Russia in Africa: What's behind Moscow's push into the continent?

Mi-8 transport helicopterImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Military transport helicopters are some of the equipment supplied

The Russian private military contractor Wagner has hundreds of mercenaries on the ground in Libya, according to a leaked UN report.

The mercenary group is believed to be operating across the African continent and to have strong links to senior officials in Moscow.

So just how important is Russia's role in Africa now?

Russian intentions

It's clear Moscow sees its presence in Africa in very broad terms, building on ties from Soviet times.

President Vladimir Putin has said Africa is one of Russia's foreign policy priorities and has spoken about offering:

  • political and diplomatic support
  • defence and security help
  • Economic assistance
  • disease-control advice
  • humanitarian-relief assistance
  • educational and vocational training
Image source, Getty Images

Russia has been boosting its diplomatic links in the region, with various African heads of state visiting Moscow since 2015 - six of them in 2018 alone.

Its ambitions have prompted some concerns in other countries with close ties to the continent that they are being outplayed by Moscow.

In late 2018, former US National Security adviser John Bolton announced a new US strategy for Africa, partly aimed at countering both China and Russia.

However, an opinion piece in the Washington Post in September 2019 argued that Russia was still "aggressively seeking deals and security relationships" while the US "loses partners and influence" in the continent.

Military ties

Russia is an important defence partner for Africa and the major supplier of arms to the region.

But Africa is not its biggest defence market - that's in Asia.

Between 2014-19, the African continent - excluding Egypt - accounted for 16% of Russia's major arms exports, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Russia's mains arms market is Asia. Percentage of exports between 2014-2019.  Africa does not include Egypt..

And of those arms exports to Africa, 80% went to Algeria.

So, in terms of volume, defence exports to sub-Saharan states are small.

However, defence relationships are growing - and since 2015, military co-operation agreements have been signed with over 20 African countries.

In 2017-18, Russia had weapons deals with Angola, Nigeria, Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso and Equatorial Guinea.

These included fighter jets, combat and transport helicopters, anti-tank missiles and engines for fighter planes.

Use of mercenaries

Russia's military and security ties extend beyond arms exports and sometimes involve the use of private mercenary groups.

For example, Russia has been active in the Central African Republic (CAR), officially helping to support the embattled UN-backed government against an array of rebel groups.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Private Russian military provides security in the Central African Republic

But private Russian military forces have also been working there, providing security to the government and helping safeguard key economic assets.

Russian mercenary activity involving the Wagner group has also been reported in Sudan as well as in other countries on the continent.

Russian officials often play down these reports and it's difficult to establish the exact links between these groups and the Russian state.

But Paul Stronski, senior fellow at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said private Russian security operatives serve a useful purpose for Moscow.

They are often self-financing through their work guarding key resources and give the Russian state the chance "to expand its security presence and political influence in the country at virtually no cost and little risk", he said.

Natural resources

Russia has clear economic motives for involvement in Africa, as it has a shortage of some minerals such as manganese, bauxite and chromium, all of which are important for industry.

It also has experience in the energy sector it can offer to resource-rich states.

Image source, Petra Diamonds
Image caption,
Diamond mining is one area of interest for Russia

State-owned Russian companies have been mining bauxite in Guinea, cutting deals to extract diamonds from Angola and winning concessions to produce off-shore gas in Mozambique.

The private Russian energy giant Lukoil is reported to have projects in Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria and be looking to acquire a stake in the Republic of Congo.

Russia is also offering nuclear power technology for several African countries, including the construction of the first nuclear plant in Egypt, financed by a $25bn (£19bn) loan.

Sub-Saharan Africa trading partners. $ billions.  2018 data.

Trading relationships

But in terms of overall economic ties, Russia still does much more trade with Europe and Asia than with Africa.

And sub-Saharan Africa's most important trading relationships in 2018 were with India, China and the US - not Russia.

Also the US, China, Japan and the EU give far more development aid and invest more in Africa than Russia does.

"Russia is nowhere near restoring the status that the Soviet Union once enjoyed on the continent," Mr Stronski said.

"Russia's clout in Africa remains tied to a handful of client states with relatively limited strategic significance."