Russia’s Growing Influence in Africa Serves as a Warning

YouOn the night of May 18, 2018, contestants lined up to challenge for Miss Central African Republic (CAR), Bangui stadium. The new force on the local stage, Miss Central African Republic (CAR), was also trying its best to attract attention as they paraded. With walls adorned in Russian flags, the Kremlin’s sponsoring of the CAR’s first beauty pageant in three years marked a showy bid by President Vladimir Putin to extend Russia’s soft power on the continent.

While the focus remains on Ukraine following Moscow’s invasion, Africa has, for some time, been a second front in Putin’s confrontation with the West and cannot be ignored. The Mar. 2 U.N. resolution condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine, the magnitude of Putin’s decade-long charm offensive is becoming plain. Tony Blair Institute for Global Change’s new report shows that Russia has been restoring Soviet-era relations with African countries in an effort to gain resources, as well as becoming a security provider. Putin appears to be considering Africa as an avenue for his imperialist ambitions and hopes that he can lure it away from Western dominance.

Africa hosts some of world’s fastest growing economies. It is also rich in natural resource. But the challenges faced by much of the continent—poverty, inflation, and deep-lying inequalities—are outpacing the abilities of many governments to service their populations, leading to instability. African leaders seek support from many sources, including Russia as their multipurpose ally.

Continue reading: The Growing Global Fallout From Russia’s War in Ukraine

This relationship is built on paradox. Russia holds a strong interest in the deployment private military contractors in the region. Thus instead of bringing peace, it thrives on instability in African states and volatility among Africa’s leadership.

At least 19 African countries have been served by Russian PMCs since the 2014 invasion of Crimea. The Wagner Group was one of the tasked operations. This included fighting Islamist terrorists and protecting commercial assets. They also had to suppress anti-government rebellions. In Sudan, 500 Wagner-trained soldiers were deployed in 2017, primarily to help train Rapid Support Forces and to fight rebels against President Omar al-Bashir. Wagner supported General Khalifa Haitar’s bid to overthrow the Western-backed U.N. Government of National Accord. Wagner provided military support to General Khalifa Haftar in his bid to overthrow the Western-backed U.N. Government of National Accord (GNA).

PMCs are connected to the mining of natural resources. Following Wagner’s support for al-Bashir, gold mining licenses were awarded to a company reportedly linked to Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, the alleged funder of the group. In a similar vein, the CAR awarded gold and diamond mining licenses to another of Prigozhin’s businesses, after Wagner was deployed to train its army and provide personal security to embattled President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. (Prigozhin repeatedly denied any connections to Wagner.

Russia’s threat to democracy in Africa

Russia wants to be seen as an alternative, despite the U.S. military withdrawal in Africa. Moscow has shown that it is capable of providing quick support to those in need by sending troops to Mali in 2021. Russia also influences from the inside. Since Putin’s embrace of the region in the last decade, political strategists have been sent to African governments, including those of the CAR and Madagascar, to counsel their leaders. The funding of pro-Russian television channels in Africa, electoral interference—even, indeed, the sponsoring of beauty pageants—are other methods to sway sentiment among Africans.

Some African leaders are open to Russian offers, which is an obstacle to democratic liberal reforms. A growing trend to ask for PMC support in order to address security problems is indicative of an expanding authoritarian footprint.

Continue reading: China’s Embrace of Putin Is Looking More and More Costly

It is important that the West takes notice. China has long outpaced Western countries to become Africa’s biggest investor, while the presence of Western troops in conflict-affected countries has not been enough to ensure Africa’s peace and security. This region requires sustained military and economic support. It will fall if the West is unable to provide this support.

The West cannot take Africa’s engagement for granted, as evidenced by the African refusal to vote in the U.N. referendum condemning Russian actions in Ukraine. Romanticizing democracy is not enough; thorough, long-term policy action and relationship-building with African states is a must. As Russia and Africa are both reevaluating their roles on the global stage, the West should renew its support for Africa. The winners of pageants aren’t won by Wallflowers.

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