As the U.S. Disengages, Russia Ramps Up Aid and Arms Sales to Sub-Saharan Africa
In early March, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov embarked on a five-country tour of sub-Saharan Africa. During his trip, Lavrov signed new trade agreements with Russia’s two long-standing partners in southern Africa, Angola and Mozambique. He also strengthened Moscow’s diplomatic ties to Zimbabwe’s new government and highlighted the role Russia could play providing security to several countries facing political unrest at home.
Even though Russia’s power projection capabilities on the continent remain limited, the broad range of deals signed by Lavrov suggests that Russia is actively seeking to expand its economic and security influence in Africa, and perhaps reassert some great power status in a region that was integral to the Soviet Union’s “Third World” outreach. The fact that Lavrov’s trip coincided with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s own visit to several African countries seemed to expose the gap in American and Russian diplomacy today.
Tillerson’s trip was widely seen as an apology tour, after President Donald Trump had derided African nations as “shithole countries” in a White House meeting. When Tillerson cut his tour short and was then promptly fired, many African leaders saw it as another snub. There was no such controversy around any of Lavrov’s visits.
Russia’s efforts to expand its economic influence in sub-Saharan Africa have principally focused on giving Moscow a foothold to access the region’s vast natural resources. Russian diplomats have used debt forgiveness, development assistance and promises of arms sales to encourage African leaders to grant Russian companies entry into their rich mining sectors. According to Paul Stronski, a Russian foreign policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, debt forgiveness initiatives have already facilitated Moscow’s entry into the mining sectors of Zambia and Mozambique. For the Kremlin, this follows a successful strategy in the Middle East to use these kinds of financial incentives to thaw relations with Syria in 2005 and Libya in 2008.
Russia’s offers to provide development assistance to African countries is nothing new. If anything, its aid to the agricultural sectors of several mineral-rich countries and technology provisions to emerging markets across Africa resemble Soviet-era investment projects, albeit on a much smaller scale. Although poor economic conditions at home have prevented Moscow from reaching its previously stated goal of devoting 0.7 percent of its GDP to assistance to developing countries, development aid continues to facilitate Russia’s entry into Africa’s mining sector.
Moscow has also used arms sales to sway African leaders to give them preferential access to their countries’ natural resources. Negotiations between Russian and Zimbabwean diplomats in 2012 over what was essentially an arms-for-platinum deal helped Moscow gain a $3 billion stake in Zimbabwe’s huge Darwendale platinum deposit in 2014. Russia’s ability to extend this approach elsewhere in Africa remains unclear, however, as its attempts to forge a similar arms-for-minerals agreement with the Central African Republic have failed due to China’s overwhelming dominance over copper, gold and diamond reserves there.
Beyond mining and other resources, Russia is still eyeing energy sectors in sub-Saharan Africa, as it promotes nuclear power as a driver of economic development. Its most prominent move came in 2014, with a landmark but controversial $76 billion deal for Russian energy giant Rosatom to build two nuclear power plants in South Africa, which has the continent’s only nuclear power station. Then-President Jacob Zuma personally championed the deal, bypassing South Africa’s parliament. When the deal collapsed in 2017 after a South African court ruled it unlawful, Russia was forced to look elsewhere in Africa for nuclear energy clients.
That search has achieved some notable success. Last October, Rosatom signed a $20 billion deal to construct two nuclear power plants in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy. Russia is now set to play a leading role in eliminating Nigeria’s chronic electricity shortages, winning it praise. The Nigeria deal also encouraged Lavrov to negotiate with Angola on the construction of nuclear power plants, and to forge a nuclear technology-sharing agreement with Namibia, the world’s fourth largest producer of uranium.
When it comes to security, Russia has focused chiefly on expanding its array of existing arms contracts and positioning itself as a useful counterterrorism partner. Russia has emphasized its willingness to sell arms to governments without discrimination on ideological or human rights grounds, portraying itself as a reliable arms vendor to authoritarian African leaders. Many of those leaders see proof of Russia’s commitment to noninterference in Moscow’s strident defense of former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe against potential U.N. sanctions in 2008, along with Russian arms sales to Sudan after its president, Omar al-Bashir, was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009.
The growing appeal of Russian weaponry has pushed several African leaders to ask Moscow for help in carrying out counterterrorism operations.
This hands-off policy has helped Russia expand beyond its traditional Soviet-era coterie in sub-Saharan Africa. Since 2010, Russia has supplied Uganda with 74 percent of its conventional weaponry, signed a $1 billion defense cooperation agreement with Angola, and agreed to a major military-technical cooperation pact with Nigeria. These deals are likely to continue to expand in the years to come, as Russia’s effective use of air power during its military intervention in Syria and successful marketing of its S-400 missile defense system—which it recently sold to Turkey, a NATO member—increase its influence over international arms markets.
The growing appeal of Russian weaponry to several African countries has also pushed their leaders to solicit Moscow for help in carrying out counterterrorism operations. Russia has been especially interested in assisting Nigeria combat the extremist group Boko Haram, while outlining a strategy to deepen its overall cooperation with Abuja.
Even though the Nigerian military continues to work closely with the United States against Boko Haram, Russia’s offers have been received positively in Nigeria. Nigerian Defense Minister Mansur Dan Ali pointed to Russia’s potential role as a counterterrorism partner during his meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Shoygu, last summer in Moscow. Dan Ali even cited Moscow’s record against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria—where Russia rarely distinguished between “terrorists” and opposition forces—as a model for West Africa to follow.
As senior officials in other African countries, like Chad and Somalia, echo the Nigerian defense minister’s praise for Russia, Moscow could gain a more prominent role in providing logistical assistance to governments across the continent facing their own domestic insurgencies. It isn’t surprising that, during his Africa trip, Lavrov capitalized on Russia’s growing reputation by offering military assistance to Mozambique, which has experienced a wave of attacks by Islamist groups in the gas-rich northern part of the country.
Even though Russia’s influence in sub-Saharan Africa still pales in comparison to China’s—and, for that matter, the United States’—Moscow has paid more attention to the region in recent years, for its own economic interests and great power aspirations, and to satisfy African countries’ desire for sophisticated weaponry. As Russia continues to expand its network of partnerships and support counterterrorism initiatives across the continent, its rising influence in sub-Saharan Africa could take a U.S. administration that has shown little interest in Africa by surprise.
Samuel Ramani is a doctoral candidate in international relations at St. Antony’s College at Oxford. He is also a contributor to The Washington Post, The Diplomat and the National Interest. He can be followed on Twitter at @SamRamani2.