As eyes look to the Ukrainian front, Russia gains an edge in Africa
West Africa is experiencing a wave of coups that have toppled governments in Mali and Burkina Faso over the past year, with another attempt in Guinea-Bissau this month. Aggrieved military brass – US-trained and partnered – deposed elected presidents and claimed control of the state. The primary reason provided by coup leaders is that the elected governments and their Western partners had failed over the past decade to rid their hinterlands of jihadist militants, particularly after France's move to trim down its force presence throughout the Sahel region.
That is good news for Russia.
Observers of Vladimir Putin's playbook note an affinity for risk in unstable or undemocratic states where he can find warlords and strongmen willing and able to further his country's economic and security interests. The end goal is to weaken Western dominance, and particularly the role of the US, in places and circumstances where he sees an opening.
Through this piecemeal approach that is based on a combination of Russian misinformation and apt timing, the governments with which the US has established political or security relationships, or both, can fall apart rather quickly. The Kremlin's support for Bashar al Assad in Syria and Khalifa Haftar in Libya, or Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, are salient examples.
"The Wagner Group – the Kremlin-backed private security force with hired hands reported in Angola, Central African Republic, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Libya, Mozambique, Sudan, Syria – is now a household name in Africa"
International attention on Russia's expansion is clearly focused on the scenario playing out right now that put Kyiv in danger of usurpation. But direct incursions into Africa over the past half-decade fit into Putin's broader playbook for disrupting the hegemony that the West has enjoyed since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. From Eastern Europe to the Middle East and North Africa, the US and Western Europe forged economic and security alliances with nations where the Soviets once held influence.
Russia has rapidly, and happily stepped into the places and situations where the West is perceived as failing, and beyond. The Wagner Group – the Kremlin-backed private security force with hired hands reported in Angola, Central African Republic, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Libya, Mozambique, Sudan, Syria – is now a household name in Africa. Russia's security relationships with North African countries, Algeria and Egypt in particular, are stronger with each passing year.
Mali and Burkina Faso are only the latest victories, and observers fear more may be in the offing.
This is an opportune moment to establish a semi-permanent presence as Western countries' dominance in the region wanes. But Moscow is also able to exploit the fragility of electoral democracies in Africa that the US and other Western countries have attempted to fashion for decades, albeit with a skewed interest toward security cooperation activities. Weak and typically ineffective governments, coupled with the persistent and increasing threat of jihadism and a declining West, present a situation that is just ripe for exploitation. Without a doubt, Russia has a certain edge over the West because it is not beholden to the same kind of expectations to adhere to international norms.
Wagner operators have craftily developed symbiotic relationships with disgruntled military officers and kingpins alike that want to either hold onto the power they have or to disrupt the status quo.
Naturally, it is the ordinary people who have been caught in the middle. Vladimir Putin meanwhile consistently claims the mercenary force has no association to the Russian government, despite a growing body of evidence-based on multiple independent UN investigations proving otherwise. The United Nations Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights noted last year that Wagner Group's men not only violently harass and intimidate locals with abandon, but they are also reported to "committing systemic and grave human rights and international law violations, including arbitrary detention, torture, disappearances and summary execution…" The European Union sanctioned the Wagner Group two months later.
It is uncertain whether sanctions will have any negative impact on the outfit. In the meantime, Russia's expansion continues.
The possible benefits of Russian expansion in Africa are multiple, particularly with such breadth and in such a short amount of time. With support from the Kremlin's intelligence and military services, the Wagner Group now has a semi-permanent presence that includes access to ports, air and land bases across North, East, and West Africa.
Knocking the US or France out of strategic locations throughout Africa either in part or completely opens multiple doors for Moscow to extend throughout the continent. By establishing a military base in Sudan, the Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean are easily accessible. Access to port locations on the North and West African coasts afford Russia opportunities to challenge Europe from the south, as well as access to the Atlantic Ocean without needing to pass through the Strait of Gibraltar in the Mediterranean Sea, just meters from NATO strategic defence systems.
"The Wagner Group is just the right low-cost and low-risk tool to employ – which based on evidence so far – is steadily shifting the geopolitical map"
But the gains extend far beyond direct military challenges to the West. The continent is packed with the precious metals sought after for renewable energy storage. Graphite, lithium, and cobalt reserves in Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Namibia, not to mention in places where Russia already has a foothold, mean that more doors of potential for a natural resource dominance are open and just waiting to be walked through. Should China become a more potent geopolitical ally for Russia, Western countries may not have the same kind of access to these resources and markets as their great-power competitors.
Putin will no doubt continue to find ways to move into unstable situations anywhere on the continent. The recent partnerships with actors Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau or anywhere else might indeed appear isolated, small in scale, or temporary. But if the chance presents itself to stay long-term, there is no doubt Putin will identify it, work around the obstacles as they arise, and reframe the story to fit the goal.
Russia has an edge in Africa. The Wagner Group is just the right low-cost and low-risk tool to employ – which based on evidence so far – is steadily shifting the geopolitical map.
Amanda B. Kadlec served on the UN Security Council Panel of Experts for Libya from 2019-2020. She is a doctoral candidate in the Security Studies Department at King's College London exploring the impact of global power competition on democratization in transitioning states.
Follow her on Twitter: @amandabkadlec
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