Russia has drawn the world’s attention with its aggressive stance toward Ukraine. The former Soviet power has been rebuilding ties with Africa more quietly, strengthening economic and military cooperation, but also raising Western concerns about its tactics and goals there.
Russian flags waved in Burkina Faso’s capital following January’s military coup in the West African nation. A statue unveiled in the Central African Republic last fall shows local soldiers, backed by Russian fighters, protecting civilians.
Those are the more obvious symbols of Russia’s resurgent presence on the continent. Africa is a foreign policy priority, Russian President Vladimir Putin said at the first Russia-Africa summit of political and business leaders in 2019.
“We are not going to participate in a new ‘repartition’ of the continent’s wealth,” he said. “Rather, we are ready to engage in competition for cooperation with Africa.”
A second summit is planned for St. Petersburg in October. The first, at the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, generated diplomatic agreements and billions of dollars in deals involving arms, energy, agriculture, banking and more, said the organizer, the Roscongress Foundation.
Moscow has been building new ties and refreshing alliances forged during the Cold War, when the former Soviet Union supported socialist movements across Africa. After the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, it largely withdrew from the continent.
Since at least 2007, especially in the last few years, Russia has been increasing military and other economic involvement in Africa. The 2019 summit produced contracts with more than 30 African countries to supply military armaments and equipment. Businesses, including state-backed commercial interests, have invested heavily in security sectors, technology and industries that extract natural resources such as oil, gas, gold and other minerals.
Rusal is a company that excavates minerals for aluminum in Guinea and nuclear group Rosatom seeks uranium in Namibia. Alrosa, the world’s largest diamond mining company, has pushed to expand operations in Angola and Zimbabwe, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Russia is clearly interested, in search of new economic markets and geopolitical influence in Africa,” said Tatiana Smirnova, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Quebec’s Centre FrancoPaix and an associate with the University of Florida’s Sahel Research Group. “It’s important for Russia.”
Trade between Russia and African countries has doubled since 2015, to about $20 billion a year, African Export-Import Bank President Benedict Oramah said in an interview last fall with Russia’s state-owned Tass news agency, cited by the Russia Briefing investment news site. He said Russia exported $14 billion worth of goods and services and imported roughly $5 billion in African products.
However, Africa does more business with other countries, notably China, its biggest trading partner in recent years.
Russia’s overtures in recent years offer cooperation without the “political or other conditions” imposed by Western countries, Putin has said.
“Russia provides, as did the Soviet Union before, an alternative vision for African nations” based on “this common anti-Western critique,” said Maxim Matusevich, a history professor who directs Russian studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
However, while the Soviets tried to sell socialist ideas of modernization in Africa, Russians today “are not offering any ideological vision,” he said. “What they’re essentially doing is they’re contracting with African elites on a one-on-one basis. … They insist on the importance of sovereignty and contrast that with the West, which is trying to impose its values, such as transparency, honest governance, anti-corruption legislation. Again, I’m not saying the West is always sincere doing that, but that’s the official message – and they [Russians] are not doing any of that.”
The spread of militant Islamist extremism and other violence in Africa has created more openings for Russian military involvement. For instance, five nations in the volatile Sahel region – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – solicited Moscow’s military support in 2018. Russian fighters also have been engaged in Mozambique and Angola.
France’s planned drawdown of troops from Mali, its former colony and partner in the fight against jihadists since 2013, leaves still more room.
Last Thursday, France and its security partners announced they would exit Mali, citing “multiple obstructions” by the military junta that took power in 2020. France will redeploy its 2,400 troops elsewhere in the Sahel.
Private military contractors also are helping advance Moscow’s agendas in Africa, Western observers say. These include fighters in the shadowy Wagner Group, allegedly controlled by Putin associate Yevgeny Prigozhin. Putin has denied any connection with the group.
"It’s not the state,” Putin said. “… It’s private business with private interests tied to extracting energy resources, including various resources like gold or precious stones."
Those private fighters operate in parallel with the Kremlin, said Joseph Siegle, who directs research for the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, part of the U.S. Defense Department. He said they are part of Moscow’s tool kit to prop up weak African leaders in exchange for economic or other advantages.
“Every place we’ve seen Wagner deployed around the world and in Africa – be it Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, Central African Republic – it has been a destabilizing force,” Siegle said. “What Russia has been doing has been deploying mercenaries, disinformation, election interference, arms-for-resources deals, opaque contracts … aimed at capturing wider influence.”
That influence can protect Russia’s interests in international circles, Matusevich said, citing Russia’s 2014 seizure of the Crimean Peninsula.
“We know that in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine, when Russia was sanctioned in the United Nations, a lot of African nations abstained from the vote,” he said. “So, they are gaining diplomatic support and alternative diplomatic blocs that they can count on.”
The United Nations is investigating reports of “grave” human rights abuses in the Central African Republic, allegedly committed by private military personnel. Meanwhile, Russian mercenaries are glorified as public protectors amid a coup attempt in the 2021 Russian film The Tourist. The movie, set in the Central African Republic, reportedly was funded by Putin ally Pregizhin.
In Mali, the leaders of a 2020 military coup brought in Russian military trainers – and what U.S. and French authorities say are Wagner mercenaries.
Some in Mali welcomed them by waving Russian flags, reflecting not only the country’s historic ties with the former USSR but also public impatience over continued insecurity, said Niagalé Bagayoko, a Paris-based political scientist who chairs the African Security Sector Network. The organization seeks security and justice reforms, and is among advocates for more protections for civilians in the Sahel and more transparency and accountability for military operations there.
“In 2013, the whole Malian population [was] enthusiastic when the French arrived … today they are rejecting their presence,” Bagayoko said.
“To be honest, I would not be very surprised if, in two years or so, the same could happen with the Russian presence,” she said.
African countries are showing a willingness to look beyond a single foreign partner in their efforts to find stability and security, she said. “There is the realization … that being only engaged with single actors …. is restricting the possibility for diplomacy, but also for military apparatus.”
Russia is not the only foreign government trying to broaden influence in Africa, home to vast resources including a surging youth population.
The White House plans a second U.S.-Africa leadership summit later this year, following up on an initial Washington gathering in 2014 and the European Union has announced a new $172 billion investment in infrastructure, countering China’s Belt and Road initiative.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story included an incorrect figure regarding European Union investment in Africa. The correct amount is $172 billion.