When Mali’s interim government is said to be in talks with Moscow about deepening security ties via the deployment of Russian paramilitary forces – among other measures – the specter of Russia’s growing presence in Sub Saharan Africa does not appear to be utterly unrealistic.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was one of the key players on the continent, having a say in virtually all major geopolitical developments on the continent. In fact, one could say that the Soviet involvement in the continent’s affairs, especially after the outbreak of the de-colonization process, did in many ways play a key role in forming Africa’s contemporary geopolitical map. Later, after the collapse of the USSR, Russia’s presence in Africa degraded to a virtual non-existence status. Yet, this trend was reversed in the second half of the 2000s, coinciding with the West’s gradual withdrawal from the continent and Russia’s own economic and political exuberance accompanied by multiplying frictions with its Western partners.
The number of actors aspiring to take greater part in African affairs has been growing. In addition to the West and Russia, other ambitious players – including China, India, Japan, and Turkey –have clearly articulated their ambitions while developments on the continent have been going from bad to worse. Following decades of decolonization and civil wars, many countries of the macro-region encountered a peril of utmost danger and severity – Islamic radicalism which has become, in addition to a range of other problems, yet another scourge plaguing the continent. Perhaps, the direst situation with Islamic radicalism is faced by the G5 Sahel, which consists of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. In these countries, where radicalism is fueled by utmost poverty and youth unemployment, players such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), al-Mourabitoun, and Boko Haram have become a serious factor of destabilization. In response to this situation, Western countries– particularly France –have made several attempts to assist the GS Sahel countries in dealing with Islamic radicals, providing both economic and military-technical support. Yet, these attempts have by and large failed to solve the issue – neither Sahel G5 countries nor Sub Saharan Africa overall have achieved viable progress in fighting Islamic radicalism. Flames of instability and (covert) civil war are also spreading to the Central African Republic (CAR), Mozambique, Sudan, Nigeria, and other places.
In parallel, other countries – notably, Russia – have attempted to capitalize on the West’s unsuccess in strategically important parts of Africa and project their own influence. For the first time, Moscow clearly articulated its determination to pursue this course in 2019, during the first-ever Russia-Africa Summit held in Sochi in October 2019. Aside from (geo)economic objectives, Russia clearly articulated its willingness to use military-technical cooperation (wojenno-tekhnicheskoje sotrudnichestvo) – one of the two key instruments used by the USSR in Africa before 1991 – as a tool of building ties and proliferating its influence on the continent. Since 2014, marked by a de-facto collapse in political dialogue between Moscow and its Western partners, Russia has signed dozens of agreements on military-technical cooperation with African countries; alarming the West. It is vital to note that unlike Western countries, Russia’s military-technical cooperation has two sides: officiallyl, Russia’s actions and tools are legitimate and de facto complicit with norms and standards of international law; though unofficially (on the “shady” side), the situation is much more complex and barely compatible with international law. Specifically, in the pursuit of its geo-economic and geo-political objectives in Sub Saharan Africa, Russia is actively using (quasi)-Private Military Companies (PMCs) – Russia’s illegal paramilitary entities that have taken part, with a varying degree of success, in various regional conflicts ranging from Ukraine and Syria to Libya and Mozambique. This mixture of legal and illegal means has now become a major source of concern for the Western alliance.
At this juncture, two main questions arise: to what extent should the West fear Russia’s reported growing involvement in Africa? Moreover, will Russia’s model of “security export” work for African countries? Undoubtedly, these questions are complex and contingent on a number of interdependent factors and circumstances. However, two aspects should be noted. First, objectively speaking, Russia has neither “soft power” nor enough economic resources and innovative potential to pose a serious challenge to other powerful bidders for African markets and resources. Russia’s competitive advantages in Africa are very limited and could hardly compete with alternatives offered by players such as EU members, China, Japan, India, the US (in case it does not drastically diminish its role) and, perhaps, even Turkey and South Korea. Moreover – and both African leaders and policymakers in Moscow are perfectly aware of this – Russia will never be able to allocate even remotely resembling West volumes of economic assistance to the nations of Sub-Saharan Africa – times when the USSR was wasting resources in Africa pursuing phantasmal, ideology-driven geopolitical goals are over and will not come back. On the other hand, African leaders should manage their expectation about the image of Russia as a power capable to solve their security-related issues. The root of Islamic radicalism lies much deeper than it may appear on the surface: to effectively combat this scourge, the sole reliance on either arms/weaponry supplies or foreign quasi-PMCs (or combination of the two) will not be enough. Structural social-economic reforms and the fight against corruption are two areas where Russia would be of very little assistance to African nations, given Russia’s own imperfections in these realms. This said, the effectiveness of Russian (para)military assistance is also dubious: the example of Mozambique – where the Wagner group fell short of its goals and its members were withdrawn from the country – clearly demonstrated the problems Russian (para)military groups may face in the region.