Putin’s Exploitation of Africa Could Help Him Evade Sanctions

SA remarkable coalition of allies have been working together since the invasion of Ukraine to economically isolate Russia, by imposing sanctions and cutting access to the global banking system. This campaign has shown success in degrading Russia’s economy. The Kremlin, however, may find a financial lifeline in an unlikely place—Africa. If the Russian economic war is successful, then the Kremlin may rely more on the plunder of African resources in order to avoid sanctions and maintain the Russian war machine. Understanding this threat requires that you understand how Moscow planned to act in such a time.

Vladimir Putin and his friends have worked for years to establish Russian influence in the corrupt, yet resource-rich African states. This was done through the Wagner Group, an obscure mercenary organization. Although this murderous group has been approved by the U.S. and the E.U. and is still under surveillance, their tactics and membership are still a mystery. However, we know that Russia employed Wagner operatives to offer a security barrier to African despots in exchange to accessing precious natural resources.

Financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, sometimes called “Putin’s Chef” because he rose to power after running a catering company favored by the Kremlin, the Wagner Group first appeared on the scene in 2014 in Ukraine. “Putin’s shadow army” is estimated to have as many as 5,000 members and has acted as a mercenary force fighting on behalf of Russia, but in a way that allows Moscow a measure of deniability. They have been deployed to many other places around the globe including Libya, Sudanese, Madagascar, Mozambique and Mali as well as Syria. This is where Wagner mercenaries were involved in a brutal battle against U.S. special forces.

In Sudan, where the fall of Omar al-Bashir in 2019 could have left Russia without a corrupt partner, the Wagner Group found a friend in Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemedti)—Sudan’s second in command and leader of the genocidal militia the Rapid Support Forces, previously known as the Janjaweed. Hemedti was a successful entrepreneur who ran a shadow economy that relied heavily on gold exports. Russia also had access to his gold mines.

In fact, even as Russia was initiating its bombing of Ukraine, Hemedti’s Twitter account posted pictures of his meeting with Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. Hemedti was in Moscow for discussions about ways to deepen economic ties between Russia and Sudan. More notable than Hemedti’s public show of allegiance to Russia during this moment of international opprobrium was that Lavrov actually made time for Hemedti at such a critical juncture. Russia wants to build a Red Sea naval station in Russia. This will allow it to project its naval power onto a strategic transport corridor.

In the Central African Republic, where the Wagner Group has an outsized role and a Wagner operative serves as the president’s security advisor, a joint investigation by The Sentry and CNN established that mercenaries from the group have engaged in atrocities including murder, rape, and torture to capture areas that are rich in gold, diamonds, and other minerals. Wagner has also initiated a process to change the mining code to create a monopoly for itself in the country’s gold and diamond mining sector.

Russia is trying to protect itself from the sanctions imposed by America and its allies. Russia used the Wagner Group as a means to gain access to these rich countries, and to secure lucrative mining concessions. Russia’s Africa strategy is clear: through the private military proxy, it sets up shop in countries with unstable political and security environments and high levels of corruption; it forges opportunistic relationships with powerbrokers in the government or security services; it provides training to state security forces and non-state armed groups alike; it carries out missions marked by atrocities; and it maintains strong, if quiet, links to the Kremlin, conducting operations that directly support Putin’s geopolitical objectives.

To be sure, the robust steps taken in recent weeks by the U.S. and allies to sever Russia’s connections to the international economy are critical. But however surprised Putin may be by the swift and multilateral imposition of sanctions in response to the invasion, Russia’s Africa strategy suggests that the Kremlin has been doing some quiet contingency planning for this sort of scenario. To ensure that the sanctions work, it is essential to deny Russia access to long-term resources in Africa. Because gold and diamonds can be traded or exchanged without the need to go through regulated banks, they make attractive assets for international parahs. In the past this strategy was used by Iran and Venezuela. Steps must be taken to ensure that Russia doesn’t continue to have access to new sources of gold, diamonds, and other natural resources.

However, how do you go about doing that? One impulse could be for African leaders to make a choice between Russia or the West. Washington and its allies need to focus more on countering the growing kleptocracy in Africa, rather than forcing African leaders into a Cold War decision.

Africa may seem distant from the war in Ukraine, but worse still, many Americans might not consider Africa a priority strategic area. Don’t be fooled: Putin and allies love kleptocracy. They are a breed that thrives on corruption. They thrive on corruption. Corrupt leaders in places like Sudan, CAR, and Mali welcome Moscow’s mercenaries under the guise of law and order, but in reality they use the hired guns to maintain their own power. As a result, Russia is offered a trade for valuable national resources.

In his wise decision last year, Joe Biden deemed fighting corruption to be a key national security concern. As Russia is further isolated and looks for allies and resources in Africa, it’s time to earnestly take up that fight by focusing on dismantling the key networks that enable kleptocracy deploying smarter financial pressure, renewed diplomacy, and robust private sector engagement. It should not be a choice between Russia and the West for African nations. It should instead be about good governance, democratic development, responsible investments, human rights, and accountability, rather than atrocities and corruption that benefit only authoritarian regimes or their supporters.

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