Russia aims to increase footprint, influence in Africa

DAKAR, Senegal — Russia’s top diplomat pledged help and military assistance while on a whirlwind tour of several countries in Africa’s sub-Saharan region of Sahel this week, as Moscow seeks to grow its influence in the restive, mineral-rich section of the continent.

Russia is emerging as the security partner of choice for a growing number of African governments in the region, displacing traditional allies like France and the United States. Sergey Lavrov, who has made several trips to Africa in recent years, this week stopped in Guinea, the Republic of Congo, Burkina Faso and Chad.

Moscow has aggressively expanded its military cooperation with African nations by using the private security company Wagner and its likely successor, Africa Corps, with Russian mercenaries taking up roles from protecting African leaders to helping states fight extremists.

The Polish Institute of International Affairs said in a study this month that in “creating the Africa Corps, Russia took an assertive approach to expand its military presence in Africa.

Moscow is also seeking political support, or at least neutrality, from many of Africa’s 54 countries over its invasion of Ukraine. African nations make up the largest voting bloc at the United Nations and have been more divided than any other group on General Assembly resolutions criticizing Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Russia-linked entities also spread disinformation to undermine ties between African states and the West, the Africa Center For Strategic Studies, an academic institution within the U.S. Department of Defense, wrote in a March report. Moscow has been “sponsoring 80 documented campaigns, targeting more than 22 countries,” it said.

Here’s a look at how Russia is expanding its influence in Africa. 

Why are African nations turning to Russia? Russia has taken advantage of political unrest and discontent in coup-hit nations, capitalizing on popular frustration and anger with former colonial power France. Military coups have ousted governments seen close to France and the West and doing little to alleviate grinding poverty, unemployment and other hardships.

Russia offers security assistance without interfering in politics, making it an appealing partner in places like Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, all ruled by military juntas that seized power in recent years. In return, Moscow seeks access to minerals and other contracts.

Violence linked to extremists allied with al-Qaida and the Islamic State group has been on the rise in Sahel for years, despite efforts by France, the U.S. and other Western allies to help fight the jihadi groups there. In 2013, France launched a near decade long operation in Mali to help fight militants, which expanded to Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad. The operation ended nine years later but the conflict did not, contributing to anger with the West.

The U.S. has further lost its footing with key allies for forcing issues — including democracy or human rights — that many African states see as hypocrisy, given Washington’s close ties to some autocratic leaders elsewhere.

While the West may pressure African coup leaders over democracy and other issues, Russia doesn’t meddle in domestic affairs, Rida Lyammouri, a senior fellow at the Policy Center for the New South, told The Associated Press.

What is Russia’s interest in African countries? Africa is rich in minerals, oil and other resources, which come with political and legal challenges. Its resources are increasingly central to economic and national security, such as cobalt, which is used in electronics like mobile phones, or lithium, which is used in batteries.

Russia has thrived in countries where governance is limited, and has signing mining deals through companies it controls. An EU parliament study showed that Russia secured access to gold and diamonds in the Central African Republic, cobalt in Congo, gold and oil in Sudan, chromite in Madagascar, platinum and diamonds in Zimbabwe, and uranium in Namibia.

The U.S. based non-profit Democracy 21 group said in an analysis last December that Wagner and Russia may have made about $2.5 billion through the African gold trade alone since invading Ukraine in February 2022.

Though Russia is increasingly a partner to African countries in the oil and mining sector, it lags far behind as an overall trading partner. For example, data by the International Monetary shows less than 1% of Africa’s exports go to Russia, compared with 33% to the European Union.

Where do Russian contractors operate in Africa? The first reports of Wagner mercenaries in Africa emerged in late 2017, when the group was deployed to Sudan to provide support to then-President Omar al-Bashir, in exchange for gold mining concessions. Wagner’s presence soon expanded to other African countries.

In 2018, Russian contractors showed up to back powerful commander Khalifa Hifter in eastern Libya who was battling militants. They also helped Hifter in his failed attempt to seize the capital of Tripoli a year later.

In the Central African Republic, Russian mercenaries have been providing security since in 2018 and in return have gained access to some of the country’s gold and diamond mines.

Coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021, in Burkina Faso in 2022 and in Niger in 2023, brought military juntas critical of the West to power. All three eventually ordered French and other Western forces out, and instead turned to Russia for military support.

Niger ordered the U.S. to withdraw its troops and close its multimillion dollar flagship investment in a sprawling military and spy base in Agadez earlier this year, after a meeting with a U.S. delegation ended poorly. The decision has upended U.S. counterinsurgency operations in Africa’s Sahel.

Weeks later, Russian trainers arrived in Niger with new defense equipment.

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