December 5, 2023

While the eyes of the world remain firmly fixed on Israel and Ukraine, Russia has been quietly building a new empire in Africa. From Sudan to Libya, from Algeria to Burkina Faso, Moscow is patiently stitching together a network of African client states that will likely endure regardless of the outcome of events in Europe. African leaders currently out of favor in Washington are being serially seduced by Moscow with arms sales, mercenary muscle, and political support. In return, Russia is acquiring customers, mining concessions, basing rights, and naval access. Gradually, Russian President Vladimir Putin is acquiring strategic assets at a minimal cost.

Russia’s low-cost, high-influence approach to Africa is not new. The Kremlin has frequently supported coups, deployed mercenaries, spread disinformation, and interfered with African elections. However, three recent developments have greatly amplified these activities.

First, while the war in Ukraine increased Western efforts to isolate Russia diplomatically, it also intensified Moscow’s search for new friends. Russia has been quite successful here and most African nations have refused to take sides in the Ukraine conflict. Last July, Putin hosted a successful Russo-African summit in the old imperial capital of Saint Petersburg. Delegations representing 41 of Africa’s 54 states attended. They included the leaders of some of Africa’s most important nations, such as Egypt, South Africa, and Uganda. Putin used the summit to promise free food for Africa and promote a new multipolar world order.

Increasing Influence in South Sudan
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir in Moscow on Sept. 28.

Second, Russia has exploited longstanding anti-Western sentiments in Africa. Russian diplomats continuously denounce the slave trade and European colonial rule. Unsurprisingly, speeches on human rights delivered by former slave traders and colonial powers do not go down well in Africa. At the same time, Russia celebrates the Soviet Union’s support for African independence movements. Many African leaders studied at Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba Peoples’ Friendship University. The current regimes in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Angola all came to power with Soviet help. While Russian missionaries are busy seeking to convert Roman Catholics to Russian Orthodoxy they make clear that Russia has no interest in promoting Western social agendas on matters such abortion and homosexuality. These connections and policies have paid off for Moscow with anti-French sentiment being a key driver in the coup that recently overthrew Niger’s pro-Western government.

After Niger’s July coup, Russia successfully used social media to further amplify anti-French sentiments and reinforce the new military regime. In September, senior Russian military officers met with the leaders of Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso to develop a mutual defense alliance. Their security pact was signed in Bamako, Mali, on Sept. 16. Ten days later, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the withdrawal of all 1,200 French troops stationed in Niger. Moscow has warned other African nations against using military force to restore Niger’s French-aligned government.

Niger is not the only place where Russia has displaced French influence. It started in Syria, where General Sergey Surovikin played a key role in Russian support for the Assad regime, particularly in the capture of Aleppo. Having engineered the “Surovikin Line” in eastern Ukraine the general now appears prepared to operate in Africa. Last month, he made an official visit to Algeria to discuss counter-insurgency assistance.

Finally, the chronic instability in much of Africa has provided numerous opportunities for expanding Russian influence. The governments of Mali, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Libya, among others, do not fully control their own territory. All face terrorist insurrections or full scale civil wars. Often hindered by human rights concerns, Western military assistance has often proven inadequate. Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group have had no such qualms.

For example, following the NATO-backed overthrow of Libya’s Gaddafi regime in 2011, Moscow fueled a civil war by supporting the rule of General Khalifa Haftar. Largely as a result of foreign backing, Haftar now controls more than half of Libya. With a relatively minor deployment of only 1,200 troops from the Wagner Group, Russia has turned Haftar’s realm into a de facto Russian client state where Moscow is seeking to establish a naval base.

Following the death of Wagner’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russia’s deputy defense minister traveled to Benghazi to assure Haftar that Russian military support would continue. Earlier this month, Haftar traveled to Moscow to meet with Putin himself. Many observers now expect that with Russian backing and NATO focused on Ukraine, Haftar will launch an offensive to take complete control of Libya.

In other parts of Africa, Prigozhin leveraged his company’s involvement in local conflicts to build a business empire that currently guards gold and diamond mines, secures oil fields, and process minerals. In the Central African Republic Wagner even operates a brewery that competes successfully against French-owned brands. Far from ending these profitable activities, Moscow plans to bring them under tighter control by subordinating Wagner to Russian military intelligence agencies.

Russia has arguably expanded its influence in Africa more in recent years than any other external actor, but it is not taking over the continent; China, the European Union, and the United States remain the dominant foreign players there. China’s trade with Africa dwarfs Russia’s. Britain and France each have far more direct foreign investments in Africa than Russia. After the coup in Niger, France may well need to find new sources of uranium for it nuclear power plants, but African migrants are still heading for Marseilles, not Moscow. While Russia is the biggest arms dealer on a continent hooked on simple, inexpensive weapons and the Wagner Group can provide a praetorian guard for autocratic regimes, it is U.S. Africa Command that provides extensive military training, coordinates regional joint exercises, patrols the sea lanes, and conducts anti-terrorist drone strikes. Ultimately as a hot war burns in Ukraine, what we are watching in Africa is not a Russian takeover, but the opening salvo of Cold War II.

David H. Rundell is the author of Vision or Mirage, Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads and a former chief of mission at the American Embassy in Saudi Arabia. Ambassador Michael Gfoeller is a former political advisor to the U.S. Central Command.

The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.