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Russia/Africa: Upping Its Stake in Multi-Player Field

AfricaFocus Bulletin
January 13, 2020 (2020-01-13)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

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 business.”

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 Weissman´s strong 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 morning.

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, told PassBlue.

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 competition.”

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 doing interviews.”

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 range.

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 point.”

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 Nigeria.

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 Africa

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 challenges.


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 continent?

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 activities.

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 df

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.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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