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Russia's Escalating Influence in Africa

Updated: Jun 21, 2022

by Judith Bergman for the Gatestone Institute - June 20, 2022

"Russia relies on a series of asymmetric (and often extralegal) measures for influence—mercenaries, arms-for-resource deals, opaque contracts, election interference, and disinformation." — Joseph Siegle, Director of Research at the Brookings Institution's Africa Center for Strategic Studies, February 2, 2022.

Although trade between Russia and African countries has reportedly doubled since 2015, to about $20 billion a year, China is still Africa's largest trade partner, with trade between China and the continent at $254 billion in 2021. But Russia's ultimate aims in Africa are the same as China's: To gain influence by making African countries dependent on its services.

While in the case of China, investments and infrastructure are offered in exchange for strategic access to vital natural resources and political leverage, in the case of Russia, it is weapons and Russian state-sponsored mercenaries, known as private military companies (PMCs) in return for the same.

"In its African strategy, the Kremlin is motivated foremost by a desire to thwart U.S. policy objectives, almost irrespective of their substance.. Considering Africa 'one of Russia's foreign policy priorities,' Russian President Vladimir Putin also seeks to create African dependencies on Moscow's military assets .... targeting countries that have fragile governments but are often rich in important raw materials, such as oil, gold, diamonds, uranium, and manganese...

They also offer to these governments the ability to conduct counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations unconstrained by human rights responsibilities... In turn, Russia seeks payment in concessions for natural resources, substantial commercial contracts, or access to strategic locations, such as airbases or ports." — Federica Saini Fasanotti, the Brookings Institution, February 8, 2022.

The largest and most famous of Russia's PMCs is the Wagner Group, a paramilitary organization linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Vladimir Putin. Although ostensibly appearing as a private business, "its management and operations are deeply intertwined with the Russian military and intelligence community" according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and should be seen, therefore, as "a proxy organization of the Russian state rather than a private company selling services on the open market."

"Russia's Wagner Group has withdrawn about 1,300 of its mercenaries from Libya to Russia through Syria to participate in the Russian military operation in Ukraine, according to military and strategic expert Colonel Adel Abdel Kafi." — Middle East Monitor, March 26, 2022.

"Our competitors clearly see Africa's rich potential. Russia and China both seek to convert soft and hard power investments into political influence, strategic access, and military advantage." — General Stephen Townsend, Commander of United States Africa Command, Senate Armed Services Committee on March 15, 2022.

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Judith Bergman, a columnist, lawyer and political analyst, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.

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Pictured: Russian President Vladimir Putin (front, center) is surrounded by African heads of state at the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum in Sochi, Russia on October 24, 2019. (Photo by Sergei Chirikov/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

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