Putin Warming up to Idea of Russian Presence in Africa

  • Several military cooperation agreements have been signed this year with countries such as Sudan, CAR, and Mali.
  • The increased push into the region boosts the Russian economy but creates tension with other Superpowers and the UN.
  • President Putin has been warming up by improving Russo-African relations since 2015.

Why is Putin’s Heat Level Warm?

Answer: After almost three decades of absence on the continent, Putin has been slowly restoring Russia’s African sphere of influence.

International concern for changing dynamics in Africa have reached new heights this month as many in Mali claim they would welcome Russian mercenaries into the country to replace the currently stationed French troops, a significant development that tips the power balance in Putin’s favour as a military authority. The Malian people, who have suffered two coups in the last year and jihadist conflict, are becoming disilusioned with their former colonial power, and are instead turning to Russian influence as a solution.

The agreement between the Malian leadership and Russian security forces has garnered a fair amount of international attention, bringing  Russo-African relations into the spotlight. This is by no means, however, an isolated instance of warming relations between Russian and African governments. President Putin has been establishing and expanding his presence on the continent for quite some time now. 

Since 2015, over 20 military cooperation agreements have been signed with governments of various African countries including Ethiopia, CAR and Sudan. These agreements comprise various means of cooperation: weapons sales, training of African officers in Russian military academies and the donation of Russian military hardware in exchange for the presence of Russian military advisors in the signing countries, as well as  Russian access to seaports and air bases.

These agreements have been imperative in boosting the Russian economy as well as affording Putin the ability to assume a certain authoritative posture on the continent, winning over nations who have had little Russian contact since the Soviet-era. Putin’s self rebranding as an aid and saviour to vulnerable countries like Mali is hugely beneficial for the leader, growing his influence and positive image in the region. 

Perhaps summarising this strengthening of Russo-African relations best is the first Russia-Africa summit, held in 2019 and co-hosted by President Putin and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. At the summit, Putin emphasised his willingness to enter into trade deals ‘without political condition’ whilst condemning Western states for their use of ‘intimidation and blackmail of sovereign African nations’, claiming Russia would aid said nations in pushing back against these powers. While Putin’s intentions seem noble, they raise an eyebrow of many in the international community, who worry Putin is merely aiming to undermine current powers in Africa with his own.

Critics have noted that while these accords benefit African governments in the short term, the long term relationships and influence favour Putin considerably more, with some going as far to call these agreements ‘opportunistic’ or ‘debt traps’ . Whatever the case may be, President Putin is undoubtedly warming up his presence and reputation in several African nations.

Who is Changing Putin’s Temperature? 

Answer:  Accommodating African governments, as well as Putin’s unconventional tactics are paving the way for expansion into the continent.

Of course, no diplomatic expansion can be one-sided, and in this case, the governments of signatory nations are taking significant steps to facilitate President Putin’s expansion into Africa. The Russian president has employed a multi-faceted strategy of co-option to impress African leaders and secure Russian global influence. The strategy itself relies on two pillars: the provision of military and political support for isolated leaders who then become beholden to Moscow and the employment of unofficial and often ‘extralegal’ tactics that favour Russian interests. 

Also significant is Putin’s reliance on Russia’s image as a longtime ally; over 30 years ago the Soviet Union habitually backed post-colonial independence movements against Western powers, solidifying the trust between many African governments and Russia. The consequence of said methods is an increased foothold for Putin and Russian military influence in decision making in the targeted countries; African politicians are already employing Russian mercenaries as personal protection, deepening Putin’s connections to local governments. 

One representation of this strategy is Putin’s actions in CAR. In December 2020, President Faustin Archange Touadéra, fearful of a looming coup, requested military intervention. Putin, happy to oblige, deployed 400 military instructors to the region, and heavily funded Touadéra’s reelection campaign. Even after Touadéra retained power, Russian private military contractors remained active, with reports of Wagner group mercenaries training for deployment to CAR. Russian arms were then sent to strengthen CAR security forces, securing valuable mines in the north, and increasing revenue for the Wagner Group

Putin makes great economic and diplomatic gains from this and similar situations: namely the exportation of nuclear power, and weapon sales to countries that have been refused by other nations. This willingness to sell to nations like Angola and Nigeria that have been denied by the U.S. has positive implications for Russo-African relations, establishing increased presence, but suggests future hostility between Putin and Western leaders. 

The other side of this strategy relies on more covert methods. In October 2019, it was revealed that Facebook had removed dozens of pages based in eight African countries for their disinformation campaigns. Many were found to be linked to the Kremlin. These pages consisted mainly of pro-establishment content for current governments in countries such as Sudan, CAR and Mali. By targeting African democratic processes, Putin is targeting specific pressure points that allow him to make gains with little risk or expense, securing alliances and an increased temperature. Clearly, President Putin, who admonished Western nations for their neo-colonialist methods, is not opposed to his own flavour of less-than-ethical practises.  

Overall this asymmetrical methodology, combined with receptive leaders that have much to gain in terms of security and power maintenance from increased Russian presence, has been the fuel for Putin’s rising temperature and his expansion into Africa.

What is Driving Putin?

Answer: Potential economic gains, but the answer is also to do with ideology and nation-building.

President Putin is not by any means lacking motivation for this re-establishment of influence in Africa. There is plenty of opportunity for him in the region, providing tangible justification for an expansion onto the continent. The first is perhaps the most concrete; economic gain. The aforementioned revenue produced from diamond and gold mines in CAR is but one example of this. Putin’s establishment of Russia as a power broker in Libya means access to key ports and hydrocarbon reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean. Combined with the increased revenue brought in by his deployment of mercenaries in various nations, as well as Russia’s position as the largest exporter of arms to the continent, Putin has before him an array of opportunities that are as lucrative as they are numerous.

While economic gains are likely the most immediate of Putin’s motivations, the ideological and nation-building dimensions of this expansion should not be overlooked. He has been vocal in his denunciation of modern liberalism, and this new expansion could be the ideal breeding ground for Russian-led, undemocratic styles of government. Backing more authoritarian and Russian favourable figures such as Libya’s Khalifa Haftar or election meddling in Madagascar are just two examples of how Putin has enacted his belief that liberalism is ‘obsolete’ and an ‘alternative’ political landscape. 

The ideology and nation-building behind the move also have an important overlap with the economic potential. Unlike China, who achieve the same goals through great infrastructure projects that usually provoke civil protest and are often seen as an attempt at ‘soft power’, Putin is opting for more subtle means of building influence. He favours a more subtle approach that implies less direct Russian intervention. This method of exporting resources, power and using private military contracts reduces Putin’s footprint in the region, avoiding the same unrest of African peoples. This equally paves the way for access to African energy deposits, such as offshore gas in Mozambique,  significant in light of Russia’s own lack of clean energy resources. 

Another underlying motive for Putin’s African expansion may not concern the nation’s future, but the restoration of its past. It has been over 30 years since Russia has had relations as active as these with Africa. Russia’s involvement in Mali especially, considering his remarks surrounding former colonial powers and their questionable methods and coupled with his recent move to extend his rule until 2036, implies a desire to restore a Soviet-era image of power on the global stage. Clearly, the presence of Russian power as opposed to the former colonial rulers of Africa is a nation-building driver for President Putin that overlaps with his other aims.

What Does This Mean for You?

Answer: Putin’s expansion challenges the status quo, raising questions about relations between Superpowers.

President Putin’s increased influence in Africa is undoubtedly a major challenge to other invested parties on the continent. Tensions between France and Mali are already growing, an important dynamic change that opens the door to new Malian relations with other powers. Putin has been quick to capitalise on this with the rhetoric of Russia as a more viable security option for the nation. His tireless efforts to establish and maintain warmer relations with African leaders could mean a major dynamic shift in the region’s near future, wherein Chinese, European and US players will have to be aware of Russia’s new influence. 

This reinforced presence will undoubtedly strengthen Russia’s, and by extension, Putin’s position on the geopolitical stage, meaning a decreased likelihood of Russian cooperation in a ‘Euro-Atlantic and United States dominated security order’. Indeed, this challenge will play a significant role in future relations with the current African Superpowers; China – who has itself ambitious plans for post-Covid-19 African relations, and the U.S.- who have already condemned Russian actions on the continent. Equally, by distinguishing himself as an alternative to West European influences, as such is the case in Mali, President Putin also implies further Russian isolationism in Europe and a possible breakdown in Russian relations with the EU.

As President Putin continues his bid to increase his presence, the future of Africa, and indeed Europe seems uncertain, with only one fact remaining clear; rarely have African peoples benefited from outside powers’ colliding spheres of influence.

Ross Hardy

R&A Alumno