11th Dec 2023


Russia, Putin, Wagner — and Africa

  • Vladimir Putin meeting the president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, in Moscow on 17 June - before the weekend military uprising (Photo: Kremlin)
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Russia returning to Africa as a geopolitical player has caused much concern in the West, particularly in light of Russia's ongoing war against Ukraine.

Russia's engagement with Africa before and after Moscow's invasion of Ukraine revolves around three principles: searching for alternative economic partnerships, acquiring geopolitical leverage, and promoting multipolar global order.

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It is the last one that is particularly relevant in bringing Russia and the continent together, as the multipolar world stands in contrast to the unipolar world led undisputedly by the US, in which developing countries like Africa feel that they have not been represented or respected enough. African countries and Russia tend to share a normative vision of a multipolar world where the voices of neglected African nations are heard, and powers like Russia have a seat at the table.

In 2019, at the Russia–Africa summit in Sochi, Vladimir Putin expressed such sentiment by saying: "African states are confidently gaining political and economic weight, affirming themselves as one of the important pillars of the multipolar world order, and are taking an increasingly important part in working out international community's decisions on key issues related to the regional and global agenda … This will allow us to boost our efforts towards ensuring common and indivisible security, and the formation of a fairer model of the modern world."

More recently, Putin was even more forthcoming in embracing Africa, as Putin told delegates at a March 2023 Russia-Africa parliamentary conference in Moscow that Russia would supply grain to African countries for free if the Russia-Ukraine grain deal mediated by the UN and Turkey is not extended.

On occasion, Putin also wrote off debts of African nations of more than $20bn [€18.3bn]. South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, announced earlier this month that six African leaders, from Zambia, Senegal, the Republic of Congo, Uganda, Egypt and South Africa would visit Russia and Ukraine to find a peaceful solution to the ongoing war.

As Hanna Notte from the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation pointed out in an interview, "the Global South component" has become more important in Russian foreign policy since the start of the Ukraine war.

The notion of a multipolar order also manifests in how African countries have reacted to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

During the March 2022 vote in the UN General Assembly on the resolution condemning its attack on Ukraine, 28 African countries (just over 51 percent) voted in favour of the resolution, as opposed to the 81.29 percent of non-African countries that voted in favour.

Among the 35 countries that abstained, 17 were from Africa. Eight African countries did not vote, and only one African country, Eritrea, voted against the resolution, alongside Belarus, Russia, North Korea and Syria.

In April 2022, the UN General Assembly voted on suspending Russia's membership in the Human Rights Council.

A total of 10 African states voted in favour of suspension, nine were opposed, and 35 abstained or were absent.

For Russia, it is essential to have African votes to push its UN initiative, and it will settle for abstentions in the absence of supporting votes. For Russian academic Natalia Piskunova, it is possibly even more important to block US initiatives at the UN that are deemed harmful to Russia's interest, not necessarily in Africa but certainly in other regions.

While African countries support Ukraine's territorial integrity, they do not want to join the sanctions policy.

They perceive sanctions as an instrument of US unipolarity that, on several occasions, have not only sidelined Africa and the Global South but also violated UN norms on sovereignty, territorial integrity and use of force.

Russia will use this position of African nations to promote the idea of a multipolar world where it is not isolated, and the West is no longer entitled to speak on behalf of the entire international community.

During his July 2022 tour of Africa, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov even expressed Russian support for reforming the UN Security Council to give Africa a permanent seat.

In August 2022, South Africa's defence minister Thandi Modise visited Russia to attend a Moscow conference on international security, only a couple of days after Blinken visited South Africa.

Engaging with all 54 African states or the AU symbolises Russia's vision of a multipolar world. During Lavrov's visit to Africa, he went to Ethiopia and met representatives of AU member states. In his official statement, Lavrov took a jab at US unipolarity and its liberal interventionist approach, portraying Western military interventions as the negative manifestations of a unipolar world, including in Yugoslavia (1999), Iraq (2003) and Libya (2011).

Lavrov described the Russian notion of the international system and the shared principles of Russia and Africa. He stated that the global system should be based on the UN charter, particularly its principle of sovereign equality between states (omitting a mention of Ukraine).

This argument opposes the idea of a 'rules-based world order', which is seen as imposed by the US and the West on the rest of the world.

Moscow's cooperation with rogue states ruled by regimes with poor relations with the West is also a potent way of challenging the notion of Western-led order and promoting the principle of non-interference in a country's internal affairs.

This is opposed to the idea of liberal internationalism, where a country's domestic structures can be altered, including by using force. Countries such as Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic and, occasionally, Sudan are potential partners of Russia on this front.

Even the indictment raised against Putin by the International Criminal Court (ICC) might not be enough to disrupt Russia-Africa ties, as South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that South Africa will leave the ICC to avoid arresting Putin during the BRICS summit, (only to be corrected by his party). The South African government also banned arms sales to Poland in appreciation of ties with Russia.

Regardless of the indictment against Putin and Russia's ongoing war against Ukraine, Africa's and Global South's reluctance to join Western sanctions against Russia demonstrates a degree of complementarity in the desire of the two sides to demand a change of world order which both Russian and Africans do not perceive as being in line with their interest.

That is one of the reasons why African governments will not erase the Kremlin's phone number that easilv — despite the outrage from the West.

And in the wake of this weekend's 'military coup' that wasn't, by Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, it appears to be business-as-usual.

The Wagner mercenary group will continue operations in Mali and the Central African Republic despite its leader's aborted insurrection over the weekend, Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said on Monday (26 June).

Wagner "are working there as instructors. This work, of course, will continue", Lavrov told the RT outlet.

Lavrov said Europe and France in particular had "abandoned" the two African countries, which had in turn asked Russia and Wagner to provide military instructors and "to ensure the security of their leaders".

Author bio

Dr Vuk Vuksanovic is an associate at LSE IDEAS, a foreign policy think tank within the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and a senior researcher at Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP). This piece is based on a report he authored for the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).


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

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