On April 13, Russia’s Institute of Technological Development for the Fuel-Energy Complex organized a panel to discuss energy cooperation between Moscow and African countries. One of the experts, Gabriel Anicet Kotchofa, who served as Benin’s ambassador to Russia, explained that “in Africa, we are waiting for Russia—for what Russia can do. I will tell you something that is never said today: we are tired of Europe.”
As a graduate of the Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas and a Russian citizen, Kotchofa is not a neutral commentator. Nonetheless, recent energy trends support his proclamation. African countries are exponentially multiplying their imports of Russian oil in response to European sanctions and price caps, providing the Kremlin with additional flexibility in the financing of its war against Ukraine.
Morocco imported 600,000 barrels of Russian diesel in the entirety of 2021. In February 2022 alone, approximately double that number arrived in the North African country’s Mediterranean ports. Last month, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria accounted for 30 percent of Russia’s diesel exports, which just returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Moscow is fulfilling a need in Africa. The International Energy Agency noted that the coronavirus pandemic provoked debt crises in twenty African countries, which will exacerbate the subsidy burdens that these nations already face as a result of frequent oscillations in energy prices. Paired with the fact that factories have still not recovered from pandemic restrictions, African countries are looking for outside aid from new sources. “Significant parts of [African refineries] are idle or underloaded due to equipment deterioration, maintenance problems, [and] interruptions in the supply of raw materials,” said Lyudmila Kalinichenko, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences, during the aforementioned panel. At the same time, Africa’s population is growing vertiginously.
As such, African countries are faced with two compounding challenges: energy refinery shortages and rising demand. One solution they have pursued is to step up their reliance on imports. Accordingly, these nations have turned to Russian gas companies happy to gain access to new markets. Some African companies have taken advantage of this realignment of imports and exports to deceive European countries seeking replacements for the Russian energy that used to flow under the Baltic Sea.
In Morocco, for instance, an MP accused several energy companies of forging documents about the origins of Russian gas quickly resold to Europe at a higher price upon arrival. These companies have allegedly mixed Russian oil into their domestic components to alleviate pressure from local extraction processes and augment their profits from both Russian sellers and European buyers. The gas Moscow is sending to Africa is clearly not all being used to satisfy domestic demand.
Beyond energy, relations between the EU and Africa have been deteriorating for the past few decades. Russian disinformation tactics, which have been scaled up since the start of the Russo-Ukraine war, partly explain this trend.
Despite European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s assurances that the EU has “no sanctions on food and agricultural products,” Senegalese president Macky Sall repeatedly voiced concern that European trade restrictions have blocked mechanisms that allow African countries to pay for indispensable Russian grains and fertilizers. On the military side, France’s inability to protect Malians from jihadist terrorist groups led to a complete withdrawal of its forces in 2022. This sparked widespread anti-French sentiment in West Africa, leading to attacks on businesses and diplomatic buildings in addition to shocking images of French flags being burned.
Russian propaganda has fueled this discontent. The Kremlin’s state-funded television networks like RT have signed deals with their African counterparts to shape minds about the ongoing war in Ukraine while repeating to audiences that France and the United States have harmed African interests. The recent U.S. intelligence leak adds detail about how Russian officials brainstormed propaganda initiatives to “realign” African public opinion on Western influence.
Russia has not spared energy debates from its carefully crafted narratives. During the panel, Kotchofa argued that African countries have been “forced to conclude unprofitable contracts with European partners in which over 90 percent of oil and petroleum products are exported from the continent.” He added that since Russia is blessed with its own array of natural resources, it feels “no need to take raw materials” from others. Such rhetoric is frequently repeated in the media and diffused throughout Africa, even if it blatantly ignores Russia’s increase in cobalt, gold, and diamond mining and the proliferation of joint ventures between Russian and African companies.
Indeed, Russia has entered into natural resource deals with about twenty African countries. In November 2021, the Russian State Space Corporation “Roscosmos” signed a cooperation agreement with Zimbabwe to expand its satellite intelligence in the country as a way to locate mineral deposits. Earlier this year, a columnist in one of Russia’s largest state-owned news sources, RIA Novosti, noted that Congo’s immense trove of resources represents the financial “contract of the century” before claiming that Russia feels no urge to repeat Europe’s “neo-colonialism.” He then exposed Moscow’s media-based strategy: “African leaders often do not have to explain why they need Russia…[our] PR on the continent is good and self-supporting.”
Western and Russian observers alike make the mistake of saying that Beijing and Moscow’s replacement of French influence in Africa demonstrates that the United States is losing ground on the continent. In reality, French and American interests in Africa are not interchangeable.
However, the United States and France do agree that it is strategically advantageous to oppose Russia. Their unity against the Kremlin will strengthen as Russians take the place of the French. And if Russian companies pool resources into Africa only to be outmatched by China while the United States directs its attention toward Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America, Moscow’s increased involvement in Africa suddenly does not look so bad. With this logic, perhaps the United States should not rush to extend diplomatic ties to the disillusioned African countries tempted by Russian energy exports.
This argument has a critical flaw, however. It contradicts the sanctions policy that the U.S. Treasury Department has pursued since the start of the war in Ukraine: erode Moscow’s ability to financially support its wartime operations. With the recent news that Russia’s oil is being shipped to Europe through Africa, the Biden administration should think of the growing continent as inseparable from its Russia strategy rather than as a separate theater. This is especially the case for the North African countries that border the Mediterranean.
As one of the Russian experts said during the panel, “We are currently shipping Russian oil and petroleum products across the sea in the Mediterranean, in the Spanish port of Ceuta, and in the Greek port of Kalamata. But what prevents us from using the port infrastructure of North African countries for these purposes?” If American policymakers want to hinder the scope of Russia’s military operations, they cannot turn a blind eye to the African countries that have begun accepting enormous shipments of Russian oil and may fall prey to the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns.
The U.S. Agency for International Development, Voice of America, and U.S. oil and gas companies must synchronize their efforts to achieve this goal. The first can scale up humanitarian aid, the second can provide further support to independent media organizations, and the third can provide competitive alternatives to Russian oil sailing to the African coast.
Russian experts are seriously thinking about how they can use Africa as an eager energy market and a natural resource hub to gain ground on the battlefield. American experts must do the same, focusing on the African countries that receive substantive aid from the West and are prepared to counter the Kremlin’s gas diplomacy and the way Russian media has portrayed the war in Ukraine.
Axel de Vernou is a sophomore at Yale University studying Global Affairs and History with a Certificate of Advanced Language Study in Russian. He is a Research Assistant at the Yorktown Institute.