The focus on China’s growing influence in Africa and the US’s waning concern for the continent has drawn attention away from a third international player seeking to gain a major foothold on the continent: Russia.
While Russia’s involvement in Africa is not nearly as extensive as the tens of billions of dollars that China has pumped into the continent, Moscow has been making more explicit overtures in recent years. Russia hosted economic delegations from most African nations in the mountain city of Yekaterinburg, and nearly a dozen African political delegations (largely from authoritarian or semi-competitive regimes) visited Moscow the following year.
Beyond these general overtures, Russia has found a particular niche for its involvement in Africa: weapons. Although Africa is nowhere near the war-torn continent that lingers in popular Western imagination, there are still a number of governments seeking to hold on to power by any means necessary, and are happy to buy arms from Russia when other major suppliers won’t provide (Russia has, of course, been playing this role in Syria as well).
Russia is also happy to provide personnel through shady paramilitary units and mercenary organizations (a tactic it has been using in Ukraine for years now). When the government of the Central African Republic, for example, found itself in the midst of a religious civil war between Christian and Muslim militias, Russia enthusiastically sent money, weapons and fighters to a conflict that most of the West chose to avoid and ignore.
Vladimir Putin’s strong arm, authoritarian and personalistic style of dictatorship fits well with the ‘Big Man’ politics that once dominated African politics and still linger in some states. It’s not surprising that leaders like Paul Kagame of Rwanda or Omar al-Bashir of Sudan are courting and being courted by Putin’s Russia. Furthermore, unlike China, a country characterized by an official state atheism that clashes with the religiously-infused politics of many African nations, Vladimir Putin has fully embraced religion (Orthodox Christianity in particular) as part of his ruling strategy; again, Putin’s style matches that of many of his counterparts in Africa.
All this notwithstanding, however, Russia’s foray into Africa has an air of desperation – a Scramble, if you will – since Western nations have sanctioned and ostracized Russia following its 2014 annexation of Crimea. Africa, with its 54 nations, could emerge as a useful set of allies in contexts like the United Nations.
The growing presence of Russia in Africa has been enough to finally raise alarms in Washington. US national security advisor John Bolton recently announced a three-pronged (trade, aid, countering terrorism and violence) strategy for US re-engagement in Africa, and explicitly tied the new policies to efforts to counter both China and Russia on the continent. Whether this new strategy will work (and whether it will overcome the bad will generated by US neglect and “shithole” countries comments and attitude, not to mention Donald Trump’s general wariness to oppose Vladimir Putin) remains to be seen.