Wednesday

7th Dec 2022

Opinion

West needs to counter Russia in Africa, but how?

  • EU forces left Central African Republic and Mali after Russian mercenaries arrived (Photo: eeas.europa.eu)
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During US foreign secretary Antony Blinken trip to Africa this week, countering Russian influence will be high up on his agenda, just as it was for French president Emmanuel Macron a few days ago.

The focus is right. Russian influence in Africa has gradually grown over the past decade and poses various problems — for local populations as well as for US and European interests. The sooner we get to grips with that, the better.

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Blinken and European leaders like Macron need to be careful though. Trying to constrain Russia in Africa is one thing. But if we put too much pressure on African leaders to choose sides, this could easily backfire and make things worse.

Moscow's influence on the continent came into the limelight earlier this year when, at the UN vote to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine, 17 African states abstained and eight didn't vote at all.

The following drama in Mali, where Russian mercenaries played a notable role in pushing out Western troops, added to the headaches in European capitals.

Yet these are just the latest symptoms of a longer trend. Russia has gradually increased its influence across the continent over the past decade.

Since their invasion of Crimea, they have concluded at least 20 military cooperation agreements with African states and sent mercenaries into several countries.

Their exact strategy depends on the country, but the playbook is often very similar. Russia offers support to beleaguered dictators that are desperate to cling on to power and protects them militarily (e.g. via the Wagner mercenary group) and politically (e.g. through their veto power in the UN Security Council).

In return, they receive political influence as well as concessions on resource extraction (e.g. in Sudan, where they notoriously engage in gold smuggling).

We shouldn't overestimate Russian influence in Africa. As many experts point out, their power on the ground is often less impressive than news reports suggest. Still, even in its relatively minor role as a spoiler, Russia's presence poses problems.

For a start, Russia's involvement often has negative consequences for the local populations. It engages in state capture that props up highly corrupt elite cliques, gives autocratic dictators a new lease of life and slows down democratic change, while perpetuating the problems linked to resource extraction.

There is also a clear security risk involved for Europe — in particular considering the current state of affairs — as Russia seeks to build new military bases on Nato's southern flank, for example in Libya and Sudan.

Influence along the main migration routes could allow Moscow to use refugees as a weapon against Europe, as its allies in Belarus did last year.

Lastly, Africa has the potential to become a key partner for Europe in the coming decades, in particular with regards to the energy transition. This carries big upside potential for both sides — yet Russian destabilisation may put it in peril.

The argument for countering Russian influence in Africa is clear. What is less clear, however, is how to best counter it. Here the West needs to tread carefully.

There is no use in panicking over Russian presence, nor in sulkily retreating from every place that opens its doors to Russian state-linked actors. Instead, we need evidence-base assessments on a case-by-case basis.

We also have to be realistic about the fact that many African states see the current situation as the start to a new cold war and are extremely reluctant to pick sides.

This is understandable. The past few years have seen significantly bigger international engagement on the continent (not just by China, but also by India and Middle Eastern countries) that gave states new leverage and opportunity they are loath to part with.

They might — not totally unreasonably — fear that if they now follow Western wishes to break ties with Russia, they might soon be asked to do the same with China.

Instead, we must convince them on merit. By showcasing that, at the end of the day, prioritising cooperation with Europe and the US can be the best and most sustainable way forward for them.

For a start, this requires showing that we mean business — that we are credible when we talk about partnership on equal footing; that our promises to support infrastructure development, e.g. via the EU's Global Gateway initiative, come through; and that we can help regional integration initiatives progress to their next levels.

This will be challenging and take time. It will also force us to go back and fix some of our own mistakes of the past. But in the long term, it may offer the best way forward.

Author bio

Katja Leikert is a German MP who sits in the Bundestag's foreign-affairs committee and who is the conservative CDU party's rapporteur on EU-Africa relations.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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