VUK VUKSANOVIC: Moscow turns to Africa to gain geopolitical leverage
Historical anti-Western sentiment on the continent has allowed Russia to gain influence
Recent discussions surrounding Russia’s growing influence in Africa have raised questions about Moscow’s motivations on the continent. While some may view Africa as a peripheral concern for Russia’s foreign policy, it is becoming increasingly evident that Moscow sees the continent as a strategic tool to gain geopolitical leverage both in other global regions and in its interactions with Western powers.
A big factor that has enabled Russia to assert influence in Africa is the historical anti-Western sentiment that dates back to the era of European colonialism. This sentiment has found particular resonance in francophone Africa, as France bears the brunt of this animosity. Russia has adeptly capitalised on this sentiment, strategically positioning itself as an alternative partner. This approach has yielded results, especially since the onset of the Ukraine conflict. African nations have increasingly warmed up to Russia, viewing it as a potential counterbalance to Western powers.
Beyond diplomatic overtures, Russia has recognised Africa’s geopolitical significance. With 54 UN member states, the continent is the second-largest in terms of population, making it a crucial stage for Russia to display its credentials as a global power. Moscow perceives Africa as an ideal platform to project its influence and establish itself as a player in the global arena.
In the context of the Ukraine conflict, African nations have adopted a pragmatic policy of non-alignment. Rather than aligning with either the Western or Russian camps, these nations seek to assert their autonomy on the international stage. This stance reflects their desire to avoid becoming pawns in a great power competition. An illustrative example is SA’s participation in joint naval exercises with Russia and China, signalling its intention to pursue a balanced approach.
Notably, many African countries have publicly criticised Russia’s actions in Ukraine at the UN. However, this criticism has not translated into a unified push for sanctions against Russia. Instead, these nations remain open to economic co-operation with Moscow. Russia astutely uses its economic ties and partnerships with African nations to establish a foothold on the continent. A case in point is Russia’s role as a reliable food supplier, which has allowed it to address pressing food crises and thereby gain favour.
Russia’s Africa strategy also includes the strategic goal of unsettling Western powers. By inserting itself into regions that are crucial to Western interests, Russia aims to divert attention away from Ukraine and create a new dynamic of influence. With growing migration and security challenges in Africa, Europe’s vulnerability is set to increase. Russia’s presence in Africa positions it to exploit this vulnerability and, when necessary, instigate controlled crises to gain leverage in negotiations. The Sahel countries, including Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, have witnessed Russia’s increasing influence in the wake of political coups. Unlike traditional security providers such as France and the EU, Russia offers its support without imposing governance conditions.
The strategic importance of Libya is also not lost on Russia. Former US president Richard Nixon’s observation that Libya occupies a “key strategic position” on Nato’s southern flank underscores its significance. The question of whether Russia will transfer advanced weaponry from Syria to Libya remains unanswered. Nonetheless, Russia’s engagement in joint naval exercises with Algeria and its plans for a port on Sudan’s Red Sea coast reveal Moscow’s determination to extend its presence and influence.
Russia’s presence in Syria via bases such as the Khmeimim Air Base and its naval facility in Tartus allows Moscow to project power in the eastern Mediterranean, disrupting Nato operations. By extending its influence to Libya Russia aims to create a continuous “arc of deterrence” from the Russian Federation to the southern Mediterranean. Russia’s involvement in regional security matters, alliances with Algeria and Egypt and potential energy market positioning, underline its growing footprint in the region.
Beyond its influence in North Africa, Russia seeks to expand its reach to the Indian Ocean via East Africa and the Horn of Africa. This strategic move would enhance Moscow’s geopolitical clout, enabling more effective interactions with Middle Eastern and Persian Gulf countries. As India and China seek to access foreign markets and resources, the Indian Ocean emerges as a critical zone of global trade and competition. Russia’s pursuit of a presence in this region aligns with its broader strategic goals.
Russia’s efforts to establish a presence in Africa have encountered challenges and uncertainties. The Wagner Group, a private military security company associated with the Kremlin, has made inroads in countries such as Mali, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Libya. However, not all endeavours have been successful, as demonstrated by setbacks in Mozambique.
The trajectory of Russia’s engagement in Africa is clear — it is here to stay. Regardless of the outcome of the Ukraine conflict, tensions between Russia and Western powers are likely to persist. Africa, with its vast resources, growing population and strategic position adjacent to Europe, the Middle East and Asia, will continue to be a focal point for Russia’s geopolitical calculations. As Moscow seeks to forge new partnerships and assert its influence, Africa’s role as a stage for power projection and negotiation will remain prominent.
• Dr Vuksanovic, a senior researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, is an associate at LSE Ideas, a foreign policy think-tank within the London School of Economics & Political Science. This article is based on a report he authored for the SA Institute of International Affairs.
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