Concerns about Russian activities across Africa have been growing for some time, and new revelations about the Kremlin’s alleged efforts to interfere in the most recent presidential election in Madagascar have lifted the veil on what looks like a concerted campaign to expand Moscow’s influence by a variety of means.
As outlined in a BBC documentary last month, in addition to investigative reporting by The Project, an independent Russian journalism collective, these efforts have been spearheaded by Yegveny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch close to President Vladimir Putin who is known as “Putin’s Chef.” Prigozhin rose to prominence after he was indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller as part of his investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Prigozhin had set up the troll factory known as the Internet Research Agency that waged “information warfare against the United States” through a sophisticated disinformation campaign to boost Donald Trump’s candidacy, according to Mueller’s indictment. Prigozhin extended these efforts to Africa, establishing a center to handle all of Russia’s influence projects on the continent after apparently selling Russian President Vladimir Putin on the idea.
Russia’s interests in Africa are simultaneously strategic, economic and diplomatic. The continent is rich in mineral wealth. Madagascar, in particular, holds vast reserves of uranium, nickel and cobalt. African countries present the potential for many new markets during a time when Russia’s geopolitical competitors, the United States and China, are exercising their advantage. Sanctions imposed by the U.S. are crippling the Russian economy, while China’s Belt and Road Initiative is rolling out a carpet for Beijing around the world with big-ticket infrastructure projects. On the diplomatic front, specifically when it comes to the United Nations, the 54 countries in Africa represent a treasure trove of potential votes on resolutions and other matters close to Russia’s interests. But for Moscow to realize all this, it helps to have friendly governments in power.