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Russia's presence in Africa: a two-pronged strategy

On the occasion of the 23rd IHEDN Forum on the African continent, researchers and specialists decipher the Russian influence strategy on the continent: a well-coordinated waltz between government players and private entities such as Wagner.

Last week at the École Militaire, the 23e FICA (Forum de l'IHEDN sur le continent africain), which brought together participants from all over the continent to reflect on strategic, diplomatic and defence issues in this part of the world. In less than a month's time, on 27 and 28 July, the Russian government is organising its "Russia-Africa Economic and Humanitarian Forum for Peace, Security and Development" summit in St Petersburg, the second after the one in Sochi in 2019.

To mark the occasion, the IHEDN asked a number of specialists to analyse the way in which Russia is extending its influence and organising its presence in Africa. According to Caroline RoussyMoscow undoubtedly benefits from the links forged by the USSR during the Cold War: "We can see its close links with South Africa in particular. The USSR supported the ANC during the apartheid era and Russia is still seen as being on the side of the oppressed. Ties were also forged in the 1960s with countries such as Modibo Keïta's Mali. At the time, the Soviet embassy in Bamako was the largest of all the embassies. Ties were never completely severed, and some students were able to continue their studies in the USSR. The current Prime Minister of Mali, Choguel MaïgaFor example, he is a graduate of the Institute of Telecommunications in Moscow, which necessarily creates links.


The major difference with the Soviet era is the two-headed nature of Russia's contemporary presence in Africa, as highlighted by researchers at the Institut de recherche stratégique de l'École militaire (IRSEM). Maxime Audinet and Emmanuel Dreyfus in their study of Mali, published in September 2022 Russia uses both official and non-state actors. The most famous of the latter is the Wagner group. Its presence in Africa is "totally validated and supported by Moscow", explains the investigator and analyst Lou Osbornco-author of the book "Wagner, enquête au cœur du système Prigojine" (1) and a specialist in open source investigation.

Wagner arrived on the continent in 2017 as part of the military and security training for the regime of Omar el Bechir, then President of Sudan. "Very quickly, in 2018, they arrived in the Central African Republic following negotiations linked to obtaining Russian arms for that country," continues Lou Osborn. "They have established a very strong presence there. At the end of 2021, they entered Mali and are also in Libya. So much for the countries where Wagner has established itself.

In addition, according to the analyst, they have had an occasional presence elsewhere in the context of electoral interference via AFRIC, a structure affiliated to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the group's boss and "a key player in Russia's African policy" (according to the analyst). Audinet and Dreyfus): in Madagascar, Zimbabwe, South Africa and the Comoros. "They claim to be in Eritrea and Guinea. Otherwise, they had a major military failure in Mozambique, where they were employed in 2019 to manage the Islamic State threat and where they suffered heavy casualties." They have since partially withdrawn from there. Cameroon is also an important country for Wagner, which uses it as a logistical hub for its business activities in the Central African Republic (CAR).


Finally, they are said to have entered into negotiations with the Burkinabe junta, but "we have no information about a confirmed presence", explains Lou Osbornwho works to detect influence operations for the British NGO Center for Information Resilience. "There is a lot of information pressure on this country from organisations linked to Wagner.

According to the interviewer, "in all cases, they are or have been present in all three areas: security/military; economy; influence. It's really their modus operandi for the African continent". The companies linked to Wagner are in particular "active in sectors conducive to trafficking (diamonds, gold, minerals)", which makes their profits difficult to assess, explains the analyst.

Today, the Wagner group is the "main marker of Russia's presence in Africa", write Maxime Audinet and Emmanuel Dreyfus in their study for IRSEM. The other leg of Russia's Africa policy, its state dimension, acts as a complement to Wagner's action: while the "Prigozhin galaxy" deploys its "troll factories" on social networks or finances local African media, Russian state media such as Sputnik and Russia Today also broadcast messages in line with the Kremlin's interests.


This official presence also involves the signing of bilateral defence agreements, some twenty since 2015, bringing the total to around thirty by 2022, representing more than half of the continent's states. "In concrete terms, most of the agreements signed relate to technical cooperation between the ministries of defence of the signatory countries", explains Ivan U. Klyszcza researcher at the International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS) in Tallinn, in an article on the role of Russian intelligence services in Africa published in June by Le Rubicon: "Seminars, visits and training missions are among the means of cooperation provided for in these documents. In almost all cases, they also provide for the supply and maintenance of arms, weapons being one of the vectors of Russian influence throughout the world.. So it's not surprising that Moscow has become the main supplier of arms to the African continent.

Of the 27 defence agreements he was able to analyse (open source on Russian government databases), the researcher found that 10 include "the exchange of information and communications confidential between defence ministries" (Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Egypt, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Rwanda). "These agreements leave the door open for privileged exchanges of information in the military sphere and, more generally, for cooperation between services", comments the Minister of Defence. Ivan U. Klyszcz. According to him, the CAR and Madagascar are today "platforms for Russian intelligence in Africa", places of "cooperation between the Russian intelligence services, the Wagner group and the Prigojine 'galaxy' in general".


Whether official or unofficial, Russia's influence in Africa seems to be particularly focused on France. "We can see that Russia is rather aggressive in French-speaking countries", points out the French Minister of Foreign Affairs. Caroline Roussy. "However, without denying the weight of this influence, the terrain is rather receptive to this type of message. Anti-French resentment, with varying degrees of emphasis, is a reality in French-speaking Africa, where political struggles to regain monetary or security sovereignty are intertwined. There are vertical relations and a history that is still too full of opacity (is Françafrique really a thing of the past?) that damage France's image. All Russia has to do is exploit the loophole.

As far as Wagner is concerned, the Group "has extended its presence in vulnerable countries, where there is a strong dispute with the historical partner and where resources are attractive", explains the analysis. Lou Osborn. "As a result, this has often been the case in French-speaking Africa, but there have also been attempts in Ghana and Nigeria.


This two-pronged strategy is gradually bearing fruit. As Le Monde diplomatique reported in FebruaryOn 2 March 2022, when the United Nations General Assembly voted to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine, half of the countries that did not support the text were African (17 abstentions out of 35, one vote against), while 8 states from the continent did not even take part in the vote, "inaugurating a now well-established practice of calculated absenteeism". Commented the monthly: "Africa is both the region most reluctant to follow the movement of condemnation and the most divided in its reaction to the conflict, with only around 50 % of its capitals approving the texts submitted for their consideration".

Could Yevgeny Prigozhin's recent power grab with Moscow change the face of Russian influence in Africa? According to Lou OsbornAccording to the investigator, "the sequence of the Wagner mutiny and its management by the Russian government has a high reputational cost for Russia in the eyes of its African partners". The investigator is waiting to observe the behaviour and statements of the various parties at the St Petersburg summit at the end of July. "We know that the governments of Mali and the Central African Republic were worried, because Wagner is above all a tool for preserving regimes. If the group were to break up quickly and Russia were to fail to offer an alternative, there would be a risk to the political and security stability of these countries. Our partner Wagner has forged bonds of trust and is closely involved in state structures, which could be complicated to unravel".

There is also the question of the future of the group's other activities in the economy and influence, and that of its troops: "What would happen if mercenaries refused to join the Ministry of Defence and were left out in the field? More trafficking?"

(1) Written with Dimitri Zufferey, to be published on 15 September by Éditions du Faubourg.