In recent years, Russian president Vladimir Putin has increasingly placed a high premium on re-building Russia’s global influence in Africa.
During the heyday of the Soviet Union, Russian influence on the continent was significant, especially on an ideological level. The Cold War with the United States made Africa a land of contention, with the two superpowers waging proxy wars by aligning and supporting different African movements, fuelling conflict on the continent by providing political support, money and weapons. However, when the Soviet Union disintegrated, and superpower rivalry ended, Africa lost its strategic role. There is little doubt that, today, much of Moscow’s involvement in Africa relates to Putin’s desire to revive his country’s great-power status.
In this context, Africa has become strategic in at least two ways: for the economic benefits stemming from its mineral wealth, and for providing Russia with a market to export weapons and military assistance, often merging these two interests in an arms-for-resources approach.
Russia’s energy diplomacy revolves around oil&gas and nuclear power. Several Russian companies, such as Gazprom, Lukoil, Rostec and Rosatom are active in Africa with notable investments in countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Uganda, Angola and Nigeria. These companies are mostly state-led, with investments often linked to military and diplomatic initiatives. Other minerals also play a role in Russia’s interests to Africa. Russia is developing one of the world’s largest deposits of platinum group metals in Zimbabwe. Moscow has been re-establishing links with Angola, where Alrosa, the Russian giant, mines diamonds. Namibia’s uranium is another case of Russian interest in Africa’s resources. Namibia holds about 7% of the world's uranium reserves and uranium is obviously of importance to Russia’s nuclear power stations, as well as African countries where Russia is involved in nuclear energy projects.
On the security front, Russia is the second largest exporter of arms globally after the US, and a major supplier of weapons to Africa (with Algeria, Egypt and Angola as the largest buyers on the continent). Moreover, Russia provides military assistance to African governments ranging from countering terrorism to joint training of troops to peacekeeping endeavours. It has signed close to 20 bilateral military cooperation deals with African states. Very recently, Russia’s military presence has also become evident in Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado against the backdrop of insurgent Islamic movements in the area.
Parallel to state-to-state involvement in security, a mercenary venture known in the Russian media as the Wagner Group has repeatedly made headlines for its involvement in Africa. In 2018, the murder of three Russian journalists in a remote area of the Central African Republic (CAR) put the spotlight on the role of the Wagner Group on the continent and drew the world’s attention to what looked like a Kremlin play for influence and resources. In the course of recent Russia-Africa relations and related events in Africa, the name of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman who is supposed to be linked to the private security company and is a close associate of the Russian president, has continuously cropped up. Prigozhin and his political operatives and contract soldiers seemingly offer security, arms training and electioneering services in exchange for mining rights and other opportunities in African states. His activities are linked to at least 10 African countries (Angola, the CAR, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Libya, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Mozambique, Sudan and Zimbabwe) where the Russian military has been establishing strategic relationships. Prigozhin has been associated with a sophisticated disinformation campaign during the 2016 US presidential elections and more recently with interference in the 2018 Madagascan election where, according to a BBC investigation, some candidates received funding from businessmen linked to Prigozhin to influence the election results. Madagascar is the world’s biggest producer of vanilla and has mineral riches such as nickel, cobalt and uranium, likely to attract Russian interest. In the CAR instead, where the diamond industry is mired in civil strife and government greed, discussions were conducted between the government and Russia to explore the country’s natural resources, especially diamonds and gold, on a concession basis, with Russia offering weapons and instructors to train CAR military forces in exchange for access to markets and mineral extraction rights. Finally, in Sudan, securing access to oil has been central in Russian contract soldiers providing support to president Omar al-Bashir, in early 2019, in trying to shore up his rule against nationwide protesters that ultimately proved too strong. Sudan is also a major importer of Russian weaponry.
All in all, through strategic energy diplomacy and military cooperation, Russia is gradually increasing its influence in Africa and questions arise as to what tangible positive influence Russian engagement is having on the continent. Though Russia’s presence in Africa is not nearly as comprehensive as that of the European Union, China or the US, it is nonetheless significant in niche strategic areas. For this reason, and more than ever, it is crucial that African governments manage this relationship to their benefit.
 The African countries involved are Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, eSwatini, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.