Countering Russia’s African Strategy

Countering Russia’s African Strategy

Russia’s approach to Africa is anything but haphazard. Ignoring it risks allowing the continent to become Moscow’s supply depot.


Despite the recent surge of Russian activity in the Sahel—the arrival of Russian troops in Niger in April, the presence of Africa Corps mercenaries in Burkina Faso (largely absorbing Wagner Group operations), and the continued activities of Russian mercenaries in Mali, the Central African Republic (CAR), and elsewhere—some analysts have argued that Russia lacks a coherent strategy on the continent and that its threats to the continent are overblown.  

Russia’s use of mercenary and paramilitary forces is argued to reflect an uncoordinated pursuit of cash and mineral wealth. In economic terms, such activities are outclassed by the United States, China, and the European Union (EU) and tend to focus on military aid (as opposed to infrastructure-focused investments). How could these efforts pose a major threat to U.S. national interests? 


This view crucially misunderstands Russia’s approach in two ways. First, a study of Russian activity in Africa’s new “Coup Belt” and elsewhere reveals coordinated efforts to swing the views of African populations towards supporting Putin’s regime and its interests in the region. Second, while Westerners may assume that a successful grand strategy must include economic aid and institution building, Russia’s scaled-down approach has been equally efficient in yielding results.  

Russia’s activities in the CAR go far beyond providing security to President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s regime and safeguarding Russian mining enterprises. The Africa Corps has directly assisted in the creation of Touadéra’s political party, the United Heart Movement, which it uses as a tool of Russian influence. Valery Zhakarov, Touadéra’s presidential advisor and a former member of Russia’s internal security agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), coordinates CAR-Russian relations. Russian operatives distribute pro-Russian leaflets, fund several of the country’s largest media outlets, run mobile hospitals, distribute humanitarian aid, run a propaganda radio station, promote Russian-language education in universities, and even sponsor a beauty contest.  

These efforts cast Russia as an anti-colonial savior, rescuing the country from the clutches of French designs. Moscow has sponsored several “pan-African” movements aiming at broader reach across the continent. These include Urgences Panafricanistes, led by Kemi Seba, an activist with links to ex-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Alexander Dugin, a Putin-affiliated intellectual. Another is Aimons Notre Afrique (“We Love Our Africa”), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) led by Burkinabe businessman Harouna Douamba, which uses its communications arms to disseminate pro-Russian propaganda in Burkina Faso and the CAR.  

Russia’s synchronization of military, political, and cultural means reveals a desire to draw the CAR and other African nations into its web of influence and establish a permanent foothold on the continent. Although Russia has failed to provide economic aid, the juntas themselves are more concerned with their short-term survival than long-term prosperity. As for ordinary Africans, Russia’s “hearts and minds” campaigns are cheaper than economic aid and come with none of the usual disappointment of embezzlement and scandal.

Why does Putin want an African foothold? There are two main reasons. First, Russia seeks to gain a permanent lifeline to Africa’s natural resources, particularly minerals. Africa’s resources are a strategic asset to Putin’s regime, fulfilling the dual function of funding his war in Ukraine while enriching the oligarchs who back him. According to the Blood Gold Report, an overview of Russia’s involvement in African gold mining, the Africa Corps and Wagner Group laundered over $2.5 billion to support Russia’s war in Ukraine. African countries may serve as long-term supply depots for current and future Russian wars. The ability of Russia’s war machine to thrive off supplies from client states renders Western sanctions largely irrelevant.  

Second, Russia aims to create allies in Africa who will back its positions in the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. Weak support among African states for the UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine illustrates this. Seventeen African countries, including South Africa and Angola, voted to abstain, while eight others, including Ethiopia and Morocco, did not submit votes; Eritrea voted against it. Notably, South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, criticized the resolution for failing to call for “meaningful engagement” between Russia and Ukraine. Russia has succeeded in portraying itself as a defender of the global south against imperialism, as exemplified by its February 2024 “For the Freedom of the Nations” conference featuring delegates from over fifty countries opposed to “neocolonialism.”  

How can the United States counter this Russian offensive? First, the United States must act to prevent Russia from filling security vacuums throughout the African continent, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan, and the Sahel. This can be accomplished through greater funding and cooperation with organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). In addition to serving as a trading bloc, ECOWAS has played a major role in regional peacekeeping, intervening in Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia in 2003, Guinea-Bissau in 2012, Mali in 2013, and The Gambia in 2017. Similarly, SADC is not only an economic community and free trade zone but also a regional peacekeeping force, notably in the DRC.

Strong military cooperation between African states can provide more attractive alternatives to Russian aid. One recent example of African powers successfully filling a security gap is the 2021 intervention by Rwanda and SADC against an Islamic State-affiliated insurgency in Cabo Delgado, a province of Mozambique. While Mozambique initially turned to the Wagner Group for help, it had more success with African forces. In particular, Rwanda’s military displayed a high degree of competence in counterinsurgency, successfully securing mines and oil fields and reducing jihadist attacks while avoiding harm to civilians.  

The U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) should provide training and support to SADC’s standing military organization, the Standby Force, and to SADC’s mission in the DRC. Engagement with ECOWAS, on the other hand, should be more nuanced. Sahelian juntas see any military buildup by the community as an existential threat to the Alliance of Sahel States (AES), created by Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali following their withdrawal from ECOWAS. For this reason, additional U.S. aid to ECOWAS states should be directed towards fighting internal insurgencies, avoiding the appearance of arming against AES.  

Second, the United States should seek rapprochements with the military governments of Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali and should encourage ECOWAS members—particularly Nigeria—to do the same. Nigerian president Bola Tinubu’s threat to use armed force to restore Niger’s civilian government, and subsequent failure to follow through on this threat, appeared both overly aggressive and weak, driving the Sahelian juntas further into Russian arms. Likewise, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee’s aggressive approach to negotiations with Niger’s junta—allegedly including threats of sanctions—appears to have backfired, leading to the junta’s expulsion of American troops. In particular, Niger’s prime minister Ali Zeine appeared frustrated by a mismatch in priorities between his government—which focused on obtaining military equipment to fight terrorists—and the U.S. diplomats, who prioritized a return to democracy.

The United States should accept that attempts to browbeat the juntas into restoring democracy will likely have the perverse effect of driving them further into Russian arms. The United States must understand that governments—particularly authoritarian ones predominantly interested in their own survival—respond best to incentives, not lectures or empty threats. The juntas’ embrace of Russia is a decision made out of rational self-interest—Russian military aid comes with no strings attached.  

Attempting to reset relations with the juntas through offers of military aid is impractical due to the restrictions of Section 7008 of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Act for Fiscal Year 2021. The section heavily restricts most aid to a country if the U.S. government determines that a coup has taken place. Iterations of this regulation have existed since 1984, originating in a law restricting aid to El Salvador’s junta.  

Instead, the United States should press for Niger to be allowed to rejoin the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), a multistate alliance against Boko Haram comprising Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and Benin. This would contribute to improved relations between Niger and Nigeria—a major lynchpin of both MNJTF and ECOWAS. This would build on previous efforts by ECOWAS to thaw relations with the juntas by lifting most commercial sanctions. By easing tensions and keeping open lines of dialogue, the United States and its African allies can discourage Sahelian nations from looking solely to Russia as their protector.  

In talks with the juntas, U.S. diplomats should emphasize Russian mercenaries’ mixed track record in counterinsurgency operations (such as their failure in Mozambique and friction with the Malian military in combined operations) and the benefits of alternative sources of military aid.   

The State Department should also avoid immediately applying Section 7008 in the wake of future coups, as doing so creates an instant opportunity for Russia to fill a vacuum created by the cessation of American military aid. A precedent for not applying Section 7008 exists in the case of Egypt’s 2013 coup. By not applying the term “coup” to Egypt’s military takeover, the State Department avoided triggering the section and thus damaging bilateral relations during a crucial moment—the replacement of Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government with a more secular and pro-Western regime.