Russia’s Private Military Contractors in Africa: an act of desperation or legitimate means to secure influence?

Source: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

By Andrej Sagaidak

Background to Russia-Africa Policy

Moscow’s interest in Africa goes back to the era of rapid decolonisation across the continent in the early 1960s.  The USSR’s Cold War with the West necessitated the expansion of its political influence in Africa for the sake of it. It joined a modern version of “Scramble for Africa,” not with a view to gaining clear economic advantages, but rather an ideologically push and simple desire not to be left out. In retrospect, the decades-long misery and devastations inflicted on the social and economic fabric of many African nations due to the scuffle between eastern and western ideologies is felt to the present day.

Civil wars in Ethiopia between 1974-1991 and in Angola between 1975-2002 claimed millions of lives. The Soviets’ desire to be taken seriously in Africa ended in major disappointments, including the loss of substantial financial investments. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in a major erosion of influence by African Soviet-educated opposition activists and government workers. Sousa Jamba, an Angolan author and journalist stressed that Luanda’s change away from socialist ideology after the USSR collapse was never rationally explained. “They [African elites] were very ardent Marxists at one time, and when the Soviet Union collapsed all they said was, ‘we also have to do away with Marxism’.”

Sousa further queried, “[a]nd my question was, were they Marxists because they believed in the ideology or were they Marxists because it was convenient at one point to be Marxist in order to get the backing from the Soviet Union?” In other words, the Angolan author and journalist pointed out that the Soviet ideology was never solidified in Africa hence it faded as soon as the Kremlin stopped offering any sort of support.

Fifty years on, Russia is back in Africa with big ambitions. It made the first visible return in 2005 with impressive capital allocations to projects and investments to the continent. It appears now that Russia is very focused on claiming its own share of the Africa loot. Kremlin’s modern strategy contrasts from its predecessors by being clearly about profits with no apparent ideological underpinning. It is determined to play to its strengths as a global military power to broker lucrative deals on the continent. Just like China, Russia is not interested in playing lip service or otherwise, to human rights concerns and other norms of international world order espoused by the UN and western European allies.

In the last three years, the Kremlin has embarked on a diplomatic charm offensive in Africa. In 2018 alone, foreign minister Sergey Lavrov embarked on a multi country tour around Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia. Although Russian trade with Africa is still looking slim compared to the its western counterparts and China, it increased from $3.4 billion in 2015 to $14.5 billion in 2016. This has arguably come about as a direct result of the Kremlin’s military-diplomatic cooperation with several African dictators, whom as it happens, are also under the West’s economic and political sanctions.

Moscow’s officials show no remorse in openly cooperating with African governments with poor human rights records. Russia’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council, and the fact that it can point to western hypocrisy, like its interventionism policies à la Iraq, Libya, Venezuela, or Syria.  This supposedly grants the Kremlin a carte blanche to continue implementing its current foreign policy strategy.  Russia shows very little regard to the norms of international law on sovereignty. Its 2014 incursion into Ukraine’s Crimea is a case in point.

Russia is now entrenched in the Central African Republic (CAR), after the UN passed a resolution in December 2017, granting Russia exception to arms embargo imposed on the CAR amid increased violence upon the 2013 overthrow of long-time leader Francois Bozize by the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel alliance. More recently, Russia is propping up the weak regime of Faustin Touadera. In early 2018, Moscow sent weapons shipments along with five military recruits and 170 ‘civilian instructors’ to train the CAR’s servicemen.

The use of private military contractors (PMC)

Russia has become even bolder in its not-so-covert military adventures, now dispersing such practice to Africa. In July 30, 2018 three Russian journalists were ambushed and killed in the Central African Republic (CAF). According to the Centre for Investigation Management, the journalists were probing the activities of a private military contractor (PMC) organisation with alleged ties to Kremlin. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled Russian opposition affirmed  that the three journalists who worked for his organisation and were conducting an investigation regarding Moscow’s mercenaries, in particular the Wagner group. Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a former oligarch who spent 10 years in jail on dubious fraud charges, which raised international concerns regarding the political motivations behind the sentence. He was labelled a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International for his work against the current Russian authorities.

Raison d’être of Russian PMCs in Africa

The Wagner’s paramilitaries connection to Russia’s ambitions to expand its presence on the African continent can be studied via Russian intervention and tactics in the political instability within the CAR. Moscow heavily relied on The Wagner group as a cost-effective and politically efficient tool to support its hybrid military engagements and to ease its return in to the region.

Russia’s modus operandi involves exchange of weapons and security guarantees for access to minerals, such as diamonds, gold and uranium of resource-rich CAR. This detail may have led to the killing of three ‘prying’ Russian journalists in CAR filming a documentary on the sensitive subject. Putin himself endorsed the creation of mercenary groups as far back as 2012, the use of which appears the perfect quid pro quo in securing lucrative access to some of Africa’s natural resource riches.

Hence, the de facto usage of PMCs has become an essential tool of Russian foreign policy practices, despite the Kremlin refusing to acknowledge their existence. This approach was also evident in the Ukrainian conflict and the Syrian civil war.  Indeed, the Ukrainian conflict on hindsight proved to be just a warm up exercise for exploring the practicalities for exporting Russian PMCs as a veritable foreign policy tool. The Syrian warzone offered further opportunities to monetize the Russian state-controlled system of coercion to achieve economic goals.

So far, Russian PMCs have been spotted in three African countries: the CAR, Sudan, and Burundi, including other parts of the world, for example Venezuela. These countries provide a new model of how Moscow employs PMCs to achieve its foreign policy appetites.  One of the reasons for its apparent success in Africa, could be related to the vacuum created by failing international peacekeeping operations in the region. This forces African governments to seek out more effective mercenary groups from abroad. Dictators are especially willing to endorse protection and training from PMCs in return for rights to resources and/or infrastructure contracts. One apparent example is the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, an alleged war criminal and sponsor of terrorist groups who counts on Russia for protection.

Nevertheless, offer of protection for access to resources may simply signify the Kremlin’s desperation to revive Russia’s economy and to mitigate impacts of the vast amount of sanctions imposed by Western powers. The Wagner group is by no means the only one of Moscow’s tools that serve its interests abroad. The use of similar mercenaries in Russia’s foreign adventures are set to expand in personnel size and range of operations in the coming years.

Andrej Sagaidak
National Institute for African Studies