Africa.
That alone may count as a Russian victory.
Nuclear Enrichment: Russia’s Ill-Fated Influence Campaign in South
by Andrew S. Weiss, Eugene Rumer
Carnegie Endowment, December 16, 2019
[Summary and introduction only]
Full text available here.
Amid the widespread attention the Kremlin’s recent inroads in
Africa have attracted, there has been surprisingly little
discussion of South Africa, a country which, for nearly a decade,
unquestionably represented Russia’s biggest foreign policy success
story on the continent. As relations soared during the ill-starred
presidency of Jacob Zuma (2009–2018), the Kremlin sought to wrest a
geopolitically significant state out of the West’s orbit and to
create a partnership that could serve as a springboard for expanded
influence elsewhere in Africa.
Moscow’s strategy was multifaceted, capitalizing on well-
established close ties with Zuma, a former African National
Congress senior intelligence official with extensive Soviet bloc
connections. Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior
officials pursued a series of initiatives, such as the inclusion of
South Africa in the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China)
grouping and the launch of ambitious forms of cooperation between
state-backed energy interests primarily in the nuclear sector.
Yet relations were undermined by the Kremlin’s propensity to
overreach, to lean too heavily on the legacy of Cold War–era
relationships forged with leaders of national liberation movements,
and to take advantage of cultures of corruption. The controversy
arising from a massive $76 billion nuclear power plant construction
deal triggered strong pushback and legal challenges from South
Africa’s institutional checks and balances, civil society groups,
and independent media.
Key parts of the Russian national security establishment view civil
nuclear power exports as an important tool for projecting influence
overseas while creating revenue streams for sustaining intellectual
and technical capabilities and vital programs inside Russia itself.
Yet such cooperation is often a two-edged sword. On the one hand,
costly projects such as the one pushed by Zuma typically make
little economic sense for the purchasing country, spurring
uncomfortable questions about who stands to benefit. On the other
hand, heavily subsidized projects pursued mainly for geopolitical
reasons risk saddling Russia’s nuclear power monopoly Rosatom with
burdens it can ill afford.
Ongoing investigations of high-level corruption during the period
of so-called state capture under Zuma shed remarkable light on how
the Kremlin operates in Africa and other parts of the world. In
retrospect, the sustainability of Moscow’s embrace of South Africa
was highly questionable due to its paltry tool kit. Russian
involvement in the South African economy is miniscule compared to
that of other trading partners such as the EU, China, the United
States, India, and the UK, accounting for a mere 0.4 percent of
South Africa’s foreign trade. While the Soviet Union was an
important patron during the anti-apartheid struggle, modern-day
Russia offers little in the way of practical assistance for helping
South Africa deal with its deep-set economic and societal
Over the past eighteen months, the Kremlin’s gains in Africa have
attracted widespread attention. Curiously, South Africa seldom
features in these accounts. Yet, for nearly a decade, it was one of
Russia’s biggest foreign policy success stories. Why are Russia’s
recent inroads in South Africa (and the dramatic reversals that
followed) being overlooked, and what do they reveal about the
effectiveness of Moscow’s broader strategy and overall tool kit on
The Kremlin often takes advantage of cultures of corruption, and,
to a certain extent, its efforts in South Africa fit this broader
pattern. The high-water mark for Russia–South Africa relations
occurred during Jacob Zuma’s presidency (2009–2018), which was
marred by a series of corruption scandals commonly described by
South Africans as the period of “state capture.” Yet Russian
engagement with South Africa during the Zuma era was more deeply
rooted. It relied on a web of relationships at the highest levels
of both governments, the promotion of multi-billion-dollar projects
involving state-owned companies particularly in the energy sector,
and the leveraging of Cold War–era ties forged during South
Africa’s period of national liberation.
President Cyril Ramaphosa leads South
African delegation to the first Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi in
the Russian Federation. Picture: GCIS.
In the end, much of what went wrong for Russia was a testament to
South Africa’s remarkably robust system of institutional checks and
balances. Zuma’s excesses, which led to his resignation under
pressure in February 2018, generated a strong pushback from various
quarters. South Africa’s competitive political system, civil
society, judiciary, and news media served as dogged champions of
accountability and transparency. South Africans, from vantage
points inside and outside of government, closely scrutinized
Russian activities, meticulously documented them, and launched a
series of political and legal challenges in response. Their ability
to challenge a controversial head of state stands as a powerful
example for policymakers elsewhere on the continent and in other
parts of the world who are contending with Russian malign
As Carnegie’s Paul Stronski has written, Russia is decidedly “late
to the party” in Africa. Its gains have been mostly in pariah
states ostracized by the international community, such as Zimbabwe,
and strategically less important ones, like the Central African
Republic, from which other major powers have largely disengaged.
Moscow has devoted relatively few resources to expanding its
influence in Africa compared to other major external actors such as
the European Union (EU), the United States, and China. But it has
repeatedly demonstrated a knack for spreading narratives about
Moscow’s resurgence as a leading power and fostering the impression
that its accomplishments on the continent have come at the expense
of the United States and its allies.
Yet it is quite striking how, time and again, the Russian
leadership has opted for imagery over substance and a consistent
reluctance to tackle any of the issues atop the agendas of many
African countries—issues like economic development, quality of
governance, the rule of law, communal violence, conflict
resolution, and public health concerns including infectious
diseases. The Kremlin’s modest ability to project military power
and low appetite for risk in Africa have meant that its security
activities have been mostly parceled out to a rogues’ gallery of
shadowy mercenaries and contractors such as the Wagner Group.
Moscow’s attempt to secure a foothold in South Africa was somewhat
of a departure from its usual approach to the continent. In recent
years, Russian inroads in Africa have been largely a product of
opportunism rather than strategic vision. Unlike some other African
states with a markedly increased Russian presence in recent years,
South Africa represented a strategic opportunity for the Kremlin to
wrest a geopolitically significant state out of the West’s orbit
and to create a partnership that could serve as a springboard for
expanded influence elsewhere in Africa.
Russia carefully cultivated ties with Zuma from the beginning of
his presidency, and the warm relationship was largely free of the
erratic ups and downs that had plagued relations between Moscow and
Pretoria since the second half of the 1980s. Zuma himself served as
a dogged promoter of Russian interests, behaving in ways that
mystified even some of his closest aides.
Why, then, did Russian–South African relations soar to such heights
during Zuma’s presidency only to trigger his political implosion?
The pervasiveness of state capture tells a large part of the story,
though not all of it. It is also important to take stock of
extensive historical ties between Russia and South Africa, which
provide a glimpse of how modern-day Russia seeks to leverage the
legacy of the Soviet Union’s extensive support for revolutionary
movements and postcolonial governments throughout Africa. In a
similar vein, a close evaluation of Russian ties to South Africa
can generate insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the tool
kit that the Kremlin brings to bear on the continent.
This account has benefited from extensive investigations of the
Zuma presidency undertaken by South African governmental and legal
bodies, civil society groups, environmental activists, and
independent media outlets. By far the most important source has
been an impartial legal inquiry into state capture, the so-called
Zondo Commission. The commission is an impressive illustration of
the strength of South Africa’s institutional checks and balances
and the country’s remarkable capacity for self-examination and
accountability. The commission is similar to the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission, which documented crimes and abuses on
both sides of the armed struggle to end apartheid. The Zondo
Commission’s public hearings and sworn statements provide extensive
detail on how the Zuma government operated and how the interests of
Zuma’s inner circle and the Kremlin became intertwined.
Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2018
SIPRI Fact Sheet, March 2019
Excerpt on Africa: full fact sheet available at
Supplier competition in Africa
In 2014–18 Russia accounted for 49 per cent of total arms imports
to North Africa, the USA for 15 per cent, China for 10 per cent,
France for 7.8 per cent and Germany for 7.7 per cent. Russia
accounted for 66 per cent of Algerian arms imports in 2014–18,
compared with 90 per cent in 2009–13. Algeria’s other chief arms
suppliers in 2014–18 were China (13 per cent) and Germany (10 per
cent). The USA (62 per cent) and France (36 per cent) were the main
suppliers of arms to Morocco in 2014–18.
Russia accounted for 28 per cent of arms exports to sub-Saharan
Africa in 2014–18, China for 24 per cent, Ukraine for 8.3 per cent,
the USA for 7.1 per cent and France for 6.1 per cent. In 2009–13
Ukraine was the largest supplier to sub-Saharan Africa; however,
its arms exports to the region fell by 79 per cent between 2009–13
and 2014–18. Nigeria, the largest arms importer in sub-Saharan
Africa in 2014–18, received 35 per cent of its arms imports from
Russia, 21 per cent from China and 15 per cent from the USA.
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