Humanosity says there always seems to be a scramble for Africa. The end of the 19th century saw the great European powers race each other to carve up Africa. The Cold War saw the USSR and the USA fight each other through their African proxies. In recent times China has invested billions and loaned billions more in an effort to secure the continents mineral riches. Now the Russians are back.
Russia has recently hosted a major summit for dozens of African leaders in the purpose-built resort of Sochi. President Vladimir Putin stated as he opened the conference that the strengthening of ties with African countries is one of Russia’s foreign policy priorities.
In an interview with the Russian Tass state news agency in advance of this week’s summit, President Putin said: “Russian-African relations are on the up,” and spoke about offering a very broad range of assistance including; defence and security, economic support, educational and vocational training.
Whilst this mirrors much of what the USSR used to provide, Russia has been very vocal about its plans for some years now. It has been increasing its contacts with leaders in the region and at least 12 heads of state have visited since 2015.
Russia has clear economic motives for involvement in Africa, as it has a shortage of some minerals such as manganese, bauxite and chromium, all of which are important for industry.
So What is Behind This Push?
Africa has always been an importer of Soviet, now Russian, defence equipment. However, Asia is a much bigger market
Between 2014-18, the African continent – excluding Egypt – accounted for 17% of Russia’s major arms exports, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
But in terms of overall economic ties, Russia still does much more trade with Europe and Asia than with Africa.
For sub-Saharan Africa countries, their most important trading partners are India, China and the US. In terms of development aid the US, China, Japan and the EU give far more and invest more in Africa than Russia does.
“Russia is nowhere near restoring the status that the Soviet Union once enjoyed on the continent.” According to Paul Stronski, a senior fellow at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Russia’s clout in Africa remains tied to a handful of client states with relatively limited strategic significance.”
So given tall of this what is Russia up to? Serious consideration must be given to Putin’s desire to be a strategic thorn in the side of the West
Russia’s ambitions have prompted some concern in key Western powers they are being outplayed by Moscow. Last year, former US National Security Adviser John Bolton announced a new US strategy for Africa, partly aimed at countering both China and Russia.
Russia’s Shadowy Mercenaries
However little publicity has been given to Russia’s big new player on the scene, a shadowy mercenary group called Wagner.
Russia has been active in the Central African Republic (CAR), officially helping to support the embattled UN-backed government against an array of rebel groups. But private Russian military forces have also been working there, providing security to the government and helping safeguard key economic assets.
Russian mercenary activity has also been reported in neighbouring Sudan and Libya and the fingers always seem to point at Wagner, which is said to have close ties to the Kremlin. The later always disputes this and investigating the links has proved to be very tricky and in the case of Russian journalists who were attempting to investigate the firm’s activities in the Central Africa Republic, deadly.
In June 2017 the US Treasury added Wagner PMC to a long list of Russian individuals and entities subject to sanctions because of their involvement in the Ukraine conflict.
The US also identified Dmitry Utkin as Wagner’s “founder and leader” and placed him on the list. Russian media reports suggest that Mr Utkin served in a special forces brigade of Russian military intelligence, the GRU. Then in 2013, he went to Syria with a group of fighters recruited by a company called “Slav Corps”, according to those reports.
The GRU secretly oversees Wagner, according to security sources quoted by Russian RBC news. Russia’s official military deployment in Syria began in September 2015; it has mostly taken the form of airstrikes, sometimes hitting civilian areas hard.
Russian officials often play down these reports and it’s difficult to establish the exact links between these groups and the Russian state. However, according to Paul Stronski, they offer Moscow a cheap way “to expand its security presence and political influence in the country at virtually no cost and little risk”.
Wagner’s alleged financial backer is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a rich businessman close to President Vladimir Putin. Mr Prigozhin is on the US sanctions list because of his links to the eastern Ukraine separatists.
In December 2016 the US Treasury said Mr Prigozhin had “extensive business dealings” with the Russian defence ministry and was linked to the construction of a new military base near Ukraine.
Mr Prigozhin’s involvement is reported to be via a company called Evro Polis Ltd. Last month the US Treasury added Evro Polis to the sanctions list, describing it as “a Russian company that has contracted with the government of Syria to protect Syrian oil fields in exchange for a 25% share in oil and gas production from the fields”. It said the company was “owned or controlled” by Mr Prigozhin.
He is known as “Putin’s chef”, having provided prestigious catering services for the Kremlin. Born in 1961, he spent several years in jail in the Soviet period but got into business selling hot dogs before going on to ‘win’ contracts selling catering services to the armed forces.
Like many other close associates of President Putin, he grew up in St Petersburg and got rich during the turbulent 1990s transition from communism to free-market capitalism.
The US government links him directly to Russian interference in US politics and the 2016 presidential election. On 16 February US federal prosecutors indicted 13 Russians, including Mr Prigozhin, accusing them of “fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the US political and electoral processes”. The indictment said he had “spent significant funds” on the group and on the Internet Research Agency, a St Petersburg body that has been nicknamed the “Russian troll factory”.
Reports suggest that in Sudan and the CAR the Wagner group is charged with protecting diamond, gold and uranium mines and that this is their key mission. In taking on these incredibly lucrative, as well as secretive missions, Wagner is simply following a business model established by their Western counterparts, companies like Executive Outcomes and Sandline, companies that were at the heart of the blood diamond story.
When you put all of this together then it’s not hard to see what’s behind the Kremlin’s push into Africa. At a strategic level, they can portray themselves as the counterforce to western hegemony and put themselves alongside China as a global superpower. Importantly they can do this on the cheap at a national level and like their western predecessors, earn a decent profit as well.