Russia - Africa Relations
After colonial empires in Africa collapsed, Moscow did all it could to make “African comrades” embrace socialism – but the romance didn’t last long. The USSR's focus on Africa was too intertwined with ideology to withstand the collapse of the socialist system. In the 1990s, when the USSR ceased to exist and Russia had too many problems of its own, the level of Moscow’s leverage in the continent fell drastically.
The collapse of the Soviet Union broke most of Russia's ties with Third World states. The Soviet ideological mission of fostering socialism also ceased. Russia was unable to continue economic subsidies to client regimes. Relations with Africa received a relatively low priority, and in 1992 Russia closed nine embassies and four consulates on that continent. Relations with some African states already had worsened in late 1991 when Yeltsin ordered the end of all foreign aid and demanded immediate repayment of outstanding debts. Most African states responded that their debts with the former Soviet Union should be forgiven or reduced because they had been largely military outlays resulting from a moribund superpower rivalry.
The first Russia-Africa summit was held in Sochi on October 23-24, 2019 under the co-chairmanship of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. The summit was attended by representatives of all 54 countries of the continent, and 43 of them were represented at the top level. The second Russia-Africa summit would take place in 2022. The summit should facilitate the further development of Russia’s relations with African states.
The African Union (AU) places great importance on its ties with Russia, which may play a key role in ensuring stability in Africa and facilitate the industrial development of the continent, Head of AU Strategic Partnerships Levi Uche Madueke said in an interview with TASS on 05 May 2021. "The issue of peace and security is <…> where Russia can play a key role. Issues relating to supporting Africa in industrialization, Russia can play a key role there. We have issues of infrastructure, issues of energy. We believe that Russia has a know-how to play a key role in this area," he stated, adding that Russia can also cooperate with Africa on issues of cyber-security. "The important thing is to identify very few areas, so that we will be able to work with Russia to deliver concrete results without engaging in too many things and not being able to deliver any," he pointed out. He noted that Africa has traditionally good ties with Russia, and the goal right now is to formalize them. Madueke hoped that the second Russia-Africa summit will facilitate this process.
The January 1993 draft foreign policy concept made no mention of Russian support for former Soviet client states in Africa or elsewhere. Instead, the concept emphasized the use of diplomatic leverage to induce payment of debts by those states. Beginning in mid-1994, a shift began toward increased economic ties with more economically developed African states such as South Africa and Nigeria.
The Central African Republic is an emerging venue for Russia’s evolving strategy in Africa. The CAR doesn’t boast Ethiopia’s booming economy or Angola’s deep oil reserves. It lacks a developed mining industry like Zambia or a strategic location like Djibouti. But the landlocked country of fewer than 5 million people, most of whom survive on subsistence farming, has something else of interest to Moscow: conflict.
Since 2013, the CAR has grappled with a protracted civil war. Russia has found opportunities to project power far beyond its borders and rekindle strategic partnerships in Africa that have been dormant since the end of the Cold War. Russia has stepped up its presence in the CAR in the past few years. But its strategies there, which rely on the use of private contractors and mercenary groups, have been employed since the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s and, later, in Ukraine and Syria.
Mercenaries are an instrument which allows plausible deniability but also hard-power projection, which has multiple uses in contested areas. Moscow officially bans mercenaries and security companies, but ex-military or intelligence officers often organize them, providing close ties to the Kremlin. Their work, which Kiril Avramov, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Intelligence Studies Project. called “armed adventurism,” helped Russia rebound from isolation and advance its political objectives.
One company, Wagner Group, has come under increasing scrutiny. In the summer of 2018, three journalists investigating Wagner’s operations in the CAR were ambushed and killed. Footage captured by the journalists suggests Wagner may have been assisting both the government and rebels.
For Russia, private military contractors complement a broader strategy focused on strengthening state sovereignty. The Kremlin is trying to export counterrevolution. Rather than destabilize regimes, Russia looks for countries already besieged, from the CAR to Syria. These governments welcome help, and that provides Russia with multiple opportunities, from weapons deals to training programs.
And while Russia may not want the countries with which it aligns to plummet into chaos, quick resolutions to the battles it inserts itself into aren’t desirable, either. Drawn-out conflict means more time to sell arms, secure energy contracts and counterbalance China.
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