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Russia in Africa

Helmut Sorge | Posted : August 28, 2018


It was yet another turbulent episode reflecting the dark sides of politics and secret service conspiracies. Murder is the message. “Do not mess with us.” The killers wore turbans and spoke Arabic. What else is new? It was dark, not a good time to drive on a hellhole of a road in the Central African Republic, one of the poorest nations of the world. So poor that death has no price. Not many streets are paved and streetlights are as frequent as public faucets delivering drinking water. The assassination of three men didn’t surprise the citizens of the Central African Republic. It was very likely that President Faustin-ArchangeTouadéra was, initially, not informed about such a banality, killers in the night. Russian bodyguards protect the President. This night though, July 30 (after the bodies were recovered on the road to Sibut, 115 miles north of the capital Bangui) there was a sense of urgency – these men were journalists, and not just any, but journalists connected to the Investigation Control Center, and known in Moscow. They were working on a tough assignment, possibly touching state secrets. Secrets of the Kremlin. Under Vladimir Putin, the deployment of mercenaries occurred and the demonstration of Russian might illustrated, a nation craving to return to greatness. To relive the Soviet Union, is part of his logic, a political dream coupled with romantic notions as well as a hardly disguised streak of brutality – including the murder of reporters, which in the Russia of today, is part of the combat against dissent.

The scenario of the African drama seemed simple. Sinister characters were employed to kill Orkhan Dzhemal, Aleksandr Rastorguev and Kirill Radchenko, part of an independent news media outfit, known as the Investigation Control Center. The reporters traveled to the former French colony to investigate a mysterious “Wagner Group,” reportedly a private military force founded by a former Russian intelligence officer and linked to an associate of Vladimir Putin, Yvgeny Prigzhin, a St. Petersburg businessman. In fact, Prigzhin was just recently indicted by U.S. special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, for interfering in the 2016 US presidential election through his troll factory, known as the Internet Research Agency. The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed that 175 private instructors (and five military personnel) were indeed on assignment in the African nation, but no word whether they were part of “Wagner,” and if such a firm exists at all. No address, no phone, no Mr. Wagner, the name possibly adopted from the sinister German composer. Wagner is perhaps a group assigned by Russia’s military intelligence, a fictitious firm, which should be kept out of newspapers, even if that means the death of three journalists. The US Treasury Department imposed, some time ago, sanctions against the mercenary company accusing it of recruiting and sending soldiers to fight alongside pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk region of Ukraine, as the New York Times reported. Wagner recruits have also been sent to Syria, where possibly hundreds of them died in February during a firefight with American soldiers and after being hit by US air power near the Euphrates River, the water is as murky as the death of three men in Africa.


The Russian reporters were searching the truth of the imagined or real Wagner Group - their research financially supported by the self-exiled Russian billionaire Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky. They started their investigation at an abandoned palace in Berengo, where some of the mysterious Russians set up their tents. Decades ago, this palace was used by an evil dictator named Boukassa. A Russian-speaking African told them they needed official approval for a visit from the Defense Ministry. The trio then headed towards a gold mining area near Ndassima where Russians had also been sighted. Instead, they drove north, and, after sundown, shots were fired. The African driver survived. He has not been seen in public yet. The driver’s survival indicates that the nightly attack was probably not an everyday common robbery, but planned (because secrets needed to be hidden). Possibly, the killers achieved their mission, but suddenly the drama in the jungle “illuminates Russia's campaign to return to Africa” as the New York Times reported:

“Russia under Mr. Putin has pushed hard to regain a presence in lost territory, asserting itself not only in former Soviet lands like Ukraine but also farther afield in Syria and now Africa, where, during the Cold War, Moscow and the West supported opposing sides in conflicts from the Horn of Africa to Mozambique and Angola.”

Thierry Vircoulon of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) is convinced that Russia is working on a “historic revenge,” after the post-Cold war humiliation, and that Western countries were “tired” of Africa.

Suddenly, a few days ago, we witnessed Russian soldiers assisting UN peacekeepers in securing the frontier between Syria and the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. Russian soldiers, whose comrades are still reducing buildings in Syrian cities to dust, and childrens’ laughter to wailing of their grieving mothers. Four years the peacekeepers were absent and now, a Russian general proclaimed, similar to what self-proclaimed emperors do, that “the Russian flag is the guarantor of peace and security,” and the operations by Russian military police “help ensure the security of Israel.” 

There was no reaction in Jerusalem, just a comment by Arutz Sheva of the Israel National News: “The Russian deployment in the area has highlighted Moscow’s growing clout in the region.” A day prior to the first joint Russian-UN patrols, Russia announced it reached an agreement with Israel to keep pro-Iranian fighters 85-kilometers away from the volatile borders. Moreover, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, met in Jerusalem with Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for talks that focused on the Iranian presence in Syria. Netanyahu stressed the “extraordinarily link” between Israel and Russia.


It seems Russia has rediscovered Africa with a new urgency through activities such as, but not limited to, arms sales, installment of a new telecommunications center with Angola and projects of diamond mining in the latter country, building a nuclear power station for Egypt, agricultural projects in Senegal, oil and gas exploration in Mozambique and Gabon. There have also been  discussions about nuclear power stations in Rwanda and Zambia. Furthermore, Gazprom is working on exploration and development in Algeria’s hydrocarbon reserves around El Assel. Even discussions between Russia and the Democratic Republic of Congo are advancing, mainly concerning the exploration of natural resources like coltan, cobalt gold and diamonds. Zimbabwe seems equally ready to join Moscow in the development of a platinum mine. Cairo and Moscow discussed the establishment of a Russian industrial zone in the New Suez Canal project. It is important to remember that there is still a war to deal with; a nasty battle in some of Syria’s still not liberated areas. The Russian’s are the Godfathers of Damascus, which soon have to make the Iranian elite soldiers based in Syria an offer they can’t refuse, but possibly Tehran will just resist.

New trading partners are needed, since sanctions slow any economic progress, new partners have to be found by Moscow within the African continent’s 54 nations, since Russia needs votes at the UN or  or face the  frustration of being known as a  former giant (the Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea and Ethiopia hold temporary seats on the Security Council). Humiliation and the possibility of turning into a paper tiger, is not part of Putin’s agenda nor his ego. More than half a dozen African leaders attended the Russian President’s inauguration ceremony in May including his closest friends: President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, Abdel Fattah el–Sisi of Egypt, Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe, Joao Lourenco of Angola, Hage Geingob of Namibia, and most notably, Sudan’s Omar al- Bashir. 

Al-Bashir proposed to President Putin that Moscow build a military base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. Putin pitched his nations know-how personally at the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) conference in Johannesburg in July:“I would especially like to note that Russia is planning to step up its assistance in development of national energy in African states,” meaning nuclear energy, Russian reactors.


Russia’s “timing is good,” judged Ronak Gopaldas of the South African Institute for Security Studies, adding that: 

“there is a clear shift in the West’s relations with Africa (which is now primarily centered on migration and security) and this is a good time for new foreign entrants to make their mark. Apart from China, Russia is an obvious beneficiary, especially since Western sanctions after its invasion of Crimea meant it needed to find alternative trading partners… Trade and investment between Russia and Africa witnessed 185 percent growth between 2005 and 2015.”

In June, Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov visited Paul Kagame in Rwanda; it may be just a coincidence that until the end of this year, the Rwanda leader chairs the African Union. Then (surprise, surprise), after a five-African-nation trip by Lavrov (Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Namibia & Zimbabwe), a few months earlier, Putin decided to cancel more than 20 billion dollars in debt contracted by African nations to help the continent overcome poverty. According to Paul Stronski, senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Russia’s recent outreach to Africa stems from “an acknowledgement that its partnership with the region is lagging and it needs to play catchup in Africa.”

Moscow’s entanglement with Syria and its inhumane participation in assuring Assad’s power, accepting death of tens of thousands and the flight of millions, may turn some African leaders away from Russia, fearing, possibly, to be confronted one day with the ruthless, nationalistic streak of Vladimir Putin. The truth though: most African nations buy arms from Russia, since the Russians do not hesitate to deliver weapons to any nation, regardless of any human rights issues. At the same time, it is true, Russia provides a significantly large number of troops to UN peacekeeping missions, especially since its peacekeepers deployed in Africa outnumber those from France, the UK and the US. 

The United Nations, which has a peacekeeping force in the Central African Republic, had imposed an arms embargo on the country in 2013, but at Russia’s request, relaxed the ban late last year. As a result, tons of Russian military equipment began arriving at the Bangui airport in January. A UN report issued in July said the Russian weapons and ammunition, airlifted to Bangui between January 26 and February 7, were unloaded at the airport by Russian citizens (perhaps from  the Wagner Group?), but “given that all the flights reached Bangui after sundown it was not possible to proceed with a proper inspection with the stockpile upon arrival.”


“Although Russia is edging closer towards African states,” writes Ronak Gopaldas, 

“It is debatable what tangible impact this is having. Despite the willingness to play a more meaningful role in Africa, its ability is constrained. Russia lacks the financial muscle and scale to replicate the Soviet Union’s success in this area, while Asia and Europe remain bigger priorities at this stage… However, through strategic energy diplomacy, military might, and soft power, Russia will gradually increase its influence in Africa on an incremental, rather than exponential level.”

Russia has a notable military influence in Africa, both in terms of “boots on the ground” (Gopaldas, 2018) and military transactions with nation-states. In fact, Russia is the second largest exporter of arms globally and a major supplier to Africa. Cairo alone, which is a current ally of the United States, signed with Moscow, between 1990 and 2017, nearly 30 arms deals, mainly for surface-to-air missiles and related technologies. A few years ago, a deal was signed which allows Russian and Egyptian warplanes to use each other’s airbases and airspace.

“Despite the controversy and moral issues around Russia’s attitude towards human rights issues and sanctions,” argues Ronak Copaldas, “Russian weapons are often the ones showing up in countries under arms embargoes, it is likely to remain one of its comparative advantages,” although other arms suppliers like the US, France, North Korea or China are competing with Russian military hardware. Moscow has installed three refurbishment plants on the continent of Africa, including South Africa, and “that worked quite well for them,” observed Alex Vines, a former UN sanctions inspector who is now consulting with the London based think tank Chatham House. The reasoning, he found is because “Russian military equipment is pretty robust, fairly low maintenance. And that has made the Russians attractive.”

In the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union began a major effort to penetrate Africa. After a decade of relative indifference to African developments, Soviet arms and advisors, with support of Cuban troops, poured into Angola and Ethiopia. Involvement in these two countries was supplemented by further transfers of arms to a number of other African regimes and “this seemed to signal a dramatically heightened interest in the continent,” writes Robert Grey in 1984 in the Journal of Modern African Studies. As he observes, in the last half of the 1970s, the increased presence in Africa was “especially dramatic,” in the decade from 1967 to 1976, where the average annual value of such transfers was 2.200 million, and during 1976-80, where this value increased to 7.700 million. In neither period though did a majority of African governments receive Soviet arms, confirmed Robert Grey. During 1976-80, only 23 of 52 states did so. Between 1962 and 1989, Algeria alone purchased, on loan, weapons worth eleven billion dollars, leading to the creation of the largest army in sub-Saharan Africa. The North African nation is, today, alongside Morocco and Egypt, the top trading partner of Russia in Africa. Moreover, Russia provided Ethiopia with more than 11-billion dollars worth of military hardware, and, during a war with Somalia, transported Cuban troops, Russian advisors and more armament to the beleaguered ally.


Soviet military expenditure stood at almost 350 billion dollars in 1988, a few years later it has fallen to about 19 billion. Russia’s arms industry saw several major clients for its weapons disappear, chief among them the former Warsaw Pact members and Iraq. “By 1992,”states Siemon T. Wezeman, Senior Researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRIS), “the arms industry Russia had inherited from the Soviet Union was in serious trouble - most of its internal market and part of its export market was gone.”

Moscow will be inclined to revise and develop its traditional relations with various nations having been part of the Soviet orbit, as Algeria or Angola. China was Russia’s largest client between 1999 and 2006, accounting annually for up to 60 percent of the volume of Russia’s export of major weapons.

“By 2006,” Wezeman noted, “the mutually beneficial export-import relationship between Russia and China had begun to shift.” It’s important to note that, as explained in his article, export shares of China amounted to only 10% in 2010 and thus, Russia was able to shift its focus from markets such as India and Algeria to Venezuela for example (Wezeman, 2017). 

Beyond the diminished need for Russian imports, China rapidly transformed into a major arms exporter. This resulted, stated the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in a study published last year, “in China’s forays into markets in which Russia was active, including Algeria, Nigeria, Venezuela and Indonesia.” 

We must be aware of interests that run counter to our own,” declared Marine Corps-Lieutenant General Thomas Waldhauser, Commanding General of the US Africa Command in a hearing before the US Congress, “as a larger number of external actors take a great interest in Africa… External actors may diminish US influence by undermining our development and diplomatic efforts in Africa, and we share the message with our partners during all levels of engagement. Nonetheless, as the strategic environment becomes more crowded and competitive, our engagement with external actors, like China and Russia, will continue with an open and clear discussion of intersecting interests and differences.”

The US Armed Forces maintain only one, permanent, military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. In August of last year, the Chinese opened their first naval base—almost next door to the US installation. Lieutenant General Waldhauser insisted: “We continue to monitor this development to ensure US interests are not deterred.” The Russians, on the other end of the continent, do not need to worry about intruders at their naval base at Tartus, Mediterranean Sea. Russia signed a 49 years lease in 2017, for no payments at all, with Mr. Assad. The deal includes the right to build a larger naval base, allowing eleven warships, including nuclear vessels. What happens to these contracts if Assad should fall?

When a Turkish military jet pilot shot down a Russian Sukhoi 24 fighter, who, allegedly, in 2015 had intruded into Turkish air space without permission, Putin personally took care of the Anti-Turkish furor, including stopping all mass tourism of Russian citizens to Turkey. No word from the President about the death of three journalists murdered in cold blood in an African nation Russia is courting. A spokesperson of the foreign ministry in Moscow expressed regret over the killings, but added that the murdered journalists had not obtained official accreditation and were visiting the Central African Republic as tourists, not as investigative reporters. In other words: with valid accreditation, they would still be alive. The State-controlled media did blame the self-exiled oligarch Mr. Khodorkovsky, who financed the investigation into “Wagner.” This is with the presumption that Wagner is Wagner and not one of Putin’s former colleagues. The bullets fired into the car were obviously not only meant to hit the reporters, but the bullets were a message to anyone daring to investigate secrets of the state -- or financing such an adventure.

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