Russia’s attempts to cement itself in Africa, especially since it invaded Ukraine in February 2022, are proving to be remarkably successful, largely because of several policy mistakes made by the United States and other Western powers.
This was the testimony from three key witnesses before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs on July 18, at a hearing focusing on the impact of Moscow’s activities on the continent and consequences for U.S. national security interests.
“Russia is succeeding in its efforts to make new friends, acquire greater influence, and undermine Western interests in Africa,” said Cameron Hudson, former Africa intelligence analyst for the U.S. government and now senior associate at the Africa Program of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“It is playing on historical ties to these nations; stoking long-held grievances over colonialism and paternalistic attitudes from the West; and pointing out glaring inconsistencies when it comes to Washington’s pursuit of its interests in Africa compared to the values it routinely articulates.”
Joseph Sany, vice president of the Africa Center at the United States Institute of Peace, told the committee that while President Vladimir Putin’s Russia “had no visible grand plan for Africa, a pattern of opportunistic engagements and collusion between the Russian state and shadowy private entities” sought three main goals.
They were to maximize profits through commercial predation by proxies—thus helping evade Western sanctions against Russian individuals and entities; to disrupt and erode Western influence in Africa, and to strengthen Russia’s geopolitical influence and great-power ambitions.
Mr. Sany said the Kremlin was pursuing these goals via misinformation, propaganda, and “overinflated” historical ties to Africa.
“Moscow has often portrayed itself as a staunch supporter of African nations seeking autonomy and sovereignty, emphasizing historical narratives of solidarity, such as providing educational opportunities and military support during the Cold War era,” Mr. Sany testified.
“These efforts have allowed Russia to garner support and win votes at the United Nations, all the while diverting attention away from criticisms of President Putin’s brutal aggression against Ukraine.
“Russia and its proxies sow resentment against the United States and international rule of law to strengthen its global standing.”
Mr. Hudson warned that violent instability in areas where mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group had a presence was spreading.
“With the withdrawal of international peacekeepers from places like Mali, Western allies will be challenged to contain a deepening security crisis,” he told the committee.
Mr. Hudson said there was now an imminent danger that conflict—fomented by Moscow’s mercenaries—could spill over into countries including Burkina Faso, Ghana, Niger, and Côte d’Ivoire.
The witnesses, including Pauline Bax; deputy director of the Africa Program International Crisis Group, testified that the Putin regime was interfering in elections to manipulate outcomes; paying African journalists and social media influencers to deliver pro-Russian messaging; supporting military, political, and business elites in an effort to control the economies of entire countries.
In addition: using mercenaries to destabilize regions such as the Sahel and Central Africa to force Western powers to abandon them; establishing a military presence and security partnerships in countries along the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, and even the Atlantic; and creating new markets and commercial opportunities, especially in energy, mining, arms, and agriculture, to “undercut” Western sanctions.
“These tactics, often pursued with and through local proxies, are often opaque and corrupt, making them difficult to detect; harder to dispel, and even more challenging to inoculate against,” said Mr. Hudson.
He told Congress that Moscow was “preying upon” weak, unstable, and failing states to gain a bigger footprint in Africa.
“In countries like Mali, Central African Republic and Sudan, Russia has used the formula of approaching countries in the throes of violence, instability, and political uncertainty, along with a dearth of transparency, rule of law or democratic institutions, to sell these countries’ leaders on a basket of security, economic and political partnerships that benefit both countries elites,” Mr. Hudson testified.
”There is no ideology underpinning Russia’s in-roads as during the Cold War. In these countries, it is purely transactional. Under these terms, African leaders get political cover from Russia at the United Nations and in other international fora; security for themselves at home; a continued hold on power; off-book revenue streams; and a counter to Western-led reform processes.”
Mr. Sany said considering that Russia’s aims in Africa were clear—to support political and military elites in order to fulfill its “Great Power aspirations” by building military bases on the continent, establishing maritime routes and “strategic zones of influence”—it was possible to predict the countries that the Kremlin and its proxies would target next in Africa: Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Uganda.
“The United States should be considering these possibilities in U.S. policymaking,” he stated.
Mr. Hudson said atrocities committed by Russian mercenaries on the continent, and their seizing of mines and other resources, as well as the food shortages and high fuel prices endured by Africans because of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine were well-documented.
Yet, he maintained, Moscow was set to convene its second Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg next week stronger than ever before in the eyes of African leaders.
This, said Mr. Hudson, was because the Putin regime had “broken diplomatic isolation by … deepening and expanding Russian commercial, political and security ties with Africa’s business and political elites.”
He said it had also established itself as one of the primary leaders of an anti-West New World Order, and its insistence that Africa should be central to this “multipolar world” was resonating across the continent.
Mr. Sany added that Africa’s growing closeness to Russia could also be seen in arms sales to the continent.
He said Russian weapons sales to African countries had increased from around $500 million to over $2 billion annually.
Mr. Hudson, Mr. Sany, and Ms. Bax suggested that the United States was not doing enough to counter Russia’s misinformation and disinformation campaigns in Africa.
Mr. Sany said Washington should expose Russia’s “malign activities” in Africa by supporting African media and investigative journalism “to expose Russia’s support for corrupt schemes and oppressive regimes.”
He testified: “The African men and women doing this work are among the bravest in Africa, risking retaliation.
“This exposure of realities should illuminate the manipulative approach used by the Russian-linked criminal networks and their local cronies to subvert democracy, violate local laws, or use blackmail or violence to force out of business hard-working local entrepreneurs.”
Ms. Bax said it was crucial that the United States began “positively shaping” the information environment that the Wagner Group and Russia had been dominating.
“The United States can best do this by putting resources into improving the quality of independent local media in Africa.
“Russia, including through Wagner, has taken advantage of the African information environment to amplify existing grievances, polarize the public debate and increase its own standing.
“It has hired professional African journalists and social media influencers,” she told the committee.
“Wagner has also disseminated copyright-free content to news websites and content aggregators and given syndication deals to content creators.
“A U.S. approach that offers financial and other support to independent African media could help confront dangerous influence operations like Wagner’s.
“African voices are more credible than U.S. or Russian voices when it comes to shedding light on Wagner abuses.”
The witnesses warned that Washington’s threats, or imposition, of sanctions against African countries considered to be “on Russia’s side,” risked entrenching them in Moscow’s camp.
Mr. Hudson told the committee the U.S. government should improve its messaging to African nations that had made it clear they did not wish to choose sides in the war in Ukraine.
“Africans have been resentful of threats of U.S. sanctions for working with Russia and any efforts that create distance between us and our African partners provide fertile ground for Russian influence to metastasize,” he said.
Ms. Bax referred to South Africa, arguably the continent’s most influential power, its second-largest economy, and a member of the BRICS economic bloc of some of the world’s leading developing economies, including China and Russia.
Members of Congress have frequently condemned Pretoria for strengthening ties with the Putin regime since it invaded Ukraine.
Leading South African officials often visit the Kremlin, and President Cyril Ramaphosa’s African National Congress (ANC) administration has said it plans to strengthen military cooperation with Moscow.
The United States has also accused Pretoria of providing arms and ammunition to Russia, which the Ramaphosa government denies.
Members of Congress from both the Democratic and Republican Parties have called on the Biden administration to punish South Africa for its supposed pro-Russian stance, in particular by expelling it from Washington’s African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).
AGOA grants selected African countries preferential and duty-free access to American markets for products including motor vehicles and fresh produce, two of South Africa’s biggest exports.
Pretoria’s exports to the United States under AGOA are worth at least $1.75 billion per year.
But Ms. Bax warned against Washington taking actions that could isolate South Africa.
“Despite the perceptions of South Africa as pro-Russian, it has maintained close diplomatic ties with the United States and Europe.
“South Africa has a strong constitution and a vibrant democracy. It promotes freedom of speech, inclusivity, and non-discrimination on a continent where these principles are often under threat,” she said.
“It plays a leading role in the African Union and the Southern African Development Community, as well as in fighting militant jihadism in the region.”
Against this backdrop, said Ms. Bax, it was hard to see how a strained relationship with Pretoria served U.S. interests.
“To guard against that eventuality, the United States might consider following the example of Germany, which is South Africa’s biggest European trade partner—continuing to engage economically and politically while respecting certain diplomatic boundaries.”
Mr. Sany told the committee America should care deeply about competing in Africa and investing in its stability, for obvious reasons.
“Africa is poised to shape the 21st century as the world’s fastest-growing demographic and economic power. By 2050, Africans will make up a quarter of the global population,” he said.
“Whether Africa succeeds in achieving effective governance and development, as Congress has sought in the bipartisan 2019 Global Fragility Act, will be determined whether the continent becomes a prosperous contributor to the global and U.S. economies in the next two or three decades, or a site of deepening crisis.”
Like it or not, said Mr. Sany, Africa’s trajectory would “significantly shape the world in which our children and grandchildren will live.”