The Russian Challenge to U.S. Policy in Africa

Gregory Alonso Pirio and Robert Pittelli | Informed Comment | – –

The United States and its Western allies, for the most part, consider the Cold War long over, and with the sanctions levied against Russia in 2014 in response to its confiscation of Crimea from the Ukraine, many in the corridors of Washington tend to discount Russia as a major player on the world stage. However, the current policies of Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, aim to re-establish a polarized world as a means of reclaiming Russia’s former influence in the international arena. Under the guise of economic and trade cooperation, President Putin, along with his fellow oligarchs and Russia’s state-owned corporations, appear to be acting in a coordinated manner to achieve geo-political advantage. This process is clearly underway in a number of African countries.

Despite the sanctions levied against the Russian Federation by the West, or perhaps because of them, Russia appears to have methodically accelerated its efforts to build political alliances and make economic trade deals with a number of African countries whose political establishments stand to gain from the promotion of the alternative global order that Putin is promoting. These include fellow sanctioned states like Sudan, Zimbabwe and Eritrea; post-coup Egypt and former Soviet allies such as Angola.

Nigeria stands out as an important example of how Russian readiness to supply helicopters and other defense assistance to Nigeria effectively undercut United States efforts to withhold military support to Nigerian security forces as a way of leveraging human rights improvements within the Nigerian military. The U.S. had turned down repeated requests from Nigeria to purchase weapons to fight the violent extremist organization, Boko Haram, blocked the sale of U.S. made helicopters from Israel to Nigeria. Russia took advantage of the arms embargo, offering in late 2014 Abuja a reported billion dollar line of credit that was used to purchase Russian made helicopter gunships and other equipment. Russians also sent military personnel to train Nigerian military in its fight against Boko Haram. By mid-2016, the Obama administration appeared poised to reverse its policy citing actions that the new Nigeria president Muhammadu Buhari, had made within the military to clean up its act.

While the US policy toward Africa is founded on a worldview that leads it to promote democratic governance, free markets and the rule of law, Russia, on the other hand, has been courting and furthering the interests of the power elites within various African countries, often through shady deals that enrich those in the political, security and military establishments. In turn, Russian enterprises will often reap lucrative business concessions from these partner governments. As part of these political and economic quid pro quo arrangements, Russia will, on occasion, show its loyalty on the international stage by vetoing UN resolutions that will upset their African friends, as has been the case for Sudan, South Sudan and Zimbabwe. In this way, Russian business and political interests become inextricably intertwined, and done in ways that undermine U.S. pro-democracy goals and not infrequently specific foreign policy objectives.

To view Russian trade and investment purely through the lens of business interests is a mistake. These international trade deals and international political maneuvers appear designed to create an emerging bloc of international oligarchs that eschews democratic principles and rule of law. Russia was engaged in this process before the Western sanctions were imposed on it. However, the process of building oligarchical alliances appears to have accelerated since the imposition of sanctions on Russia. These emergent relationships pose a serious challenge to the West’s post-Cold War pro-democracy, human rights and good governance agenda in Africa. The Russian courtship of countries such as Egypt, Sudan and Eritrea, strategically located near the Red Sea and Suez Canal should be regarded as an effort to can greater political and military influence in a vital geo-political region, as we have argued in a 2015 article.[1]

A common tactic used in the Russian oligarchical system to ingratiate national elites in some African countries has involved the sale of military hardware and other commodities that aim to buy the loyalties of local elites by enriching them. This tactic has been deployed in Angola, Sudan and Zimbabwe. This tactic may have also been deployed in Mozambique, as emerging details of that country’s secret dealings with the Russian state-owned VTB Capital bank seem to suggest.

Vladimir Putin spelled out Russia’s business strategy to rekindle Soviet-era international relationships at a 2012 Russian Federal Security Council meeting on the defense industry. He said, “. . . a major part of Russia’s weapons business includes upgrades and refurbishment of Soviet-era technology and hardware . . . .” Rostec, Russia’s largest state-owned conglomerate, is usually at the forefront of most major overseas economic deals. It regards Africa as an important market for its products, especially military equipment. Rostec officials have argued that Soviet-era weapons are still in use across Africa and require repairs. The company intends to satisfy this demand. Rosoboronexport, a subsidiary of Rostec, is Russia’s key state company executing major foreign arms transactions.

Using arms sales as a point of entry, Russia has been busy reestablishing political, military and business relationships across Africa. Moscow has used this model of arms first, business concession later in Egypt, Angola, Sudan, Zimbabwe and other countries. In 2016, Tanzania and Somalia made requests for Russian military equipment; it is yet to be seen if lucrative concessions will be then made to Russian enterprises.

Russia has always maintained a cordial relationship with Egypt, a one-time Soviet-ally. Since the 2013 military coup that ousted Egypt’s elected government and brought General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power, relations between Russia and Egypt have significantly warmed; while relations with the US have shown signs of cooling. Between, 2014-2016, Russia and Egypt entered into several major, multi-million dollar business deals across various economic sectors. Most notably, Rosatom and Rosneft, both subsidiaries of Rostec, are involved in major development deals involving nuclear energy, oil and natural gas.[2] In 2015, after both countries announced their cooperation in building Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, Russia gave Egypt free-of-charge an advanced Molniya class missile cruiser. Later, that same year, Egypt gave its support for Russia’s decision to strike “terrorist” targets in Syria. In 2016, with the nuclear deal secured, President Sisi announced plans to depend on Russia to upgrade its older, Soviet-era, factories, and also concluded another economic deal, giving Russia an industrial trade zone within the Suez Canal zone area.

As for Angola– a staunch Cold War ally of the Soviet Union, in 2013, Rosoboronexport sold the country 18 aging Su-30K fighter jets – as part of $1 billion plus arms deal. Rosoboronexport initially supplied this fleet of fighters to India in the late 1990s, prior to Delhi receiving the more advanced multirole Su-30MKI. India returned the aging fighters to Russia where they had been mothballed before Angola’s purchase of them. The Angolan investigative press has noted that these planes are of little, if any strategic value to Angola, which has no known enemies. Rather, reportedly, the Angolan military establishment, which is a backbone of support for President Eduardo dos Santos who has been president of Angola since 1979, reportedly benefits from hefty kickbacks from military purchases.

The deal also included spare parts for Soviet-made weapons, small arms and weapons, ammunition, tanks, artillery, and Mi-17 helicopters, according to the Russian-language business daily, Vedomosti. Additionally, the two sides agreed to build an ammunition plant in Angola. In 2015, the Angola military was the only African country to send observers to the Russian-sponsored international war games.

The $1 billion plus sale of Russian arms to Angola came when the Angolan state was cash rich, that is, prior to the historic drop in world oil prices in mid-2014 that greatly affected revenues to the oil-dependent Angolan government. Later in 2014, the Russian state majority share bank, VTB Capital PLC, came to the rescue of the newly cash-strapped Angolan government with a loan of US$1.5 billion to finance the state budget.

Russian efforts to promote military and political engagement with Sudan epitomize how U.S. efforts to exert pressure on a country are undermined by Russia. A number of U.S. Executive Orders, applicable laws and implementing regulations impose economic sanctions on the Sudanese government, individuals and business entities. The U.S. justifies its sanctions largely on the basis of Sudanese government’s human rights and war crimes violations in its suppression of the rebellions in its Darfur region.

After the imposition of Western sanctions on Russia in 2014, Sudan and Russia found common ground as fellow sanctioned states. Sudanese President Omer Hassan al-Bashir, — himself indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Darfur — reportedly stressed to the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, Sudan’s solidarity with Russia. President Bashir noted that Sudan also suffers from sanctions. In turn, the Russian Ambassador to Sudan openly expressed his country’s appreciation of Sudan’s support of Russia on different issues at the United Nations and described their bilateral relations as “distinguished and deeply-rooted.”

The UN had imposed an embargo on arms and military technical assistance to Sudan unless there were to be a guarantee that the assistance would not be used in the Darfur conflict. But in apparent disregard to the spirit of the UN embargo, Foreign Minister Lavrov pledged increased military technical cooperation with Sudan. Indeed, Russian military sales and cooperation have helped to enable Sudan to sustain its position as a regional power player.

In a familiar pattern of Russia using military sales as an entry for greater political and economic relations, Rosoboronexport had sold, from 2011 through 2013, two dozen Mi-24 attack helicopters and 14 MI-8 transport helicopters to the Sudanese government. The sales were not a technical violation of the UN arms embargo against Sudan, as Russia guaranteed that the helicopters would not be used in the Darfur conflict. However, the Russian guarantee appears to have been a slight-of-hand move, as Amnesty International documented that Russian (and Chinese) arms including Russian-supplied Mi-24 attack helicopters were fueling the conflict in Darfur. Sudan has also transferred several of its Russian-made helicopters to the Libyan authorities after the imposition of the UN arms embargo against Libya, without notifying the UN; and that ammunition recovered during seizures have shown the material was produced by the Sudanese State-owned Military Industry Corporation, which is supported through a cooperation agreement with Russia.

Russian support for Sudan’s military ambitions and Russian support for Khartoum in international forums helped pave the way for business concessions. In mid-2015, the director general of Sudan’s Geological Research Authority announced that Russian companies would be given priority in the context of economic cooperation and investment partnerships between the two countries, especially in gold and uranium. Shortly after this announcement, President al-Bashir, presided over signing of an agreement between Sudanese Ministry of Minerals and the Russian Siberian Mining Company Limited, to extract gold in the Red Sea and the River Nile states which was described as the largest investment contract in Sudan’s history in the field of minerals. The government’s claim that the Russian-discovered gold reserve was valued at $1.7 trillion was soon disputed, and others challenged the credentials of the Russian company to carry out the Sudanese project. Nonetheless, in 2016 Sudan’s Minister of Minerals Dr. Ahmed Mohamed Sadiq Al-Karuri stressed Sudan’s intention to build strategic relations with the Russian state for the benefit of the two countries and to continue the existing cooperation at all levels; he also revealed that the largest producer of gold in Sudan was now the Koch Russian Company.

Moscow came to the rescue of Khartoum in 2016 when it sought to limit the impact of a UN panel’s investigation into the role of Sudanese gold in financing the Darfur conflict. Russia, China, and other non- permanent members of the Security Council opposed an attempt by the United States and the United Kingdom to adopt investigative panel’s recommendations of imposing sanctions on individuals and entities that impose illegal taxes on artisanal gold miners as well as those engaged in the illegal exploitation and trafficking of gold. The panel pointed out that between 2010 and 2014, more than $4.5 billion in gold was smuggled from Sudan to the United Arab Emirates.

Sanctions would have had among its targets Khartoum-supported alleged war criminal, Musa Hilal. Russia blocked the release of the confidential UN report that said Hilal was pocketing $54 million a year from gold sales from a mine located in Darfur. Sudan’s Mineral Minister, Al-Karuri praised the Russian support to Sudan in international forums, particularly its cooperation to prevent further sanctions against Sudan.

Zimbabwe is another sanctioned African state with which Russia has been cultivating deep economic and bilateral political relations. Much of this relationship between the two countries appears to rest on satisfying Zimbabwe’s military requirements, even if it is cash short, and creating business alliances between the countries’ military elites. Similar to what it did for Sudan, Russia came to the defense of Zimbabwe at the United Nations in 2008, by opposing the imposition of an arms embargo that was supported by the U.S.

In September 2014, a Russian delegation to Zimbabwe, led by Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov and Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov, resulted in the signing of a series of key bilateral agreements and several lucrative joint venture business deals. Most notably was the historic US $3 billion platinum mining project in Darwendale that is expected to create jobs and stimulate growth in various sectors of the Zimbabwean economy. The joint venture, named Great Dyke Investments, between Zimbabwe’s Pen East mining company and a Russian consortium made up of three corporations, Rostec (heavily involved in military production and sales), VI Holdings and Vnesheconombank. The platinum mining agreement amounted to the largest joint venture Zimbabwe entered with a foreign investor since its independence in 1979.

The presence of Minister Denis Manturov, who is also Chairman of Rostec’s Supervisory board at the signing (rather than Russia’s Minister of Natural Resources, Sergy Donskoy) caught the Zimbabwe business community by surprise. Manturov’s role fueled speculation that there was an arms deal hidden behind the highly publicized platinum mining joint venture agreement. Zimbabwe’s Mines Minister, Walter Chidhakwa, stated he was not aware of any arms deal, but he did say, “negotiations for this joint venture” (the platinum deal) was in the planning stages since 2005- 2006.

During that earlier period, Zimbabwe was desperate to replenish and upgrade its military forces that were depleted during the Congo-Kinshasa war when Zimbabwe intervened to save the late Laurent-Désiré Kabila’s regime from insurgents in 1998-2002. However, an arms embargo, which was levied by France and the United Kingdom in 2002 and the US in 2003 in response high levels of political violence, human rights violations and intimidation perpetrated by security forces and the ruling party, hampered President Mugabe’s efforts to rebuild the armed forces.

Despite the arms embargo, China and Russia continued to supply arms and military equipment to Zimbabwe, (but on a small scale). In 2008, the UN Security Council attempted to pass a draft resolution that would have imposed a UN arms embargo on Zimbabwe, but it was vetoed by both China and Russia. In 2012, Rosoboronexport identified Zimbabwe as an African state with which “a promising trade relationship is developing.”

However, by 2013, Zimbabwe was struggling financially and not in any shape to purchase such military equipment or even pay for Russian fighter jets. Some speculated that mineral rich Zimbabwe was paying China in kind with mining concession and farmland for its arms. Then in 2014, probably taking a page out of China’s playbook and not to be outdone, Russia culminated, by signing, the most lucrative joint venture platinum mining deal in Zimbabwe’s history.

The connection between the platinum deal and the military connection is clear. The Pan East mining company, the Zimbabwe partner in the platinum mining joint venture, has links to the Zimbabwe’s military. And in 2012, the Kommersant, a Russian business daily, reported that Russia secured an inter-government agreement from Zimbabwe on “stimulating investment and defense,” under which Rostech would supply military helicopters in exchange for mineral rights to platinum deposits in Darwendale. The board chairman of Pan East mining company is an individual with strong ties to the Zimbabwean military; he is retired Colonel Tshinga Dube, who is also the chair of Marange Resources and general manager of Zimbabwe Defense Industries. Dube has been involved with Pan East dating back to 2005 when the platinum mining deal was just in its planning stages.

Coincidentally, in September 2014, during the week when the Russian delegation was finalizing the joint venture deals, Rostec’s subsidiary Rosoboronexport and Russian Helicopter Company were conducting an arms expo in Pretoria, South Africa where they showcased the latest military and multi-purpose helicopters and other military equipment. Representatives from more than 25 African countries, including Zimbabwe, were present. Unconfirmed reports mentioned that some representatives, from Zimbabwe, behind the scenes were reinforcing reports that the platinum deal involved an arms agreement. However, it remains to be seen if any Russian military equipment or any high end military items – such as attack helicopters, or jets, or tanks, etc., have arrived in country, openly or hidden from view.

The Russian-Zimbabwe deal will likely yield a good return on the Russian investments. It underscores the importance to the oligarchs of ensuring profitability before investing. In the case of Zimbabwe, this meant cultivating strong relationships with the military establishment and ensuring that members of that establishment also receive their share of the profits.

What is apparent, from the above analysis, is that U.S. policy toward Africa and Russia has to take into account the rise of African power elites who are fueled by the Russian business oligarchs seeking political influence and profits. These new relations undermine a lot of U.S. post-Cold War approaches to African governments that often placed human rights and pro-democracy conditionality on its developmental and military cooperation with African states. The apparent bending of the rules on human rights in the case of Nigeria, for example, suggests that Washington is likely to weaken its stance on human rights and pro-democracy conditionality in order to avoid losing its political, and possibly economic, influence among a substantial group of African nations.


[2] These transactions build upon the earlier Egyptian military financing of a surveillance satellite, that Russia’sRSC Energia developed and launched in 2014. EgyptSat 2 reportedly provided the Egyptian government with high-resolution imagery of Earth for environmental, scientific and military purposes. However, the satellite malfunctioned in 2015. The Russian companies, NPO Mashinostroenia and Roskosmos, developed and launched into orbit the South African earth observation satellite Kondor-E, which provides South Africa’s armed forces with daily high-resolution imagery. In addition, the satellite is an integral part of Project Condor, a joint satellite system, between Moscow and Pretoria, that reportedly provides surveillance of the entire African continent.

Gregory Alonso Pirio, Ph.D. is the author of The African Jihad and The African Jihad: Bin Laden’s Quest for the Horn of Africa (Red Sea Press) and is president of EC Associates.

Mr. Pittelli is a retired US Air Force and Department of the Army Civilian military intelligence and information operations analyst with an emphasis on Africa.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

SABC from last Fall: “Trade and economic ties between South Africa and Russia”

6 Responses

  1. Greg Cassel

    Crude display of Cold War propaganda: US as White Knight vs Russ the Dark Lord, good vs evil, usual shtick. Africans are mentioned.

  2. Juan, I’ve been reading your site since 2003 from New Zealand & I love it & recommend it constantly. However, occasionally I think you have “US spex” on. In this case by allowing this article on your site.
    I’m not saying there’s no truth in it – I am saying that “While the US policy toward Africa is founded on a worldview that leads it to promote democratic governance, free markets and the rule of law, “ & the like is so obviously bushit …
    I know the US motto is “Do as we say, not as we do,” but this is allowing your site to take it to extremes!
    I read Nick Turse from TomDispatch regularly too. & in fact, when you publish most of Tom’s articles on Informed Comment I have noted that you have completely ignored Nick’s own contributions, esp. on the US in Africa!
    PS – all of your readers here know that the US outsells war materiel over any other part of the world, including Russia.

  3. “The U.S. justifies its sanctions largely on the basis of Sudanese government’s human rights and war crimes violations ” LOL

    It seems the article justifies any misdeeds by the USA but finds the reasonable responses of Russia to its encirclement, sanctions and vilification by “Western media” to be dangerous.

  4. I am not convinced that this is some sinister plot by Russia to undermine democracy and good governance in Africa while challenging US foreign policy.

    It seems more likely that Russia and China see trade matters vastly different from the US and Western Europe. Russia and China on several occasions have made it clear that they do not believe in restricting trade based on a nations internal politics and record of good governance. The US and Europe on the other hand constantly decide trade issues based on their approval of how a nation governs itself and runs its economy.

    So it makes sense that a nation with limited trade options or sanctioned by the west for not running their internal politics and economy in a manner that pleases the west would represent a great trading opportunity to nations that don’t care about a nations internal politics and feel no need to approve the way they run their economy.

    I am also not convinced that the primary interest of the US in Africa is about democracy and good governance but that is a different argument.

  5. Contrast and compare the views expressed of Russia selling military materiel to various African countries to those not expressed concerning US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Israel and many others whose human rights records are less than exemplary.

  6. ‘[M]any in the corridors of Washington.’ You wouldn’t think
    P &P would reveal their location. But there it is.

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