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Russian Arms Sales are Fueling Africa’s Conflicts

Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) serves food to Vladimir Putin at his restaurant in 2011. Photograph: Misha Japaridze/AP

Russia plays a critical role in Africa, it is responsible for 49% of arms exports to the continent and those arms sales are fueling Africa’s conflicts.

The African continent has been rocked by conflict for nearly a century. Nearly half of the 53 nations in Africa are home to either an ongoing conflict or a recently ended one. Tying these endless wars and deaths together is a single nation – Russia. Russia has a critical role to play in Africa, it is responsible for 49% of arms exports to the continent according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) database, and those arms sales are fueling Africa’s conflicts.

During the Cold War, which often ran hot in Africa, the Soviet Union was a critical arms supplier to African nations, especially those whose leaderships were closely aligned with the Soviet communist ideology. Following the collapse of the USSR and it’s replacement with the Russian Federation, the latter’s role waned. However, over the last two decades, Russia has once again become a critical supplier of weapons to African nations. Unlike the Soviet Union though, Russia’s growing influence is in the shadows, away from public scrutiny. 

An example of this silent growth is Rosoboronexport, the state arms seller. In April, the company signed a deal with an unnamed African nation to supply the first Russian-made BK-10 assault boat (manufactured by Kalashnikov Concern) in 20 years. Similarly, in 2019, Nigeria ordered 12 Mi-35 attack helicopters. Six of which have already been delivered. In 2019, Cameroon declared it intended to buy the Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft system from Russia, but a deal is yet to be finalised. 

The BK-10 assault boat. Source: Rostec.ru

Africa’s Growing Demand

Tracking arms sales in Africa is not an easy process, since only seven of the continent’s nations are signatories to the UN register of conventional arms (UNROCA). Matters are also made complex by the myriad number of rebel groups and terrorist organisations like Boko Haram in the region, who often turn to the black market. So what little numbers are available, show a concerning pattern.

In 2015, SIPRI noted that military hardware was flowing to African countries faster than to any other region. The Economist found that governments’ military spending had grown by 65% over the decade between 2004 and 2014.  While that presents a great opportunity for many other nations keen to export arms, Russia is on track to be the key supplier to the many nations with Angola and Algeria leading the charge. Right now, Russia’s biggest competitor in the region is China, but USSR era relations have allowed Russia to stay ahead. According to Alexandra Kuimova, a researcher with SIPRI’s Arms and Military Expenditure Program, in the early 2000s, 16 African countries were recipients of Russian arms. Between 2010 and 2019, the figure went up to 21.

A good example of this rising demand is Angola. The oil-rich nation has been a regular receiver of Russian fighter aircraft and combat helicopters since 2015. Angola has a long history of purchasing weapons from the Soviet Union, so Russia was the natural choice in the 21st century. In a 2019 visit to Moscow, Angolan President João Lourenço announced: “We would like to evolve from our current state of purchasers of Russian military equipment and technologies towards becoming the manufacturers and having an assembly plant of Russian military equipment in our country.”

A Sukhoi SU-30MK currently used by the Angolan Air Force. Source: African Military Blog

Russia has also used it’s Soviet-era links to secure a monopoly on arms sales in Algeria. In 2006, Moscow wrote off Algeria’s $5.7 billion debt, and the same year the nation signed an arms deal worth $7.5 billion. Today, Algeria is Moscow’s largest client, responsible for nearly half of all weapons sales on the African continent as per Russian Ambassador to Algeria Igor Belyaev

Fuelling this demand are two opposing parties – the government and rebels. As Africa’s vast mineral wealth is increasingly being tapped, governments are turning to their militaries to protect mines from illegal mining. At the other end of the spectrum, rebel groups and terrorist organisations are increasingly arming African citizens, in an aim to stir conflict and challenge governments. In a continent mired in poverty, corruption and conflict, arms are a key necessity. 

Working with rebel forces is the speciality of Russia’s Wagner Group, a private military company (PMC) that has operated in Libya, Chad and Sudan. The organisation allows Russia to run off-the-books operations, ensuring that relations with rebel groups that serve it’s foreign policy goals don’t interfere with its arms sales. As a PMC, it allows the Russian government complete deniability on the international stage. While Moscow has denied any relationship to the company, businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin who owns Wagner Group is known to have close ties to Vladimir Putin. A CNN investigation has found strong links between Wagner’s commercial interests and Russia’s national interests. 

Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) serves food to Vladimir Putin at his restaurant in 2011. Photograph: Misha Japaridze/AP

In Line With Russia’s Vision

Arms sales to Africa aren’t just about economic benefits, it is part of Russia’s growing political and strategic interests as well. Writing for Wavell Room, Andy Wong said: “Russian international arms trades play an integral part in maintaining its image as a world power, as well as a critical part of its relationship with other states in regions of interest. It represents a central element in Russian defense and security agreements with other countries, and an essential component of its ability to obtain and maintain access to influence and resources in regions of interest.”

The use of arms as a foreign policy tool is something President Vladamir Putin has been emphasizing on for over a decade. In 2012, he stated that Russia sees “active military cooperation (an official Russian term used to describe arms exports) as an effective instrument for advancing our national interests, both political and economic.” To understand how this works, Zimbabwe is a good example. 

Since the early 2000s, the nation has been subject to multiple financial sanctions. The state-sanctioned violence that became a hallmark of Mugabe’s regime did not sit well with the West. But for Russia, it presented a good opportunity. Along with China, Russia vetoed the arms embargo proposed by the UN Security Council in 2008. Russia also had multiple other interests in Zimbabwe – Russian companies are involved in diamond and gold mining and Russian imports were worth $22.7m as of 2018. 

Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the former’s visit to the Kremlin in 2019. Source: Kremlin.ru

Despite the fall of Mugabe, Russia’s need to preserve these interests has seen it more involved in Zimbabwe’s politics. In the 2018 Presidential elections, Russian consultants played an active role. In March that year, Zimbabwe electoral commission head Priscilla Chigumba and presidential advisor Christopher Mutsvangwa visited Moscow. It has helped ensure Russia’s interests are preserved in the country and is quickly becoming the playbook for a nation trying to compete with China and the US for influence. 

In many publicly available documents like Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept, the nation views Africa as unstable and in need of help. The publicly available document states: “Russia intends to pursue active participation in the normalization of the post-crisis situation in the region. Russia’s priority in this context will be restoring and strengthening its positions, particularly the economic ones, in this region of the world, so rich and important for our interests.” Economic development is closely aligned with arms sales, at least for Russia, since arms manufacturing represents a key part of Russia’s economy. And as long as there is demand, Russia will be there to supply. 

No Strings Attached

For Russia, the sales of arms comes with little or no strings attached. Unlike Europe or the USA, Russian sales do not come with any political or human rights conditions. It is what allows Russia to align with oppressive rulers like Mugabe, fulfilling the demand the US refuses to supply on principle. For example, in 2104, The US cancelled a shipment of attack helicopters to Nigeria after government troops were accused of human rights violations. Instead, Russia supplied the country with 12 Mi-35M combat helicopters.

Similarly, Russia swooped in to supply Egypt with arms after the US cut supply following the military coup in 2013. From 2009 to 2018, Russia accounted for 31% of Egypt’s imports of major weapons. Russia is able to fulfil orders, especially in Africa, not just because it has no qualms about violations but also because of quality. Irina Filatova, a history professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics said: “Russian arms are good. It is universally recognized. Russian arms are also cheaper. There is no reason why African countries would not want to buy them.” 

The Mi-35M combat helicopter as used by the Russian Air Force. Source: Dmitry Zherdin, Air Force Technology

Another major advantage Russia has is that it is able to fulfil orders quickly. Unlike the US, France or other Western nations, Russian companies are not obliged to report arms sales since it falls under the state’s secrecy laws. As a result, there is almost no opposition from civil society. Without any data and monitoring, there’s no way to know how much is being sold to who, so there’s no bureaucracy in the way.

As a result of this, Russia is able to guarantee high-quality, low-cost arms with short waiting periods. With Africa’s economic and security situation, Russia represents the ideal trading partner. It allows nations to arm themselves quickly and cheaply, helping in the fight to control African resources, and in return, Russia gets a strong negotiating position to beef up its economic interests. Without oversight, this is the perfect cocktail for Russian influence to grow rapidly and compete with both China and the USA.  

Sources: Algeria has bought half of the Russian weapons sold in Africa, Middle East Monitor 2. Putin’s Private Army, CNN 3.The complexities of military involvement in mining, Mine 4. The Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation, fas.org 5.The Observatory of Economic Complexity 6. Wagner Group: Russian Mercenaries Still Floundering in Africa, SOFREP

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