Security and Foreign Policy

Russia Flexes Its Muscles In Africa

After a long period of lack of interest stretching back to the end of the Cold War, Moscow is going back to exerting its influence in Africa through partnerships with African military and energy sectors. Mario Ghioldi explains how the Russian commitment can change the economic and political balance in both the region and individual countries.    


The Yellow vest protests aren’t the only riots that have exploded in the last few weeks due to the fuel price increase. On January 14th, in Zimbabwe, in a different background, police fired live ammunition at furious crowdsblocking the main roads of Harare and Bulawayo, the most important cities of the country. Although the clashes were deemed as the worst disorder in Zimbabwe since the last election, the target of the protesters, President Emmerson Mnangagwa was on the other side of the globe, signing agreements on the diamond industry and finance deals with Putin worth more than $250m

The political and economic visit by the African leader in Moscow is probably only the first of many that the Kremlin expects to sign, considering the new Russian strategy in the continent. Basically, in front of the deterioration of the economic and political relations between Africa and the western countries and the new expansion of China, Russia is spreading its economic and military influence, positioning itself as a new actor without the baggage of former colonial powers.  

The renewed interest of Moscow for that continent was born quite recently. Until December 2016, the strategic documents released by the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry, Africa was not a priority for Moscow. Nevertheless, the intense tour carried out by Lavrov last spring, including the visits to Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Ethiopia and Mozambique showed a change in Russian strategy, confirmed through the signing of a new memorandum on military technical cooperation with the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). 

Moreover, this agreement clearly enumerated the assets being offered by Moscow to the African states. While Russia cannot compete with the Chinese financial and economic power, it also doesn’t have the burden of the cultural and trade links of the European countries’ colonial past. Thus, Russia’s goal is to strengthen its military and security links with the local governments in order to become a serious competitor in the continent. It is no coincidence that between 2013 and 2017, almost 40% of Africa’s imported weapons were supplied by Moscow, a higher percentage than the sum of the Chinese and American imports.      

Additionally, Russia has supported local governments through military assistance, sending arms shipments, deploying trainers for the presidential guards or assisting in accommodating presidents during the elections. Probably the most significant example of this engagement is the cooperation with the Central Africa Republic, where Moscow sent more than 200 private military contractors in order to train the local troops. The same government, effectively supported by Russian officials, recently declared that Moscow could potentially open a military base in the country.  

As a result of this military commitment, Moscow has been also able to sign (directly or indirectly) different commercial and strategic agreements with various countries, in important sectors, like energy. Russian oil companies Rosneft and Lukoil are already operating in Egypt, Mozambique, Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon, whilst the nuclear monopoly Rosatom has projects in Zambia and Rwanda. Russian companies are particularly operative in other industries as well. Alrosa and Rusal, Russian economic giants engaged respectively in diamond mining and aluminium production, are active in other African countries, such as GuineaAngola and Botswana. Although the Chinese competition over natural resources is too strong for Russia, Moscow is finding new spaces due to the US retreat in the area.   

In this background, where China and Russia are sharing the economic, energy and military leadership and the European countries (especially France and Great Britain) are still looking to hold their cultural ties to the region, the US might end up dramatically surprised. An important warning was given by Christian Malanga, one of the most important opponents of Felix Tshisekedi, the new President of the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to Malanga, the Western influence is going to be seriously jeopardized by Beijing and Moscow, where “China is the money and Russia is the muscle”

As a result, the US has been called to respond with a new and innovative strategy in order to contain the Moscow-Beijing expansion. It is no coincidence that in the last month, the US national security adviser John Bolton launched a new plan for Africa, accusing Russia and China of predatory practices that are threatening African financial independence and US national security.  

Mario Ghioldi has an International Relations background through his studies at the University of Siena. In the last year, he worked with the Italian government’s Mission to the United Nations (3rd Committee) and in Nicaragua. He also joined the Salvadoran diplomatic team at the Rome agencies twice.  

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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