Moscow is gaining a foothold in Africa once more
The employment of private and/or illegal military groups to achieve specific geopolitical and geostrategic objectives has historically been one of the key instruments of Russian foreign policy. At different times, these groups have borne various names: mercenaries (in pre-1917 Russia), “tourists”/“military advisers” (Soviet substitute for “soldiers sent by the Ministry of Defence to carry out ‘international obligations’ in regional conflicts in Africa and the Middle East”) and “volunteers” (used by the Russian side in regional conflicts in the rubble of the former socialist camp, stretching from Central Asia and the South Caucasus to Transnistria and the Balkans).
Concealed from the eyes of unwarranted observers, the issue of militants fighting for Russian interests abroad remained impenetrable for the general public until February 2018, when a group of Russian mercenaries known as the Wagner Group, fighting in Syria on the side of Bashar al-Assad, was decimated by allied air forces near Deir el-Zour. This opened a Pandora’s box, revealing unsavoury details of the Russian presence in Syria. Among these was an apparent connection between Russian private military companies (PMCs) and the Kremlin’s way of making foreign policy.
In spite of serious human casualties suffered by the Wagner group (about 200 dead), it is absolutely clear that Russia will not refrain from using its PMCs as part of its “security export” strategy. After Ukraine and the Middle East, it appears that Africa is to become the next major playground.
Fire, Water and Brass Pipes: The Arduous Ascent of Russian PMCs
Despite proven ties with the siloviki faction, before 2013 PMCs were not the key instrument in “promoting” Russian interests abroad. This was changed by two events: the outbreak of the Syrian civil war (2011), which witnessed a series of heavy defeats by pro-Assad forces; and developments in Ukraine (especially from early 2014). Moscow, obsessed with competition with the West, felt compelled to interfere. However, unpleasant memories of Afghanistan (1979–89) and Chechnya (1994–6) deterred Russian elites from direct participation in either conflict (especially in Syria). The remedy was quickly found: Russia has plenty of middle-aged men with the necessary military experience, bereft of life prospects, craving for war and (most importantly) willing to die at a relatively modest price compared to their Western counterparts. Moreover, by sending mercenaries abroad Moscow could simultaneously enjoy the luxury of plausible deniability—a combination of de facto participation in a conflict and “we are not there” type of rhetoric—without any accountability whatsoever.
With Ukraine becoming a test ground (in effect, the Wagner group was formed and conducted its first operations there), Russian PMCs, better equipped and stuffed with higher-quality professionals, flourished in Syria, where they were said to have formed the vanguard of offensive military operations on several major occasions. Aside from war per se, PMCs were employed as a tool of the so-called “power economy”, a state-controlled system of coercion (including a reliance on limited-scale military conflicts, if necessary) aimed at realising economic goals, which was reflected in seizures of oil-and-gas fields and infrastructure.
Despite being technically prohibited by Russian law, this dual function—the ability to use PMCs as a weapon of asymmetric warfare and as a means of making profit without acknowledging involvement—has made them indispensable in resource-rich grey zones stretching well beyond the Middle East and/or Ukraine.4
Russia’s Interests in Africa
The Soviet Union’s over-ideologised foreign policy viewed Africa as part of the ideological battlefield with the West. To buy the support and loyalty of local elites, the Kremlin would sacrifice enormous resources, usually in vain. After 1991, Africa virtually disappeared from the Russian political agenda owing to mounting economic and political setbacks. The situation began to change in the mid-2000s, when Russia started to revise its Africa policy. Unlike the Soviet Union, the new strategy prioritised economic benefits over ideological dogma. This was reflected in economic expansion (via Rusal, Alrosa, Lukoil and Gazprom), closer political ties and the revival of military cooperation. This integrated strategy led to a 185% increase in Russian FDI in Africa between 2005 and 2015. The key area of Russian interest is in mining, given Africa’s vast deposits of gold, diamonds and uranium. For instance, Sudan (one of Russia’s main targets) was the third-largest gold extractor in Africa in 2016 (around 90 tonnes, although Chinese sources claim the figure to be much higher). Between 2015 and 2018, Russia concluded or renewed a number of essential agreements with African countries pertaining to military-technical cooperation, where particular interest in Russian-made arms and munitions was expressed by Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This is, however, a two-stage policy: cooperation agreements and closer political dialogue with legitimate regimes is in effect a deal with rulers guilty of horrible crimes including genocide and ethnic cleansing, state-sponsored crime and terrorism. Russia’s new regional ally, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, has built a reputation as a ruthless tyrant and a leader who gave his full support to Al-Qaeda (1991–6), harbouring its leader Osama bin Laden. During their meeting in November 2017, al-Bashir, using anti-Western sentiments, encouraged Vladimir Putin to use Sudan in order to “open the door to Africa” and “save Africa from the United States”, offering the Russian leader exclusive rights in his country. Russia’s political leadership, military and oligarchic circles seem to have liked the offer.
From their side, unstable and highly corrupt African dictators clinging to power need Russia too: banned from the global arms market and fearful of their own populations, they desperately need weapons and military expertise to be able to crush any public discontent—elements that Russia is capable of providing. That said, it should not be forgotten that—unlike several Western countries—the perception of Russia in Africa is not tainted with unpleasant memories of colonialism and racial oppression. Certain parts of the African elite viewed the Soviet Union as an advocate for and sponsor of anti-colonial liberation movements (in the 1980s Africa accounted for 18% of Soviet international economic cooperation).
Russian PMCs: Next Stop Africa
The process of decolonisation and the series of civil wars that ravaged Africa during the 1960–80s earned the continent the unpleasant nickname of the “motherland” of PMCs and modern mercenaries.
In 2012 some Russia specialists claimed that “Africa could become a model for the expansion of Russian PMCs”, but only six years later did information start to emerge about Russian mercenaries (reportedly, the Wagner Group) in the CAR. Rumours were finally validated by President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who not only confirmed the presence of “Russian special operations forces for ensuing the president’s security”, but also appeared at a military parade accompanied by Russian military instructors in uniforms without any insignia.
Subsequently, in an interview with the reputable Russian outlet TV Rain (Dozhd), an unnamed Russian officer from the MoD intimated that Burundi had become another site for Russian PMC activity. He stated that “this is under the auspices of [the] ‘Lubianka’ and coordinated by the MFA and the VKS [Russian Aerospace Forces]”. The source also made clear that there might be a division of responsibilities between Russian PMCs operating in Africa: the notorious Wagner group is said to be responsible for military operations, while the newly-emerged Patriot group is concerned with protecting important statesmen. Incidentally, Patriot was mentioned in a petition by “Russian Armed Forces veterans” urging the Russian government to legalise PMCs in Russia, and its existence has been corroborated by retired Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, president of the Academy for Geopolitical Problems.
This new information could have a number of important implications. First, Russia has entered a pool of players in the African PMC market, and its role will continue to increase. This stems from a huge pool of available human resources, and the number of regional conflicts in which Russian mercenaries are taking part and gaining vital experience and fighting skills. Furthermore, judging by the way they are organised and the functions they perform, Russian PMCs are much closer to private military armies (PMAs) than classic PMCs in the Western understanding of the term.13 Second, given the potential relative cost and fighting skills of Russian mercenaries (quality-price balance), African leaders are likely to be willing to employ them on a larger scale. On top of this, unlike other partners the Russian side is eager not only to send mercenaries, but also to expand technical-military cooperation with African countries using members of PMCs acting as military instructors. Third, a nascent division of responsibilities between Russian PMCs draws on the fact that Russia is building relatively sophisticated command-and-control (C2) structures, with PMCs steadily becoming a tool of “asymmetric response”. Lastly, the activities of Russian PMCs in Africa shed more light on the general model of cooperation between the Russian Federation and selected African countries: in exchange for the protection of dictators and training rendered to their armed forces, Russia is likely to be granted concessions for the extraction of natural resources and projects in other domains.
In the final analysis, it can be argued that a combination of factors has allowed Russia to achieve a certain level of tactical success in Africa. However, easy tactical victories can be a tricky thing: a series of successes (real and imaginary) could dull one’s vigilance and lead to strategic defeat. The ancient Chinese wisdom is right: if you conquer the enemy’s territory without a fight, beware—you are being tricked, and the real battle will come later.