Geopolitics Military Affairs

Russia’s diplomatic offensive in Africa. Lavrov offers weapons and mercenaries

Pavol Beblavý

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Viktorovich Lavrov has visited Mali, Mauritania and Sudan as part of his second trip to Africa in the past month. This diplomatic trip comes shortly after fresh Russian successes on the continent, led by infamous Wagner Group mercenaries. The frequency of Lavrov’s visits also goes to show that Moscow has a keen interest in Africa and plans to further deepen its influence there.

The struggle for influence in Africa has long been a contest between the West and China. Both sides have used economic incentives in the form of investment and loans to gain influence on the continent. After the imposition of a harsh sanctions regime in 2014, the Russian Federation is unable to gain an economic foothold in Africa and has therefore turned to sell even more lucrative products: weapons and mercenaries. Russia made its debut in sub-Saharan Africa in the Central African Republic.

The Central African Republic (CAR) has been wracked by a brutal civil war since 2012. France has stood on the side of the government but has been unable to prevent the decline of government power. The situation had reached a point where the capital had been besieged by rebels. The desperate president invited Wagnerian mercenaries to the CAR and began to buy armaments from Russia. In January 2021, Wagner mercenaries launched an offensive against the rebels, who were defeated in pitched battles, and the government gained control of most of the country and all urban centres. In return for saving the government, the Wagner group gained control of almost all of the country’s diamond and gold deposits and secured for Russia a monopoly on arms imports into the CAR. In order to consolidate its long-term influence, the Wagner group also took other steps on the ground: they set up a radio station, disinformation websites, made films and even organised a local beauty contest. These actions have created a strong brand for Russia among African governments and peoples as the saviour of African states.

Lavrov’s visit to Mali comes after the French army withdrew from the country last year following pressure from the Malian government and Moscow subsequently became the African country’s main partner. Mali, located in the Sahel region, has been the scene of an international Islamist insurgency since 2012. The local government was initially assisted in the fighting by France, the former local colonial power, but except for short-term successes, the uprising has not been quelled. Thus, in 2021, Mali saw its second military coup within a year. The new military junta lost patience with France and invited the Russian Wagner mercenaries to Mali. It was the Wagner group which was able to improve the military situation considerably in favour of the government but at the cost of widespread violence against the civilian population. Lavrov’s visit to Mali clearly signals the will of both sides to deepen their relations, especially in the sphere of security. The Russian Federation has long supplied military fighter jets, helicopters and mercenaries to Mali. There is still an Islamist insurgency in the country, and new weapons and mercenaries could help the government in its fight against these insurgents. In exchange, Russia is likely to receive concessions for gold, oil and uranium mining. In addition, it will receive a favourable vote in the United Nations.

Lavrov also offered Russia’s support in the fight against jihadism to Mauritania. The country faces the same threat as Mali, although there have been no attacks there since 2011. Moreover, Mauritania borders Western Sahara, where, in turn, there is an ongoing conflict between Morocco and the local Polisario movement.

In addition to Mauritania, Mali’s other neighbour, Burkina Faso, also faces the threat of an Islamist insurgency, and the situation there was even more serious in 2022. The government’s inability to combat the Islamists who controlled about 40% of the country caused 2 military coups in 2022. The new military government is strongly pro-Russian and anti-French. Most recently, it requested in January 2023 that all French troops withdraw from Burkina Faso and is reportedly in secret talks with the Wagner group to come to the country.

Lavrov also visited Sudan. There has been a civil war in Sudan for over 20 years and the state is currently ruled by a military junta. Sudan is subject to severe economic sanctions by the United Nations and has a very fragile economy. The Sudanese government is a long-standing ally of the Russian Federation and has long used the services of Wagner mercenaries in the fight against the rebels. The Wagner group has gained control of a large number of lucrative gold mines in return as payment. The military junta is closely tied to Moscow due to the fact that the international community ostracizes both countries. A deepening of mutual trade and military relations between Russia and Sudan could lead to an easing of international isolation.

Russian influence in Africa is likely to continue to grow in the near future. This is due to the fact that Moscow is able and willing to sell African governments an extremely lucrative product: effective violence. At the same time, it has built a very strong brand and Russia is genuinely popular in Africa, as it does not have the image of a former colonizer while presenting itself as a power that is able and willing to counter the influence of former colonial powers. The only thing that could stop Russia in Africa is if another power stood up to it in the region. But the traditional power, France, is rapidly withdrawing from the continent. China, despite having invested heavily in Africa in the not-so-distant past, is currently struggling with its own problems and is in no position to significantly expand its influence in Africa. The US is currently concentrating primarily on the Indo-Pacific and, despite limited interest, has no reason to delve deeply into Africa. Russia thus senses an opportunity to gain new wealth, influence, UN votes, military positions and alliances in Africa.

Photo credit: Filckr.com/Mitya Aleshkovsky

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