Russia Tries to Open African Front to Win in Ukraine


Africa’s history has been shaped by tumultuous events, including coup d’etats influenced by global power struggles between the USA and the Soviet Union. The recent Russia-African Summit held on 27-28 July 2023, reflects Putin’s attempts to revive its former USSR foreign policy tactics. The situation in Niger, coupled with a sense of déjà vu surrounding neo-colonialism struggle speeches in St. Petersburg, evokes a disturbing feeling akin to watching an old movie, but with real bloodshed in the present and future.

The recent coup in Niger, backed by Burkina-Faso and Mali, has escalated tensions in the region, leading to the potential threat of a major African war. The continent is once again becoming an arena for power confrontations between major nations, just as it was during the Cold War. Russia seems to be employing KGB-style hybrid methods to undermine US and French interests through proxy forces in Africa, as it cannot challenge the West openly.

The Summit has revived Cold War rhetoric from the 1970s, with discussions revolving around the struggle against colonialism, national liberation movements, dictators, and weak democratic leaders. Russia appears to be reinforcing its presence on the continent, using anti-colonialism narratives to strengthen its foothold.

Russia seems to be capitalizing on the chaos in Africa to promote neo-colonialism, destabilizing several countries to create a strong base for its operations. The interest in Africa is understandable, given its potential as a reservoir of an untapped labor force and a market with substantial but unrealized purchasing power. The West and China have recognized this potential and are investing in production and education to harness these opportunities effectively.

In contrast, Russia appears primarily focused on supplying weapons to dictators, contributing to the destruction of both production and the well-being of people. In return, it gains access to Africa’s mineral resources for private capital gain. This reflects a classic model of neocolonialism that emerged in the 1960s. China, on the other hand, has pursued a different approach and has not adhered to this model, remaining a vestige of former colonial powers.

To foster positive development in Africa, investments should focus on both production and human capital, including education, as these are essential for sustainable growth. Russia’s neocolonial approach, as Russian experts and politicians advocate speaking about the West, is viewed as ineffective compared to the strategies employed by the West and China.

In 2022, following the failure of his blitzkrieg attempt to conquer Ukraine, Putin sought to strengthen cooperation with China as a potential partner against the West. However, this approach proved ineffective, leading Putin to turn his attention to Africa. While the Asian “tigers,” led by China, express interest in Russian energy resources, the African “lions” possess abundant resources of their own, primarily requiring financial and military support.

Nonetheless, China, unburdened by sanctions, can promptly and effectively fulfill the financial and competency demands of African countries. Russia’s former competitive advantages in supplying food and power resources through entities like the “Wagner Group” to deter Chinese influence in Africa have diminished significantly due to the withdrawal from the “grain deal” and the “quasi-mutiny of June 24.”

To achieve his goals at the Summit, Putin decided to write off approximately $23 billion in debts owed by African countries announcing $90 million of future financial aid to African countries. Additionally, he offered to provide African nations with free grain if Russia did not resume the Black Sea Grain Deal. In response, African countries made political demands for an end to the war in Ukraine based on principles of “justice and reason”, and they insisted on the resumption of the Black Sea Deal rather than relying on Russia’s free grain offer.

According to a survey by Afrobarometer, African countries view China as their preferred economic partner, with the USA ranking second. Remarkably, Russia’s approval rating in Africa is even lower than that of former colonial powers that once dominated the continent. Russian trade volumes with Africa amount only to $18 billion, much lower than $282 billion with China and a little over $72 billion with the US. With limited economic and political arguments to leverage, Putin appears to be resorting to his Wagner Group tactics, aiming to cause unrest and instability on the African continent. And Yevgeny Prigozhin made his first public appearance at the Summit since his unsuccessful mutiny. 

Overall, Putin’s attempts to establish Russia as a significant player in Africa face significant challenges given China’s dominance and the lack of compelling economic and political incentives. This situation leaves Russia with limited options, and it remains to be seen how effective their tactics will be in the African context.

The 2023 Russia-African Summit saw a decline in attendance compared to the first Summit in 2019, with only 17 heads of state out of 49 delegations participating. In response to reduced political support, Putin expressed his determination for Russia to deeply integrate into the African world. However, this integration seems to involve establishing Russian zones of influence in the troubled region using mercenary groups and weaponry supply.

The recent coup in Niger highlights Putin’s preference for bribing the Armed Forces of uncontrolled states as a means to fight for Africa. This suggests that the Kremlin will continue using the “Wagner” mercenary group to carry out coups d’etat, but with the addition of several new private armies to dilute the sole power of “Wagner” on behalf of Russia.

The Kremlin has a history of using terrorist groups for its purposes, and it appears that it will now employ a strategy of self-reproduction of terrorists in African countries loyal to Russia. So-called terrorists will be re-bought and redirected to private military groups to be used in internal conflicts within Africa. The Kremlin seems disinterested in addressing the root causes of terrorism, such as cultural and legal deficits, poverty, easy access to weapons, and lack of social mobility. Instead, it views terrorism as a tool of influence, which raises concerns about Russia consolidating its status as a “terrorist state.”

The recent coup in Niger seems to be Putin’s first strike as it has implications beyond the region and may significantly impact the geopolitical landscape. With speculations of Russia’s involvement and potential financing, this coup appears to be aimed at establishing proxy zones under their control with a possible goal of initiating a major war in Africa. Notably, the coup leaders replaced French flags with the Russian tricolor and chanted pro-Putin slogans, indicating a shift in alliances.

From an international security perspective, it is essential that Niger returns to Western control to prevent France, a key EU state, from losing its leverage over energy control. Currently, this leverage is being handed over to the Russian Federation and the new military regime.

The implications of the military coup in Niger could be significant for the geopolitical situation in the region and even beyond. If the coup leaders remain in power and legally elected President M. Bazoum is ousted, and if Niger aligns itself with Russia, France may be forced out of the “Sahel Zone,” and Russian influence in the region could become a buffer zone between the Arab North and “Black Africa.”

Moreover, the prospects for French and European nuclear power may suffer a severe blow, potentially challenging Emmanuel Macron’s legacy as a president who allowed the country to be excluded from its national interests.

Russia has instigated this crisis to create an African Front to divert resources of the “Global West” away from Ukraine. Russian plans to achieve it seem to be utilizing private armies and proxy forces in the region to carry out its interests.

The Wagner Group did not appear to be directly involved in the coup. Nevertheless, there have been indications that Wagner is recruiting for a campaign on the African continent after the Russia-Africa summit. The announcement suggests a significant recruitment drive, seeking 500 individuals willing to go to Libya. Now that the Wagner Group instructors have moved to Niger from Mali military confrontation is inevitable.

In light of these developments, the crisis in Niger takes on heightened significance as it may shape the future geopolitical landscape in the region and have broader implications on a global scale. The international community must closely monitor the situation in Niger to understand how the power struggles between major players may evolve and affect stability in Africa and beyond.

Russia’s current reorientation toward Africa after unsuccessful attempts to orient itself toward the East positions it as an economic substrate for smaller economies and a resource base for larger ones. The Kremlin’s inability to regain the Western market, particularly in energy resources, leads to the perception that Russia is leaving the African region behind while attempting to frame this move as a “fight against colonialism” despite becoming a colony of Beijing.

As a result, Putin’s actions suggest that Russia loses its status as a “global power” but instead evolving into a “regional African-Asian laggard,” attempting to combine the roles of a metropolis and a colony. This shift raises questions about Russia’s long-term global positioning and its aspirations for influence in the international arena.

Vitaly Charushin
Vitaly Charushin
Vitaly Charushin is a Russian pro-democracy activist and member of Advisory Board of Creative Cluster, a French-tech ecosystem partner. He has previously worked at the National Democratic Institute in Moscow.


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