Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently visited Egypt, Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia. His visits are part of an increasingly bitter struggle between Moscow and the West for influence in African countries.
On the continent, the West has the upper hand in certain areas: economic influence, massive investments and humanitarian programs. Conversely, Russia relies on energy projects, supplying mercenaries to kleptocratic dictatorial regimes, propaganda speculation about “Western colonialism” and threats of starvation. Moreover, it seems that Moscow will stop at nothing in its choice of methods and objectives.
Lavrov’s failure at the G20 summit
Sergei Lavrov’s multi-day tour of Africa is hailed by Kremlin propaganda as a “geopolitical breakthrough”, proof that the Kremlin is not in international isolation. A previous attempt to show that Russia is not unwanted everywhere occurred in early July at the G20 foreign ministers’ summit in Indonesia.
Much of Moscow’s diplomatic and propaganda efforts are aimed at creating a simple image: “Only a handful of Western countries are pushing for Russia’s isolation, but the rest of the world continues to cooperate with us and profit from multipolarity. established thanks to Vladimir Poutine.”
However, the anti-Western banner of “anti-imperialist struggle” did not dominate the G20 summit. The foreign ministers meeting in Bali did not want to be photographed with Lavrov, which unofficially became the reason for his early departure. Apparently, a lot did not go as the Kremlin had planned since Lavrov had to flee the strategically important summit for Putin and attended by representatives of the most powerful economies in the non-Western world.
China, Turkey, Argentina, Brazil, India, Mexico and Saudi Arabia are the countries Moscow refers to when it says it is “impossible to isolate Russia”. According to the Kremlin, there will always be rich countries with rapidly growing economies that don’t care about “your democracy” or “your Ukraine”. In the space of the G20 countries, Lavrov should have triumphed with this geopolitical cynicism. However, he lost the battle for the G20.
The Russian foreign minister must claim a “strategic victory” on the impoverished African continent.
Mercenary “Security Exports”
Africa has been one of the Kremlin’s areas of expansion for several years. Russia does not have the economic potential of the USSR and cannot afford to keep African regimes friendly, as the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. Russia’s economic presence in Africa is much weaker than that of the United States, Europe or China because the Russian economy is smaller. Russia sells weapons and grain to African countries and develops energy projects there. Yet none of these benefits can compare to the huge Western and Chinese investments in Africa’s economy and infrastructure.
In 2017-2018, Moscow began to engage in so-called security exports. In other words, Moscow sells the services of its paramilitary mercenary forces to the most unstable governments in Africa. Entire contingents of Russian political figures sometimes accompanied Wagner’s mercenaries. In return, the Russians received mining shares and political influence in occupied African capitals.
The “mercenaries” have influenced the situation in various countries with varying results. In the Central African Republic, the “Wagnerians” completely controlled the regional power bloc. In Mali, Russian mercenaries are helping the local military junta fight Islamic fundamentalists and have already committed war crimes. In Sudan, the Russians did not help the dictator Omar al-Bashir stay in power – he was overthrown in 2019 by army generals. In Mozambique, where Wagner’s group was called upon to help fight a jihadist insurgency in a province, Russian mercenaries were defeated and left the country. In Libya, Russian mercenaries fought alongside the local rebel leader Khalifa Haftar for a long time, but even with their help he could not seize power in the capital.
Disputes over colonialism
During the African tour, Lavrov in his speeches tried to shift the blame for the global food crisis from Russia blockading Ukrainian seaports to Western countries.
However, he did not conclude any historic treaty with African countries. But the list of countries that the Russian Foreign Minister has visited is quite particular in economic terms. In Egypt, Ethiopia, Congo and Uganda, Russia is developing ambitious energy projects.
The State Nuclear Energy Corporation (Rosatom) of Russia recently started construction of the El Dabaa nuclear power plant in Egypt. In Ethiopia and Uganda, the company is also negotiating with the government on cooperation in the field of nuclear energy. In Congo, the Russian company RusGazEngineering is working on the Pointe Noire-Brazzaville-Oyo-Ouesso pipeline project.
But one of the main directions of the Kremlin’s expansionism on the continent remains the “regions of darkness” – unstable and collapsed border states, countries whose elites look to foreign bayonets for support and are indifferent to values of Western civilization such as human rights and democracy. Another way for the Kremlin to consolidate its influence is to create its own media structures in Africa. The propaganda news channel RT, “persecuted” in European countries, opens its first African bureau. It will be based in South Africa and led by a South African journalist Paula Slierwho previously ran RT’s Jerusalem bureau.
The West has paid little attention to Africa since the end of the first Cold War and has begun to react belatedly to Moscow’s geopolitical activity. French President Emmanuel Macron recently made a trip to the continent. During his speech in Benin, he publicly responded to constant Kremlin propaganda speculation about “Western imperialism and colonialism”.
“Russia is one of the last colonial empires. He decided to invade a neighboring country to defend his interests. It’s a turf war. It was thought that these wars had already disappeared from the European continent,” the French president said.
He also noted that Moscow had launched a “new kind of hybrid warfare,” using the threat of starvation as a blackmail tool against the global community.