As protests raged in Zimbabwe’s cities last week, with police firing
live ammunition at crowds who barricaded roads with burning tyres, the
target of their anger was 8,000km away. President Emmerson Mnangagwa,
who had sparked the unrest by raising fuel prices amid an economic
crisis in the southern African country, was instead strolling through
the Kremlin for talks with President Vladimir Putin, the first of what
Moscow hopes will be many visits by African leaders this year. Amid
deteriorating relations with western countries, a diplomatic campaign
to win new friends and partners in Africa is at the forefront of a
sweeping foreign policy pivot by Moscow, as it seeks fresh alliances
to bolster its global geopolitical clout. From Algeria to Uganda,
Russia is building influence in Africa, lending support to embattled
strongmen, taking on natural resource projects in conflict-racked
states and positioning itself as a new powerbroker without the baggage
of former colonial powers.
As well as warm words from Mr Putin, Mr Mnangagwa left Moscow with
something more tangible — agreements for Russian investment in
Zimbabwe’s diamond industry, a fertiliser supply contract and two
financing deals worth $267m. While lacking the financial firepower of
China or the longstanding trade relations of former colonial powers,
Russia has sought to use its military exports, security apparatus and
state-controlled natural resource companies to gain footholds across
the continent. Across Africa, Moscow has deployed teams of military
instructors to train elite presidential guards, sent arms shipments
and assisted shaky autocrats with election strategies. It has also
promised to build nuclear power plants and develop oil wells and
diamond mines. These diplomatic outreaches to old Soviet allies or
countries previously overlooked by Moscow are aimed at both increasing
its sway and unsettling rivals such as the US, Britain and France in a
region where they have long held influence.
Christian Malanga, an opposition politician in the Democratic Republic
of Congo where Moscow has hailed Felix Tshisekedi as the winner of the
recent presidential election despite evidence of voting fraud, says
Russia was building on old Soviet ties. “It’s the cold war 2.0,” he
says, adding that Russia complemented China in what he saw as a
strategy to challenge western influence. “China is the money and
Russia is the muscle.”
The need for new alliances has become acute since 2014, when western
sanctions were imposed against Moscow after its annexation of Crimea.
“Russia has been re-evaluating its diplomatic policy since the western
sanctions came into effect,” says Olga Kulkova, senior fellow at the
Africa Institute of Russia’s Academy of Sciences. “Moscow realised it
needs new partners.
“Russia has managed to jump into the last carriage, all our partners
are already there. But it can compete well by offering both unique and
cheaper services to African nations,” she adds.
Western countries are taking note. In December, US national security
adviser John Bolton announced a new strategy to combat Russia and
China in Africa, accusing Moscow of buying off African nations.
“The predatory practices pursued by China and Russia stunt economic
growth in Africa, threaten the financial independence of African
nations . . . and pose a significant threat to US national security
interests,” he said.
It was the brutal murder of three Russian investigative journalists in
the Central African Republic last July that thrust Moscow’s African
endeavours into the spotlight. Shot dead in an attack on their jeep
while driving through the countryside, the reporters were
investigating the activities of Wagner, a Russian paramilitary
company, in a country where Moscow has expanded its presence rapidly
over recent years. Their murders, which local officials blamed on a
robbery but subsequent Russian investigative reports suggest may have
been orchestrated, focused international attention on the role of
Russian security assets — both state and private — in the Kremlin’s
outreach to African countries.
“Western analysts, myself included, only really woke up to this at the
sudden appearance of significant clusters of Russian armed men,” says
Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at the Chatham House
think-tank in London. “It was like: ‘My God, what have we missed and
why have we missed this?’”
Moscow has sent planeloads of arms to the country, alongside five
armed forces personnel and more than 200 private military contractors
to train hundreds of elite troops. Valery Zakharov, a former Russian
intelligence official, is the national security adviser to CAR
president Faustin-Archange Touadéra, and Russia is setting up a team
inside CAR’s defence ministry. This month, during a visit to Russia,
CAR’s defence minister told state media that there was a “possibility”
of Moscow opening a full military base in the country. Such actions
have unnerved France, CAR’s former colonial ruler and traditionally
its most prominent foreign ally. Roland Marchal, a Russia-Africa
expert at Sciences Po, says Moscow’s approach of supporting African
leaders through government-backed defence and industrial deals is
straight out of the “Françafrique” playbook of the 1970s and 1980s,
when the state and commercial interests of Paris were intertwined.
“It’s pure Françafrique. Change the flag and you have the same
methodology,” he adds.
A senior European diplomat in Moscow says: “We don’t know exactly what
they are doing in the Central African Republic, but we don’t like it
too much. We are not sure that the [CAR] government is completely
While the Central African Republic has dominated the headlines,
Russia’s activity is increasing across the continent. In 2017,
Russia’s trade with Africa rose 26 per cent to $17.4bn.
Russia sold twice as much weaponry to African countries in 2017 as it
did in 2012, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research
Institute. Between 2013 and 2017, Russia supplied 39 per cent of
Africa’s imported arms — compared with 17 per cent from China and 11
per cent from the US.
In 2014, Zimbabwe concluded an arms-for-platinum deal with Russia
worth a reported $3bn, bypassing both a European arms embargo and its
lack of hard currency to swap rights to the Darwendale platinum
concession for the provision of an undisclosed number of MiG-35
The list of Russian commercial engagements with Africa is long.
Russian aluminium group Rusal mines bauxite in Guinea. Alrosa, the
Kremlin-controlled diamond miner planning to enter Zimbabwe, already
has assets in Angola and Botswana.
Rosatom, the state-run nuclear monopoly, is working in Zambia and
Rwanda. Russian geologists are active in Madagascar, Algeria, Libya
and Ghana. Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company, is developing oil
and gasfields in Egypt, Mozambique and Algeria, and rival Lukoil has
projects in Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon.
“Moscow and Beijing are clearly competitors over natural resources,
but the Russians will not beat China in Africa,” says Mr Vines. “It is
minor league in comparison.
“But with the US retreat, there is space for Moscow to be mischievous.
It is about optics and, to a certain extent, smoke and mirrors to
present itself as a global power,” he adds. “The Russians are looking
for areas where they can unnerve western opponents . . . some of whom
are truly shocked at what is happening.”
Take South Africa. Last October, former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene
told an inquiry into so-called “state capture” that he had been sacked
in 2015 because of his refusal to sign guarantees for a R1tn ($70bn)
nuclear deal with Rosatom . His replacement with someone considered
more pliable triggered such a sharp fall in the rand that the incident
came to be known as “Nenegate”.
Mr Nene said the deal would have been ruinous for South Africa, but
would have benefited some of former president Jacob Zuma’s associates,
including the Gupta family at the centre of allegations of state
capture. The Guptas owned a uranium deposit, though both they and Mr
Zuma have denied any wrongdoing.
In 2015, Mr Zuma flew to Russia for emergency medical treatment, and
it was during his recovery that he is reported to have struck the
nuclear deal with Mr Putin.
“Russia had never had a very strong presence in South Africa until
Zuma got into power,” says Lumkile Mondi, a senior lecturer at the
University of Witwatersrand. “Through him they were trying to get in
and gain control, given that historically the Anglo-American countries
have been our partners. Then the Brics countries came in and Russia
wanted a piece of the pie.”
While Moscow is keen to build new relationships, it is no stranger to
the region. During the cold war, the Soviet Union had strong ties with
various African states, supporting independence movements aimed at
dislodging western colonial powers. João Lourenço, Angola’s president,
studied at the elite Lenin Political-Military Academy in the late
1970s, and it was the Soviet Union’s 1956 support for Egypt in the
Suez Canal crisis that helped to force the UK, France and Israel to
abandon their military action.
Moscow has made this legacy a central pillar in its African outreach,
contrasting its history of engagement with that of former colonial
“Russian-African relations have a rich history, while, unlike the
former global powers, Russia has not tainted itself with the crimes of
slavery and colonialism,” the Russian foreign ministry says in a
statement. “In the middle of the last century, our country actively
contributed to the achievement of national independence and
sovereignty of African countries . . . Many African leaders are well
aware of this.”
Alongside this, Moscow is also willing to sidestep issues such as
demands for reform or human rights protection — a tactic that it has
effectively deployed in recent years to build strong ties in the
“In Africa they present themselves as mediators, as honest brokers,”
says the senior western diplomat. “You see a common thread across
Angola, DRC, Mozambique. It’s obvious — they are repeating their
successful Middle East strategy and seeking to mine the Soviet
Sergei Lavrov, foreign minister, said last week that Russia did not
agree with outside countries calling for an investigation into the
presidential election in Congo, which data published by the FT show
“We do not interfere with elections,” Mr Lavrov said. “The Congolese
people can handle this on their own and it is important not to impose
this or that agreement as is normally done by France, the US and other
former colonial powers.”
Leaders such as Joseph Kabila, who is set to step down as president of
Congo, see Russia as a way around the west’s tough requirements on
transparency and governance, says Mr Malanga, the opposition Congolese
politician. “All the actors like him are turning back to Russia. We’ve
seen that in Venezuela and with Assad in Syria and that’s basically
what African leaders are looking for today.”
This month, Russia’s ambassador to Guinea — a country that had close
relations with the Soviet Union — suggested that President Alpha Condé
could change the constitution to stay in power for a third term.
“Constitutions are no dogma, Bible or Koran,” said ambassador
Alexander Bregadze. “Guinea needs you today. And as the popular
Russian saying goes, you don’t change horses at a river crossing.”
Moscow hopes that Mr Mnangagwa’s three-day visit will not be his only
trip to Russia in 2019. The Kremlin is hard at work arranging its
first Russia-Africa summit this year. As the most prominent example of
its outreach to the continent, it is aware that its success will be
judged by the number of heads of state that make the trip north.
“Zimbabwe is under the yoke of sanctions imposed by western
countries,” Mr Mnangagwa told Mr Putin in the Kremlin. “However,
through these days of isolation, you, Russia, have remained with us as
a reliable partner.”