Imperialism revived: Moscow’s objectives in Africa 

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Since the onset of the war against Ukraine, Russia’s policies in Africa have broken through into international political consciousness. Certainly, they have galvanized U.S. policymakers to take much greater account of Africa as we can see from President Biden’s meetings with African leaders and Secretary of State Blinken’s current trip there.  

But apart from the necessity for enhanced U.S. attention to Africa and possibly the entire so-called Global South we must ask whether there is a discernible Russian strategy here, and if so, what are its aims? 

Evidence of what those aims and goals are is abundant if we look for it. And, arguably, that evidence reveals that there is a strategy of tactical opportunism being used to achieve broader strategic objectives.  

It has been clear for some time that Moscow is using the entire panoply of its state-directed instruments of power to gain influence and leverage across Africa. We may categorize those instruments of power using the military acronym of the DIME, i.e. diplomatic, informational, military and economic instruments of power.  They are orchestrated by Moscow across Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town and from East to West.  

In previous, and much larger works, I outlined how these instruments have been used to gain entry to valuable mining and raw materials concessions, train officers and gain access to militaries through arms deals and wage information war on behalf of pro-Moscow leaders or aspirants to leadership there. 

In all these cases, Russia has entered African countries, often at the behest of one or another faction, to help its clients prevail in the various factional, inter-ethnic, and/or inter-state rivalries that are pervasive throughout the continent. The most notorious and well-known example of this kind of intervention was the state-supported Wagner mercenary army.  

But Wagner’s record shows it offered assistance of a non-military nature, providing, often but not always successfully, “government in a box” services. It won mining concessions, supervised and trained militaries and carried out political campaigns and information warfare on behalf of Russia’s clients.  

While Moscow relied on Wagner and other actors or arms of its government, it also endeavored to obtain a permanent and hegemonic, if not exclusionary, influence over these states. After a failed insubordination and rebellion last year, Wagner founder and leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and his lieutenants paid with their lives. Moscow exploited this situation to refashion this instrument into one more completely subordinate to Putin, called the Afrika Korps. This group, whose Third Reich-influenced name is by no means an accident and suggestive of where Russian winds are blowing, is now carrying on in Wagner’s footsteps to extend Russian power and influence. 

On this basis, we can outline Russia’s strategic objectives. It seeks to gain lodgments and enduring nodes of influence in African states for access to raw materials, energy assets and contracts for infrastructural projects, nuclear energy plants and arms sales. These revenues then go back to the rent-seeking Russian elite through the state, itself a rent-collecting apparatus. Building on the foundation of Russia’s lasting economic presence in the state, it endeavors to keep in power authoritarian leaders who will support its foreign policy initiatives against the West.  

To put it more bluntly, in Africa, Moscow seeks compliant or quiescent governments allowing it a free hand and the ongoing extraction of rents from it in return for support to stay in power. They support Russian foreign policy initiatives or do not oppose them too seriously, e.g. the war in Ukraine, in return for this Russian support of their tenure.  

But the ultimate prize in Africa is long-term Russian land, sea, and/or air bases. Access through these bases to the Mediterranean, Red Sea and Indian Ocean is particularly valuable. Indeed, since Catherine the Great’s time, Moscow has sought these bases due to Russia’s historical fixation and obsession with Byzantium, Constantinople and now Istanbul.  

Numerous goals are bound up with this quest for these bases. They seemingly attest to Russia’s equal obsession with great power status, which emanates from its ability to frighten everyone, project imperial power abroad and show its navy to be a heavyweight contender — which it really is not. More importantly, Moscow has unsuccessfully pursued a base in Sudan for years to project nuclear deterrence at sea against the West because a draft agreement supposedly allowed Russia to host nuclear-powered ships there. 

But apart from the decades-long quest for a base there or elsewhere in the Horn of Africa and/or the entry to the Red Sea, e.g. Eritrea, Moscow has renewed efforts for a base or bases in Libya. Beyond these states, it has secured the Central African Republic’s consent for an army base and preparations for construction have begun there. Moscow has also repeatedly expressed its desire to build a base in Algeria to no avail and one in Angola in the South Atlantic in 2023.  

Its objectives are clear. And those ambitions — hegemonic influence, economic exploitation for its benefit and long-term naval bases — represent the quintessence of imperialism.

So why are we not broadcasting this to the world and to Africa? 

Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a Foreign Policy Research Institute senior fellow and independent consultant focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former professor of Russian national security studies and national security affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College and a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College.

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