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Expansion Or Contraction? How Putin's War In Ukraine Affects His Efforts In Africa

Russian President Vladimir Putin waves to the camera as he poses with African leaders at the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi in October 2019.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin enticed more than 40 African leaders to travel to the Black Sea resort of Sochi for a summit in 2019, it demonstrated that Moscow was once again a major player on the continent.

After being shunned by the West five years earlier for annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and instigating a conflict in its eastern regions, Putin began ramping up Russia’s engagement with Africa, tapping historical ties dating back to the Soviet era.

For Putin it has been a success, analysts said, enabling him to project Russia as a great power, undermine the West’s international order, and dispel the notion that he is politically isolated.

“Africa was of particular interest because he saw a superpower vacuum there,” Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who worked as a private military contractor in Africa, said. The United States didn’t have much interest in the continent, while China was focused on infrastructure and energy projects that are part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), McFate added.

“It was fertile ground to create alliances, and even dependencies, on Moscow,” he said.

A case in point is the Central African Republic. President Faustin-Archange Touadéra turned to Russia in 2018 for help combating rebel groups because he said he felt abandoned by the international community, McFate noted.

Russian private military contractors (PMCs) are currently deployed in the C.A.R.

In recent years, Putin has boosted arms sales, engaged in more energy and mining projects in Africa, and, perhaps more importantly, embedded Kremlin-connected private military contractors (PMCs) in several nations to help prop up leaders.

But now Russia’s drawn-out invasion of Ukraine is having repercussions far beyond Eastern Europe and could undermine the Kremlin’s progress in Africa.

Russia’s war is already creating a food crisis on the continent, while unprecedented Western sanctions and battlefield setbacks are throwing into question Russia’s ability to deliver on arms and investment commitments and to supply African leaders with PMCs.

Several Russian energy and mining deals on the continent are already under a cloud while the Kremlin has reportedly been forced to redeploy some mercenaries from Africa to Ukraine.

The war may also revive Western interest in Africa, particularly the energy-rich nations that could help the European Union wean itself off Russian oil and gas. U.S. President Joe Biden plans to host a summit with African leaders later this year.

How Russia’s role in Africa will evolve in the coming years will depend in large part on how the war ends and which narrative -- the West’s or the Kremlin’s -- prevails on the continent, analysts said.

Jideofor Adibe, a professor of international relations and political science at Nasarawa State University in Nigeria, told RFE/RL that Moscow could turn inward to focus on domestic issues as it did following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 if it is perceived as having lost the war in Ukraine and is weakened.

“But if Russia is either seen as victorious or comes out relatively strong then, because of the sanctions, it really becomes imperative for the country to look for new allies,” he said.

The Impact Of Sanctions

Western nations and some partners in the Asia-Pacific region have cut off Russia’s economy, including its leading businessmen, from their financial system and technologies as they seek to isolate Putin internationally over his invasion of Ukraine.

Russian commercial and military operations in Africa could be indirectly stung by the sanctions.

African nations may become hesitant about Russia’s ability to “service and maintain strategic technologies, whether its arms or whether its nuclear power plants,” Hanna Notte, a senior research associate at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation told a Congressional hearing in May.

Russia is Africa’s largest supplier of arms while Kremlin-controlled Rosatom has agreements to develop nuclear power plants on the continent.

A visitor examines a Kalashnikov submachine gun at an exhibition on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi in 2019.
A visitor examines a Kalashnikov submachine gun at an exhibition on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi in 2019.

Nonetheless, Joseph Siegle, research director at the Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said he expects Russia to “double down” on its objectives in Africa amid heightened tensions with the West.

Alongside projecting itself as a great power, avoiding international isolation, and eroding the luster of liberal democracy, Russia’s goals include securing a presence in North Africa and the Horn of Africa to gain access to strategic ports.

Russia is mainly using “relatively low-cost, asymmetric tools” like PMCs and disinformation, not trade and investment,” to achieve its goals, Siegle said.

“Russia is going to be interested in increasing its activities in Africa regardless of what transpires in Ukraine because it isn't investing big money,” he said.

Unstable Countries, Authoritarian Leaders

Russia has found a welcome reception largely in African countries facing political instability or where authoritarian leaders or juntas hold sway, according to analysts.

Russia can offer leaders a range of goods and services to keep them in power -- from arms and mercenaries to disinformation campaigns and election interference, analysts said.

And the Kremlin’s help comes without the tough political concessions demanded by the West -- such as requirements to strengthen democracy or the rule of law -- an attractive alternative that Putin has been keen to stress.

The Russia-Africa declaration signed during the 2019 Sochi summit made no mention of democracy or human rights.

The lack of strings attached has made Russia the continent’s largest arms supplier, accounting for 44 percent of imports of major arms to Africa between 2017 and 2021, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Political instability on the continent could grow this year, opening the door for further Kremlin involvement, analysts said.

The global surge in food and energy prices on the back of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is already causing unrest in some countries while several nations -- including Angola, Kenya, and Libya -- hold national elections.

But Russia’s poor performance so far on the battleground in Ukraine could hamper the Kremlin’s ability to capitalize on any openings.

Russia has “likely” lost as many as 15,000 soldiers in Ukraine and has “highly likely been forced” to redeploy some mercenaries from Africa to the Donbas, the U.K. Ministry of Defense said.

Sudanese military leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (file photo)
Sudanese military leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (file photo)

In a possible sign of apprehension about the war and its impact on African clients, Sudan’s military leader, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, flew to Moscow on February 23 -- a day before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine -- for meetings with Kremlin officials.

Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, took power in a coup in October that removed a transitional government from power following the ouster of authoritarian President Omar al-Bashir, triggering street protests and Western condemnation.

Russian PMCs have been active in Sudan since at least 2017 when they were invited by al-Bashir to help stabilize his government amid growing dissent.

“I believe Hemedti flew there to sort of say, ‘Hey, don't forget about us,” McFate said.

A large delegation from Mali, where Russian PMCs are also active, traveled to Moscow on May 20 to discuss arms and investments.

Russian Guns For Hire

The C.A.R., Mali, and Sudan, where Russia has been seeking a naval base along the country’s eastern Red Sea coast, are just three of the African nations where Russian PMCs have been present.

In an October 2019 report for the U.S. Air Force, Washington-based think tank RAND Corp assessed there had been 25 Russian PMC operations in Africa over the preceding five years.

Russia’s primary tool of influence in Africa, PMCs allow the Kremlin to plausibly deny any connection to their activities.

The most prominent Russian PMC is the Vagner Group. The United States alleges that Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Putin’s, manages and finances Vagner in coordination with Russia’s Foreign and Defense ministries.

Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) and Vladimir Putin (file photo)
Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) and Vladimir Putin (file photo)

The Kremlin and Prigozhin have repeatedly denied any links to Vagner.

Siegle said Vagner is more than a PMC providing security services, describing it as a “coercive tool” used to advance Russia’s foreign policy, including through disinformation and election interference.

Its members are largely made up of former Russian defense intelligence operatives.

Prigozhin funds Vagner in part with revenue from energy and mining concessions his firms receive in the host countries, such as Sudan, where it mines gold.

“Prigozhin’s interest in natural resources is as a funding stream, for his personal wealth and his illicit organization that he runs,” McFate said.

Russia’s PMC operations in Africa are unlikely to end despite the protracted war in Ukraine and sweeping Western sanctions, McFate added.

“It's relatively cheap for Russia to maintain their ongoing operations in Africa and still fight the war in Ukraine. I can see support in terms of money and resources slowing down. I don't see it going away,” he said.

Buying Allies

Although the Kremlin has struggled to convince much of the world of its narrative of the war in Ukraine, it seems to have been relatively successful in Africa, analysts said.

Putin’s claim that he was forced to launch the invasion of Ukraine to prevent it from joining NATO “for now resonates well with a number of African countries,” Adibe said.

That was evident during the UN General Assembly vote in March to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when only slightly more than half of African nations backed the resolution, compared with more than 80 percent for the rest of the world.

Securing UN votes has been a key element of Putin’s Africa agenda, analysts said. Former U.S. national-security adviser John Bolton accused Moscow in 2018 of selling arms and energy to Africa in exchange for votes at the UN.

Moreover, some African nations may be receptive to Russia’s geopolitical views because of strong historical ties, analysts said. During the Soviet period, Moscow offered military and economic assistance to African states struggling for independence against European powers.

Those “warm feelings” may now “blind” some African leaders to Putin’s neo-colonial ambitions in Ukraine, Eusebius McKaiser, a Johannesburg-based political analyst, and Sasha Polakow-Suransky, a deputy editor at Foreign Policy, said in a March editorial.

Former South African President Jacob Zuma (file photo)
Former South African President Jacob Zuma (file photo)

Speaking specifically of South Africa -- whose former president, Jacob Zuma, allegedly trained in the Soviet Union during the struggle against apartheid -- they said the government “has failed to recognize that Putin’s Russia is not the anti-imperialist patron of liberation movements that it once adored.”

Putin’s actions in Ukraine clash with the declaration of principles he signed with African leaders at the Sochi summit, which called for an international order “based on the principles of respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-interference in internal affairs of States, [and] preservation of national identity.”

New Containment?

The impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine on its relationships in Africa might be visible by November, when Putin will host his second summit with the continent’s leaders, this time in St. Petersburg.

The West may lean on African leaders to turn down the invitation as part of a new attempt to “contain” Russia on the continent, Adibe said.

The decision African leaders make “will depend on the carrots that Russia and the West are dangling before them,” he said. “They're not going to take a position until they're able to see the costs and benefits of going or not going.”

Biden also plans to host his country’s second summit with African leaders this year.

However, McFate doesn’t expect a major push by Washington to expand involvement.

“There's just not a lot of appetite on Capitol Hill, among senior policymakers in the executive branch and the American people to really get involved in Africa,” McFate said.

Siegel said U.S. policy toward Africa should not be a reaction to Russia’s involvement.

“If the main reason the West is getting involved in Africa is to block Russia, then what is in it for Africa,” he asked.

“Too often Africa is looked at as a competition rather than as a destination for mutual partnerships and mutual interest and trying to advance some shared goals.”

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.