Are the Russians forging an ’empire’ in Africa?

The cover of a recent issue of Time magazine left little to imagination. It featured a menacing looking president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, looming over a globe dotted by white location pins bearing red stars. The issue’s feature article claimed in its title that Russia was engaged in a wide-ranging and largely successful effort to cobble up an empire of failed states and rogue regimes, many of them on the African continent. Almost simultaneously with this Time piece, the New York Times published a lengthy article on Russia’s alleged military expansion across Africa. Putin’s Russia, asserted the article, seeks out openings in the regions and countries where the rule of law has been compromised or non-existent. In the absence of US interest and commitment on the continent and against the background of America’s “disengagement” under Trump, the Russians are staging a post-Soviet comeback in Africa—as the famous Russian saying goes “свято место пусто не бывает” (a holy space won’t stay empty).

Such reports of Russia’s expansionist policies on the continent have proliferated in the last couple of years, and reached a crescendo in the aftermath of the mysterious murder of three Russian opposition-financed journalists that took place in the Central African Republic (CAR) last summer. The tragedy highlighted Russia’s growing clout in an African country torn asunder by civil and religious strife—it has been reported that Russian mercenaries and special forces now provide security for the nation’s beleaguered president Faustin-Archange Touadéra. At the same time, it was not lost on western reporters that the former chief rebel and one-time president Michael Djotodia had been educated in the Soviet Union, where he resided for an extended period of time.

In Sudan, the recently deposed president Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the notorious long-time strongman, under indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, engaged in direct diplomacy with Vladimir Putin and brought in Russian mercenaries to help him curb the massive popular protests threatening his rule. If one assumes, as many a western journalist is apparently prone to do, that these examples of collaboration between Putin’s regime and African strongmen are indicative of a broader and well thought out strategy of dislodging the western powers from their long-held positions of geopolitical arbiters then the panicky headlines and sensationalist reporting may well be justified. Yet knowing the uneven and difficult history of Soviet and Russian involvement in Africa one might counsel some caution.

The current flare-up of western concerns about Russia’s African expansionism is somewhat reminiscent of earlier such panics. In 1960, Americans had convinced themselves that Congolese nationalist Patrice Lumumba was in fact Moscow’s stooge. The consequences of these fears proved to be lethal for Lumumba and dire for the Congo. In 1967, after the Soviets had thrown their weight on the side of the Federalists in the Biafran War, western observers predicted Moscow’s rise as a major power broker in West Africa. A decade later Soviet and Cuban involvement in Angola and the Horn of Africa were supposed to be the harbingers of another Soviet takeover of Africa. However, the reality of Soviet adventurism was far messier whereby the return on the investment of political capital and resources often proved to be inadequate. There was little evidence that Patrice Lumumba harbored any particular affinity for Marxism-Leninism and plenty of evidence that he only reached out to the Soviets after having been rebuffed (and insulted) by the Americans. The wartime honeymoon between Nigerian federalists and their Soviet friends hardly survived the war, while Angolans, even at the height of their Marxist-Leninist phase, continued to profitably sell oil to the west. Even during the Cold War, when ideology did matter to some extent, Soviet commitments on the continent sometimes belied their claims to ideological purity. Much of the decision-making was motivated by crude pragmatism and opportunism. The Biafran War offered a case in point: in that conflict, Moscow backed a side that had absolutely no interest in any aspects of Marxism-Leninism. In fact, the leadership of Biafra tended to be far more “leftist” in their outlook than their staunchly pro-western opponents in Lagos. In 1977, at the height of the Ogaden war, the Soviet Union readily dropped the “socialist” Barre regime in Somalia to pursue a more promising alliance with Ethiopia.

Obviously, the Russia of Vladimir Putin bears few similarities to the Soviet Union of Leonid Brezhnev. Yet historians may want to acknowledge certain historical continuities. Now as then, the Russians in their dealings with their African partners claim to present an alternative model. Where the Soviets peddled the ostensible benefits of socialist modernization their Russian successors care little about socialism. But there is also a continuity of sorts, which can be generally summarized as a politics of anti-liberalism. While the Soviets assaulted western liberalism from the left, the twenty-first century Russian leadership challenges the west from the right or, on occasion, from a place that cannot be easily defined ideologically—there is a distinct postmodern aspect to their critique. Putin’s regime has placed the principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity above the pieties of western liberalism; to Putin, democracy, transparency and human rights are far less important than stability. It’s a fundamentally conservative vision that emphasizes the zero-sum nature of global politics and places no demands on individual rulers beyond their ability to “maintain order” and provide business opportunities to the Putin oligarchy.


I would argue that contrary to common western apprehensions the Russians have returned to Africa not to build an “empire” of any sort but rather to pursue lucrative business opportunities. It is likely that the “omnipotent” and “omniscient” Putin is the product of a feverish imagination of those western observers who have been taken in by the ongoing handwringing over Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential elections in the United States. Whether or not Moscow actually influenced the outcome of the elections in any substantive way remains an open question, but the agony over the election of Donald Trump may have inspired a search for other areas of Russian global mischief. Some of these anxieties are not entirely unfounded but it would help not to exaggerate the power and reach of Putin’s regime. But what about his despotic clients in Africa, kept afloat by their alliance with Moscow? one might ask. Well, as of this writing, one of Putin’s closest African partners, Omar al-Bashir, finds himself under arrest in Khartoum—overthrown in a military coup, which may have been an attempt to satisfy the demands by the hundreds of thousands of protesters.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Maxim Matusevich
Maxim Matusevich
Professor of History at Seton Hall University, St. Petersburg - New York

Related stories

It’s not too late to silence the guns in Ethiopia

An open letter from civil society organisations, from across the African continent calls, for an end to the conflict in Ethiopia

African leaders must continue to press for talks: Ethiopia is too big to fail

The conflict in Ethiopia could spill over into the entire Horn of Africa region. AU and regional leaders need to step up their efforts to de-escalate the situation

Blackout makes it hard to report on Ethiopia’s civil war

Between a communications shutdown and tight restrictions on movement, reporters — and the world — knows little about what is going on in Tigray. But the little that is emerging is terrible

Maaza Mengiste: ‘We are now catching up with the past’

As war drums beat again in Ethiopia, author Maaza Mengiste finds new language to memorialise the Second Italo-Ethiopian War

Ethiopia is about to cross the point of no return

As the conflict between the national government and Tigray escalates, the window for intervention is closing fast

Editorial: Cyril must embrace his AU role

There are several African conflicts that require urgent attention
Advertising

Subscribers only

Covid-19 surges in the Eastern Cape

With people queuing for services, no water, lax enforcement of mask rules and plenty of partying, the virus is flourishing once again, and a quarter of the growth is in the Eastern Cape

Ace prepares ANC branches for battle

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule is ignoring party policy on corruption-charged officials and taking his battle to branch level, where his ‘slate capture’ strategy is expected to leave Ramaphosa on the ropes

More top stories

Sudan’s government gambles over fuel-subsidy cuts — and people pay...

Economists question the manner in which the transitional government partially cut fuel subsidies

Traditional healers need new spaces

Proper facilities supported by well-researched cultural principles will go a long way to improving the image and perception of the practice of traditional medicine

Did Botswana execute ‘poachers’ ?

The Botswana Defence Force’s anti-poaching unit has long been accused of a ‘shoot to kill’ policy. Over 20 years the unit has killed 30 Namibians and 22 Zimbabweans

Limpopo big-game farmer accused of constant harassment

A family’s struggle against alleged intimidation and failure to act by the authorities mirrors the daily challenges farm dwellers face
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…