Assessing the Widening Russian Presence in Africa
Harrison Manlove is a Cadet in the U.S. Army’s Reserve Officer Training Corps at the at the University of Kansas and is currently studying History and Peace and Conflict Studies. Harrison has also written for The Strategy Bridge, where he examined Russia’s strategy in Syria and the Middle East. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessment of the Widening Russian Presence in Africa
Date Originally Written: November 26, 2018.
Date Originally Published: December 17, 2018.
Summary: Africa is quickly regaining its past place in world affairs as a proxy battleground. Amidst a potential U.S. military drawdown in Africa, Russia seeks to maintain and expand political and economic influence on the continent through military deployments and arms deals with several states. While Russia may face potential blowback due to a ham-fisted approach, lack of U.S. presence in Africa could enable Russian success.
Text: The deployment of advisers – military and civilian – and the provision of security assistance to several African states is indicative of a renewed Russian interest on the continent. Russia’s speed of action in this line of effort has caught many observers off-guard, causing the issue to be an under-reported element of Russian foreign policy actions.
Russia’s national security strategy, published at the end of 2015, identifies instability in several regions – including Africa – as a security threat. Ethnic conflict and terrorism are outlined as two key concerns. The strategy places emphasis on “reliable and equal security,” trade partnerships, and the use of diplomacy to preclude conflict. The strategy dictates force as a last resort.
Counter-terrorism operations and civil wars dominate the Sub-Saharan region of Africa. Continued volatility has undermined Western influence there and opened opportunities for exploitation. For the Russians, old Soviet allies in Africa – like Angola and Sudan – offer opportunities to provide military equipment, training, and technical assistance. Over the last three years, the Russian government has signed approximately 19 “military cooperation deals” with sub-Saharan states, to include U.S. allies, such as Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria and Niger. Russian cooperation ranges from arms shipments to joint exercises. Resource acquisition is also potential motivating factor for Moscow, as seen in the Central African Republic with its large deposits of gold. Regarding instability, attempts to intervene with marginal force, and the provision of aid packages and security assistance is standard Russian practice. Russian aid programs are growing, however that line of effort is not covered in this assessment.
The Central African Republic (CAR) has seen a major increase in violence since the start of its civil war at the end of 2012. In 2013, an arms embargo against the CAR was put in place by the United Nations (UN) after an outbreak of violence. Outside the capital, Bangui, the rule of law is scant, enforced instead by local Muslim and Christian militias and armed groups. A French military operation, Operation Sangaris, ended in October 2016 after reports of “sexual violence and abuse against civilians” battered the deployment. A UN peacekeeping mission in the CAR has also come under attack by armed groups, losing a total of fourteen peacekeepers thus far. Security in the CAR is generally limited to the capital. In December 2017, Russia was given UN authorization to supply arms to the CAR after repeated requests by CAR President Faustin Archange Touadéra. Some 175 Russian advisers have deployed to supply arms and provide equipment training. Five advisers are Russian military personnel, while most others are civilians working with private contracting firms.
The Russian approach in the CAR is destabilizing. Brokering talks between rebel factions and the presence of Russian personnel assisting “prospectors” in mining operations in areas controlled by the primary rebel group in the CAR, the Front Populaire Pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique (FPRC), is exacerbating an area already under crisis. Recently, FPRC leadership has called for the withdrawal of Russian personnel from the CAR, placing the Russian mission and its objectives – even at the regional level – in danger.
Cameroon is a likely area for Russian influence. In February 2018, reports surfaced that Russian military equipment was seized from a ship sailing for Douala, Cameroon. The ship docked at Sfaz, Tunisia due to major mechanical problems. It was searched by customs authorities who found the weapons shipment inside. To be sure, the ship’s track and timeline was followed by a Russian maritime blog, which found the ship’s track unusual for a course to Cameroon. A plan for U.S. Special Forces to exit Cameroon was submitted by United States Marine Corps General Thomas Waldhauser, Commander of U.S. Africa Command, as part of an alignment with the U.S. National Defense Strategy released at the beginning of the year. The strategy moves to a focus on great power competition, rather than counterterrorism. The exit would be continent-wide, affecting several U.S. missions in Africa.
Elsewhere on the continent, military to military cooperation is integral to Russia’s relationship with Egypt. Bilateral airborne exercises have been held in both countries since 2015. Recent Russian arms sales and deliveries to Egypt include some 50 MiG- 29 fighter aircraft, 46 Kamov Ka- 52 Alligator attack and reconnaissance helicopters, the Ka-52K model helicopter designed for maritime use, and an advanced model of the S-300 mobile air defense system. In keeping with traditional policy stemming from its colonial history, Egypt has been careful in sidestepping foreign aid dependency. This dependence avoidance is evident in Egyptian purchases of fighter aircraft, ships, and submarines from countries like France, Germany, and South Korea.
Libya’s continued instability has offered another arena in which Russian influence can take hold. In March 2017, Reuters reported a possible Russian special operations unit operating near Egypt’s western border with Libya. This presence was denied by Russian officials, however U.S. military sources have posited that Russia has deployed to the region to “strengthen its leverage over whoever ultimately holds power” in Libya’s civil war. Russian support for Khalifa Hiftar, the primary challenger to the Government of National Accord in Libya, seems to indicate a desire to re-forge old overseas Soviet relationships.
In early 2017, members of Russian private military contractor RSB Group were reportedly operating in Libya. Similarly, Wagner – a Russian contracting firm with ties to a Putin associate – has had a reported presence in Syria, supplementing Syrian government forces in ground operations. Reporting on Wagner’s deployments to Syria have shown a high level of security and potential consequences for those members who disclose any information about the firm. The Russian government has denied any presence of contractors in Syria. In August 2018, three Russian journalists were murdered in the Central African Republic under murky circumstances. While investigating the Wagner deployment there, the journalists were gunned down in what has been officially called a robbery. However, Western suspicion surrounds the incident and the story has been called into question, casting even greater light on the proliferation of contractors operating in Russia’s areas of interest.
The Russian approach in Africa is indicative of a general trend set in its 2014 intervention in Ukraine: low-visibility, low-cost exploitation of instability to secure political and economic objectives through marginal force deployments and security assistance to areas that once held Soviet influence. The potential decline of a U.S. military presence on the continent could drive further expansion, while access to resources provides a set of economic objectives for Russia to act upon.
This article appeared originally at Divergent Options.
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