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Why Russia Is Failing To Gain Influence In Africa

  • Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov visited South Africa to lay the groundwork for a second Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg and discussed naval exercises with China near Durban's Port. 
  • The plan for joint naval exercises with China and South Africa near Durban attracted attention despite only one Russian frigate present.
  • Chinese interests overshadow any potential synergy between China & Russia regarding African affairs.

The broad coalition built last week for supplying main battle tanks to Ukraine signifies a new surge in strengthening the unity of the US-led Western alliance, and Russia has had no response to this upgrade. It will take a few months to train and equip new armored battalions in the Ukrainian army for breaking through the Russian trenches in Donbas, but the political reverberations of this agreement are instantaneous, and the new level of Western unity may be discomforting for some actors in the Global South. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, paying a working visit to South Africa on January 23, tried to impress upon the attentive hosts that their position of neutrality could become less strict due to the hostile West’s escalating pressure on Russia (RIA Novosti, January 27). Yet, while few practical results came from Lavrov’s labors, the fake anti-colonial discourse finds more than a few receptive audiences (Izvestiya, January 27).

Lavrov had hoped to lay the groundwork for the second Russian-African summit, which was re-scheduled for late July 2023 in St. Petersburg after the pandemic-caused cancellation in 2020, but the content of these strenuously cultivated ties has changed profoundly since the first such summit in Sochi in October 2019 (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 15). Lavrov, for that matter, dropped Botswana from his tour but opted to travel to Eritrea, which was one of only five countries to vote against the resolution condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine approved by the United Nations General Assembly on March 2, 2022 (Rossiiskaya gazeta, January 27).

Nevertheless, the main destination for the Russian foreign minister was still South Africa, which values its status as the fifth member of the loose BRICS multilateral grouping (together with Brazil, China, India and Russia) and finds Moscow’s vitriolic anti-Western discourse rather useful (Kommersant, January 20). The flow of trade remains insignificant, and investments are practically nonexistent, but the plan to hold joint naval exercises with China and South Africa in the Indian Ocean near the Port of Durban has attracted much attention, even if the single Russian frigate there, the Admiral Gorshkov, hardly makes an impressive show of the flag (RBC, January 23; Izvestiya, January 26).

During his conversations, Lavrov was careful to avoid any mention of the Wagner Group’s activities in Africa, which was—rather belatedly—designated by the US Department of the Treasury as a “significant transnational criminal organization” on January 26 (Currenttime.tv, January 28). The Kremlin has denounced this characterization as “demonization,” but Wagner’s track record of operations in the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mali is rich with evidence of looting, torture and murder (RIA Novosti, January 27). The Russian Foreign Ministry conducts no oversight of Wagner’s networks and may be clueless as to whether the group is planning an expansion toward Burkina Faso, which has severed traditional military ties with France (Novayagazeta.eu, January 26).

It is clear, nevertheless, that, for now, the main focus of Wagner operations has shifted to Ukraine, where its gangs, newly recruited from Russia’s vast prison population, are engaged in the intense fighting around Bakhmut, suffering heavy casualties (Topwar.ru, January 16; Meduza, January 23). Yevgeny Prigozhin, the boss of the Wagner Group, has made bitter enemies among Russia’s top brass and developed such an ambitious political profile that his usefulness to the Kremlin may soon expire (The Moscow Times, January 23; Svoboda, January 27).

Some traces of Wagner activities have been uncovered in Venezuela. Yet, even those Latin American political forces that find Moscow’s anti-American rhetoric attractive prefer to stay clear from connections with this notorious group (Ridl.io, January 13). Russia may be eager to engage with the left-leaning governments in Latin America, but it cannot afford to sponsor even such traditional clients as Cuba and Nicaragua. Thus, its transatlantic outreach is quite limited.

Africa is becoming a priority in Russian foreign policy almost by default, as even in the wider Middle East, which used to attract much attention from the Kremlin in the not-too-distant past, Russia’s positions are weakening, not least because the Arab states, as well as Israel, are concerned about expanding military cooperation between Moscow and Tehran (Izvestiya, January 19). Syria served as a springboard for the Wagner deployment into Libya. However, presently, in both states, this presence is being curtailed, and Turkey is taking the lead in conflict manipulation, disregarding Russian interests (Russiancouncil.ru, January 19). The boom in Russian business activity in Dubai is not happening by political design, but rather, it illustrates the desperate flight of entrepreneurs from the deepening economic disaster in Russia (Kommersant, January 27).

Cooperation with China could underpin Russian influence in Africa, but in fact, little synergy of this kind has been achieved—not due to counterbalancing from the United States or France, but primarily because Beijing prefers to act on its own (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 25). The joint naval exercises, while trumpeted in Moscow as a major demonstration of unity, remain an exception to this state of minimalist cooperation (Svobodnaya pressa, January 27). Chinese investments in extracting African natural resources are massive and growing, but Beijing would think twice before hiring Wagner mercenaries for protection, and plans are quietly progressing for the organization of several Chinese quasi–private security companies (Kp.ru, January 24). Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambition for the Russian-African summit, to which Lavrov invited the king of Eswatini, is not only to compete with the US-Africa Leaders Summit held in Washington in December 2022 but also to demonstrate to China the value of Russia’s connections on the continent (Pnp.ru, January 24).

The apparent inability to support diplomacy with investments or at least humanitarian aid renders Russian intrigues in Africa rather transient. As such, it is purely a matter of political curiosity to wait and see how many leaders will in fact accompany South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in St. Petersburg, provided the Russian-African summit does indeed happen.

The activities of the Wagner Group in Africa could, however, be a matter of more serious concern. By mid-summer, Russia’s top brass will probably succeed in cutting Prigozhin down to size, and the remnants of his gangs would be redeployed to some insignificant corner of the Donbas theater. Wagner’s founder might then try to reassert his importance by offering Putin an opportunity to score a “victory” in Burkina Faso or some other African country afflicted by internal strife. Paradoxical as it may seem, the best protection against such encroachments is the Ukrainian army, which is gearing up for a spring offensive that would cancel all Russian designs for Africa.

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By the Jamestown Foundation

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