A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

African Comeback


Russia has deliberately expanded its relationships with African countries in recent years. And its latest key interest is Libya.

© Sergei Chirikov/Pool via REUTERS

When the “family photo” was taken at the Berlin Libya conference on January 19, 2020, there he was standing confidentially in the front row, next to UN secretary general António Guterres and host Angela Merkel: Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. For the Kremlin, Libya is currently the most important African country when it comes to expanding Russia’s military influence as well as its influence on energy and migration policy—in a country that is of crucial importance to Europe’s security.

However, Libya is not an exception. All across Africa, Russia has expanded its presence recently, particularly as an arms exporter. The years 2018 and 2019 already saw a remarkable concentration of Russian diplomatic efforts to re-establish ties in Africa. In March 2018 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov conducted a spectacular diplomatic trip across the continent, visiting Namibia, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia. Three months later, in June 2018 he visited South Africa and Rwanda. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the continent once, when he attended the BRICS summit in South Africa in 2018. At the same time, plenty of African leaders paid visits to Moscow.

A Summit in Sochi

So far, the largest and most spectacular diplomatic effort was the first Russia-Africa Summit, held in Sochi at the end of October 2019. All 54 African states took part, and a number of bilateral agreements or letters of intent were signed. The message was clear. Moscow is not only interested in re-warming ties the Soviet Union once enjoyed during the Cold War. The Kremlin aims to establish partnerships of a new quality.

Russia is also using the newly-forged ties for practical diplomatic purposes. Moscow utilizes its position on the UN Security Council to support its African allies, for example, by publicly endorsing the idea of granting Africa a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. In exchange, Moscow can count on the votes of its regional partners in the UN General Assembly, when issues important to Russia arise. For example, on December 18, 2020 the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution about the human rights situation in Crimea and Sevastopol. Although the resolution was adopted by 65 votes, none of Russia’s newly (re)forged African partner countries voted against Moscow; Algeria, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Sudan, South Sudan all either voted against the resolution, abstained, or decided not to vote.  Closer relations, of course, do not necessarily guarantee unconditional support. In other words, there are limits to the loyalty Russia can buy. The results, however, had been largely similar in an earlier vote, held on December 9, 2019, on a resolution that condemned Russia for the militarization of Crimea, and generally for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Meager Economic Ties

Moscow has long been trying to bolster its foreign policy by economic means. However, Russia’s economic capabilities are much smaller than those of the Soviet Union. Despite its diplomatic efforts, Moscow at present remains a comparatively small player in the continent´s economy, although its trade with African countries is undoubtedly increasing. While in 2009 its total trade turnover with African states was $5.7 billion, by 2018 it had reached $20 billion. However, even this spectacular increase is dwarfed by China´s approximately $200 billion annual trade with African countries, or by the EU´s $300 billion. The main comparative leverage that Russia has, particularly over Western investors, is that Moscow can be a lot more flexible by posing no political conditionality. Furthermore, trading with Russia does not pose the danger of a debt trap , which might make it a more attractive partner than China.

The situation is similar in terms of aid, assistance, and investments. While the EU, Japan, China, and the United States all have aid, investment and assistance programs worth of tens of billions of dollars, Moscow has no resources for providing investments or any economic assistance on a comparable scale. Although during the Russia-Africa Summit President Putin spectacularly announced that Russia was going to write off ex-Soviet debts of African states in the accumulated value of $20 billion, this seemingly generous move was less a real investment and more a recognition of the fact that these debts were anyway impossible to collect.

Despite Russia´s comparably small share in the continent´s economy, certain Russian companies have been remarkably successful in establishing strong regional positions, often with the Kremlin´s active support. During the Russia-Africa summit the state-owned nuclear energy company Rosatom signed a contract with Ethiopia to build a nuclear power plant there, and another one with Rwanda to build a nuclear science and technology center. Meanwhile, the Rosgeo State Geological Company signed cooperation agreements with South Sudan, Equatorial Guinea and Rwanda, while the diamond mining company Alrosa has already been active in Angola and Zimbabwe. The Russian state oil company Rosneft has been working in Nigeria on developing more than 20 different oil production facilities, and there are a number of other Russian entities (including the state-owned VEB bank) looking for expansion opportunities.

The Biggest Export Goods: Arms

Certain African countries also represent an important market for Russia’s arms exports. It is well known that arms sales are an important source of income for the Russian economy. In addition, they also serve as a foreign and economic policy tool, due to the fact that by supplying a country with weapons Moscow can establish long-term dependences and keep existing Russia-friendly regimes in power.

Those African countries that were Soviet allies in the Cold War have armed forces that relied heavily on Soviet-made weapons, and Russia is building on those ties. Furthermore, in some cases arms sales also constitute a form of debt relief: in exchange for writing off debts that would anyway probably be difficult to collect, Russia often agrees that the given country can instead sign arms procurements contracts.

Algeria is a good example in this respect. Back in 2006 Russia wrote off Algeria’s entire $4,7 billion state debt and in exchange signed contracts for arms exports as well as for positions in the country’s agriculture and energy sectors. More recently, in 2017 Moscow agreed to supply Algiers with Iskander-E long-range tactical missiles.

After the Sochi summit Russia confirmed that it is currently supplying 20 African countries with weapons, including Uganda, Rwanda, Angola, and Mozambique. The overall value of arms exports was put at $4 billion—approximately one-fifth of Russia´s total trade turnover with Africa.

Big Buyer Algeria

Based on data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), between 2009 and 2019 Algeria has been the largest purchaser of Russian weapons on the continent by some margin. In this period Russia supplied 75 percent of all the country’s arms imports. Algiers has been buying practically the fully spectrum of what Russia’s defense industry has to offer, ranging from diesel-electric submarines to tanks, from helicopters to air defense systems.

Uganda is another significant buyer, procuring a wide variety of Russia-made weapons, ranging from old T-55 tanks to modern T-90 tanks, as well as missiles for the also Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30 fighter-bombers. Egypt has also been a major buyer of Russia-made weapons, although Cairo concentrates mostly on air defense systems, including radars, missiles and other equipment.

Earlier, Libya under Muammar Gaddafi had been the largest buyer of Russian-made weapons. When Gaddafi fell in 2011, Russia lost already signed contracts worth approximately $4 billion, together with the potential for future deals. This particular case also illustrates that Russia’s well-known aversion vis-à-vis externally imposed regime changes is not only because the Kremlin is worried about a potential similar regime change at home, but also because it may lead to significant economic losses.

Across the continent, the most popular military equipment sold by Russia are helicopters, whether they be Mi-8/17 military transport helicopters or Mi-24/35 attack helicopters. Moscow apparently sells military helicopters to whoever can pay, including Zambia, Chad, Angola, and a dozen other countries. The latest helicopter delivery contract was the one signed with Nigeria at the Russia-Africa Summit for 12 Mi-35 attack helicopters.

In addition, Russia is also successfully selling African countries even older, long outdated weaponry, left over from the Cold War era. Low-tech conflicts on the continent are absorbing even those largely obsolete weapons, ranging from small arms to mortars, from armored cars to outdated tanks. Sudan constitutes one of the main “depos” for aged, ex-Soviet Russian weapons and spare parts. Engines supplied by Russia help the Sudanese government keep their old T-55 tanks and BTR-80 armored personnel carriers still operational.

Proxy Boots on the Ground

While Russia has no military base on the African continent, Russian private military companies and mercenary groups are actively present in many armed conflicts there. The infamous Wagner Group, a private military company with close ties to Russia´s military intelligence (the GU), has already seen action in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Mozambique, and Libya. In fact, despite their de jure private status, the group functions more like a proxy, irregular Russian force than a real private entity.

In the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Mozambique, operatives of the Wagner Group provide security assistance, military training as well as reportedly combat operational support to the central governments. In exchange, the Russian oligarch who owns the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, usually gets mining or oil production concessions, as well as other economic benefits.

From Russia´s point of view using private military companies such as the Wagner Group (or any other of the more than a dozen PMCs Russia already has) offers several benefits. First, unlike deploying the regular military, only a very low level of domestic accountability is involved, as Wagner operatives do not count as military personnel, only as employees of a private company. The same applies to international responsibility: the nominally private status of Wagner enables Russia to consistently deny its official involvement, even though Wagner is so closely connected to the GU that they even share a training facility in Russia, and Wagner´s commander, Dmitry Utkin, was a career military intelligence officer.

At present the group’s biggest operation is probably in Libya. Estimates vary, but it seems that at present there are at least 1,500 Wagner operatives deployed there, who conduct not only their usual support tasks, but also high-intensity operations, i.e. fighting. In addition, according to US sources, there are also Russian regular troops deployed in Libya, though there is only very limited public information available on this. What makes Russia´s presence particularly interesting is that in Libya Moscow is not supporting the legitimate, UN-recognized government residing in Tripoli, but the forces of warlord General Khalifa Haftar, who is opposed to the central government.  Russia’s likely motivations for involvement in Libya include the opportunity to have another military base on the Mediterranean (it would be the third one after the harbor and military airport in Syria), to get concessions in oil production, and also to gain a leverage over the migration flow coming from Sub-Saharan Africa towards Europe. These factors make Libya an operational theatre of very high interest for Moscow.

Having boots on the ground in Africa is not without risks for Russia. The Wagner Group recently suffered significant losses in Libya, losing more than 30 of their operatives in September 2019 alone, and another five in Mozambique, who fell victim to an ambush by rebel forces. However, so far these losses remain tolerable for Russia, mostly due to the deniability Moscow employs both at home and abroad. So far, the profit achieved through Wagner´s involvement conveniently outweighs the losses; hence, there is no reason to believe that Russia would downscale the operations of its proxy forces in Africa in the foreseeable future.