Russia in Africa: how Moscow bought a new sphere of influence on the cheap

A schoolboy in Bangui learns how to say ‘goodbye’ in Russian © Barbara Debout/FT
A schoolboy in Bangui learns how to say ‘goodbye’ in Russian © Barbara Debout/FT

At Saint André’s Orthodox cathedral in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, Regis Saint Clair Voyemawa, the monsignor, has switched allegiance from the patriarchate of Constantinople to that of Moscow.

Russia funded the restoration of frescoes and a new façade for his dilapidated cathedral and paid for Voyemawa to spend three months in Moscow last year. It donated $6,000 to build a school classroom where 60 children, all orphans from the country’s civil war, receive basic Russian language classes. Several small children recently sat before a blackboard repeating “do svidaniya, papa; do svidaniya, maman”, while others wrote “spassiva” on personal chalkboards.

The Russian influences at the cathedral are more than just an exercise in cultural outreach: they are part of the growing influence that Moscow now wields over the political and economic life of CAR, one of the world’s poorest and weakest states.

This relationship is the most striking example of how effective Moscow has been in parts of Africa with a cut-price strategy that mixes propaganda, arms sales, mining activity and mercenaries.

Russia in Africa

This is the first part in a series on Russia in Africa, which will also look at propaganda and control of resources

Russia’s presence in the country includes some 1,500 masked paramilitaries from the now infamous Wagner Group, gold and diamond operations, and even a small distillery producing 15 cent sachets of Wa Na Wa vodka with the logo of a rhino and the tagline: “Made in the Central African Republic with Russian technology”.

One senior western diplomat in CAR describes the country as a “petri-dish” for Moscow’s African ambitions. “There is a hybrid war going on”, the diplomat says. “And we are in it”.

In Europe, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been a humiliating and costly disaster for the Russian state. The weaknesses of its army have been exposed and tens of thousands of its troops have been killed. Sanctions have cut Russia’s economy off from many international markets and technologies.

But in Africa, Russia has been making dramatic inroads. Even in the year since Russian troops poured into Ukraine, Moscow has notched up further successes on the continent.

Helped by a volatile mix of jihadist terror, anti-French sentiment and coups d’état, it has succeeded in challenging western influence and establishing what a senior adviser to Emmanuel Macron calls “a second front” in Africa. “It’s about weakening Europe and opening a front where Europe and France are perceived as fragile”, he says.

Samuel Ramani, a fellow at think-tank Rusi and author of a forthcoming book on Russia in Africa, says Moscow has focused on a strip of countries running from Mali to Sudan. “They think they can build a ‘coup belt’ to give them influence and crowd out the west”, he says.

In what Ramani characterises as the culmination of a long game dating back to the Soviet era — but one that accelerated since Putin regained the Russian presidency in 2012 — he says Moscow has employed a “shadowy army of power-projection tools” to carry out “hybrid interventions”.

Russia in Africa: how Moscow bought a new sphere of influence on the cheap

These tools, Ramani says, combine “counterinsurgency operations, arms sales, autocracy promotion and soft power”. In employing them, he concludes, Russia has become “a continent-wide great power”.

Russia’s gains, concentrated in francophone Africa, have come mostly at France’s expense. Anti-French sentiment has reached boiling point in several former French colonies, where its military interventions have backfired and where its diplomats and businesses are accused of neo-colonial meddling. Russian propagandists have become experts at twisting anti-French sentiment into at least the semblance of a pro-Moscow upswell in popular opinion.

Sylvie Baïpo-Temon, CAR’s French-educated foreign minister, sees a connection between France’s perceived mistakes and Russian successes. She blames France for failing to pacify the country under a previous military intervention, Operation Sangaris, that ended abruptly in 2016.

‘As nature abhors a vacuum, Russia has arrived,’ says Sylvie Baïpo Témon, CAR’s French-educated foreign minister © Barbara Debout/FT

Russia “graciously offered to make weapons available”, she says of subsequent negotiations. The last contingent of French soldiers left the country last month: “As nature abhors a vacuum, Russia has arrived”.

‘Look opportunistically’

Putin first dramatically unveiled his African ambitions in October 2019, when he hosted 43 African heads of state at the first Russia-Africa summit in Sochi. Since then, a number of countries, from CAR to Mali and from Burkina Faso to Sudan, have been pulled closer into Moscow’s orbit.

“Russia has been spectacularly successful”, says Peter Pham, US special envoy to the Sahel in the Trump administration and now at the Atlantic Council. “Their diplomatic approach to the region is to look opportunistically where, for very little cost, they can poke at the west”.

Moscow has poked particularly hard in the Sahel, a politically unstable strip of semi-desert running beneath the Sahara. In several countries that are fighting jihadist insurgencies, coups have installed military governments antagonistic to France and openly sympathetic to Moscow.

In September, Abdoulaye Maiga, interim prime minister of Mali’s military government, used a speech at the UN to denounce the “French junta” and to praise “the exemplary and fruitful co-operation between Mali and Russia”.

In the same month, generals in Burkina Faso seized power for a second time in eight months, an event marked by demonstrators waving Russian flags on the streets of Ouagadougou, the capital.

Nana Akufo-Addo, the president of neighbouring Ghana, alleged that Burkina Faso’s new junta has already turned to Russian mercenaries from Wagner to fight jihadis. “Today, Russian mercenaries are on our northern border”, he said in December. Burkina’s government denied the accusations but in January, without warning, gave French troops stationed in the country since 2018 a month to leave.

In Sudan, another unstable country, Moscow has cultivated close ties with Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti, the number two in the administration that emerged from a 2019 coup to oust former dictator Omar al-Bashir.

Russian companies operating in Sudan profit from illegal gold exports, according to the US Treasury, shipments of which have increased since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Moscow has also won agreement in principle for military access to Port Sudan, a strategic choke-point on the Red Sea. Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner’s founder, has denied any connection to mines in Sudan and CAR.

Russia’s most stunning success has come in Mali where Colonel Assimi Goita, leader of the military junta, is following the CAR playbook. He too has contracted Wagner mercenaries to fight insurgents, in Mali’s case affiliated to al-Qaeda and Islamic State. France’s ambassador was expelled in 2021. French troops, who intervened in 2013 at Bamako’s invitation to fight Islamists threatening to overrun the country, withdrew to neighbouring Niger in August.

“Three countries were already taken out of French control — CAR, Mali and Burkina Faso”, crowed a post on Colonelcassad, a pro-Russian channel on Telegram, the messaging app. “Macron is effectively presiding over the collapse of the French neo-colonial empire in north-west Africa . . . Niger and its uranium mines are next”.

As the dominoes fall, a senior French official who helps mould France’s Africa strategy does not dispute Russia’s success. “Mali, CAR and Burkina have failed in their attempt to face down the challenge of terrorism”, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Wagner has come as the new game in town”.

West caught unaware

Russia’s success in Africa has blindsided the west, which had been more focused on the inroads being made by China. As recently as 2021, Tibor Nagy, former US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told Ramani that Washington “viewed China as the Great Dane and Russia as the little Chihuahua” on the continent.

Yet although Russia-Africa trade was only $15.6bn in 2021, according to the IMF — a fraction of the $254bn between China and Africa in the same year — Moscow has exerted an outsized influence.

Russia’s strategy has been bolstered by Putin’s broader propaganda agenda of portraying Russia as a bulwark against the adventurism of the west in countries like Iraq and Libya. In the latter, the western-backed overthrow of Muammer Gaddafi in 2011 unleashed a flood of arms and fighters that are destabilising the Sahel to this day.

Putin’s “anti-colonial” message, articulated in a September speech to celebrate the annexation of Ukrainian territory seized by Russian troops, has resonated in countries where suspicion of former colonial powers runs deep and nostalgia for the Soviet Union still flickers. In March, 25 African countries either abstained or refrained from voting in a UN resolution to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

 Statues of CAR soldiers and Russian armed men protecting a woman and her children, in Bangui © Barbara Debout/FT
Statues of CAR soldiers and Russian armed men protecting a woman and her children, in Bangui © Barbara Debout/FT

Not everything has gone Russia’s way. In Mozambique, where ties with Moscow from the Soviet era run so deep that the national flag features a Kalashnikov, Wagner quit the country in 2021 after five of its men were killed by Islamist militants in a bungled operation. “They came in all dressed as robocops, with Go-Pro cameras and all kinds of fancy gear”, says a senior Mozambican defence official. “They got their arses handed to them”.

In South Africa, Russia still has close ties to the ruling African National Congress, which has refused to condemn Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. The ANC Youth League sent observers to Russia’s phoney referendum in four Ukrainian provinces in September, an exercise it described as “a beautiful, wonderful process”.

Still, Moscow’s attempts to clinch a $70bn nuclear deal fell foul of South Africa’s courts and petered out when Jacob Zuma — who trained in the Soviet Union and who recently called Putin “a man of peace” — was forced out of the presidency in 2018.

More recently, Russia’s effort to win friends through “vaccine diplomacy” backfired when promised doses failed to materialise and African officials complained that the Sputnik vaccine against Covid-19 was more expensive than western counterparts.

Still, Russia has had more successes than failures. Its inroads into CAR, a virtual “client state” of Moscow, according to French officials, reveals its preferred modus operandi.

 A billboard advertises Wa Na Wa Russian vodka, in Bangui © Barbara Debout/FT
A billboard advertises Wa Na Wa Russian vodka, in Bangui © Barbara Debout/FT

A model in CAR

One of the poorest countries in the world, CAR’s state is so fragile that rebel groups control parts of the country. Its president, Faustin Archange Touadéra, owes his survival to Wagner mercenaries who helped put down an attempt to overthrow him ahead of elections in 2020. Today, they provide one of the rings of his personal security. “It’s not just that they are his close protection, he is a hostage”, says a western diplomat in Bangui.

Russia first saw its chance in CAR in 2017 after a proposed deal by France to supply CAR’s embattled government with AK-47 assault rifles seized from Somalia fell through after Moscow itself opposed the transfer. President Touadéra, who met Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, on a private visit to Moscow, turned instead to Russia for weapons and military instructors.

“For a couple of million dollars worth of weapons they’ve essentially acquired a government”, says Pham, the former US envoy, who says western reluctance to deal with unsavoury administrations has presented Russia with an opening.

The west repeated the mistake in Mali, says Pham, when the US state department vetoed the sale of an Airbus transport plane fitted with a US-made transponder. Mali’s foreign minister flew to Moscow to seek an alternative. “They showed him planes and additional services and that’s how Wagner got in”, he says.

In CAR, Russia quickly set up a command centre and training base about 80km from Bangui. Mercenaries from Wagner and other Russian private military companies, plus Rwandan soldiers, have since been credited with restoring a degree of order.

“Since they came here, there is calm”, says Gaultier Koumboti, supervisor at the recently opened Russian Cultural Centre in Bangui.

Russia donated $6,000 to build a school classroom where 60 children, orphans from the country’s civil war, receive basic Russian language classes © Barbara Debout/FT

Russia’s presence goes well beyond the military. During a recent reporting trip to Bangui the capital, the FT saw evidence of cultural and commercial power too.

Touadéra has introduced Russian as a compulsory language at universities, alongside Sango and French. In May, CAR became only the second country after El Salvador to make bitcoin an official currency, a move — in a country with only 10 per cent internet penetration — that analysts suspect provides a way of bypassing financial sanctions against Russia.

Russia is also shaping the political landscape. Diplomats report a heavy Wagner presence, in fatigues and civilian clothes, at government ministries.

Danièle Darlan, former head of the Constitutional Court, was removed in late October after blocking an attempt to amend the constitution so that Touadéra could run for a third term. In March, she received a visit from two Russian diplomats urging her to support the amendment, western diplomats recall.

Now guarded by UN soldiers because of death threats against her, she said she had little doubt that Moscow was behind her dismissal as the Russians are making Touadéra “more dictatorial every day”.

“The Russians are everywhere, in institutions, ministries, civil society, media — everywhere”, one intelligence officer in Bangui says.

In CAR, as elsewhere in Africa, Russia may do things on the cheap but it does extract a price. “Wagner doesn’t work for free”, says Roland Marchal, an academic at Sciences Po.

Russian and local security forces protect CAR President Faustin Archange Touadéra, centre in blue, as he arrives at UCATEX stadium in Bangui for a rally ahead of presidential elections in December 2020 © Nacer Talel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Russian and local security forces protect CAR President Faustin Archange Touadéra, centre in blue, as he arrives at UCATEX stadium in Bangui for a rally ahead of presidential elections in December 2020 © Nacer Talel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Aside from a well-documented stint collecting customs revenue on the border with Cameroon, the US Treasury says that Wagner controls “numerous” gold and diamond mines in CAR and has even denied access to government officials trying to inspect its mining operations.

A UN group of experts in 2021 concluded that 95 per cent of gold mined in CAR was exported illegally. Some of it flown via airstrips in neighbouring Sudan, analysts, western diplomats and security officials say, where Hemeti, the military leader with close Russian ties, is heavily involved in the mining sector.

“For the Russians, this country is El Dorado”, says a senior defence officer, referring to Russia’s carte blanche to exploit resources. “There is no state. There are no borders. There are no controls”.

Witnesses say Russian mercenaries are among those who have attacked artisanal mines in rebel areas along the border with Chad and Sudan in order to wipe out competitors. In March, according to people who spoke to the FT, dozens of people were killed when Russian-speaking soldiers and former CAR rebels recruited by Wagner deployed armed vehicles and an attack helicopter.

One person who fled the scene said: “The Russians tracked us for three whole days until we reached Sudan . . . We saw people killed and bodies left on the side of the road”.

Russia’s success in dislodging rivals and infiltrating governments raises the question of how much further progress it can make on the continent. In August, Gilbert Kabanda, defence minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a huge mineral-rich country vital in the battery supply chain, reported “fruitful” discussions with his Russian counterpart about possible military co-operation in DRC’s war with rebels in the east.

In October, President Felix Tshisekedi in an FT interview ruled out any possibility that his government would contract Wagner mercenaries to fight its battles. But since then, there have been sightings of suspected Russian military personnel in the region. A western intelligence report seen by the FT concluded that the first phase of a “Wagner installation procedure” may have started alongside mining investments.

Still, Russia’s victories on the continent may already have reached their high watermark. Analysts says Russian tactics work best in states with very weak institutions: in Mali, where the state is somewhat more robust, Wagner has not persuaded authorities to hand over gold and other mining concessions, they say. Even in CAR, last month rebels killed several Wagner mercenaries during skirmishes near the Sudanese border, according to diplomats in the country.

In contrast to just a few years ago, when the strategy in Africa was starting to unfold, Russian activity stands little chance of flying under the radar. Last month, the US designated Wagner a “transnational criminal organisation”.

Lavrov’s tour of four African states last July was swiftly followed by a flurry of visits by senior US officials, including Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, and Janet Yellen, treasury secretary, who spent 10 days on the continent this January. Both brought messages that sought directly to counter Russian propaganda.

The US charm offensive is set to continue with visits to the continent by Kamala Harris, vice-president, and Joe Biden, president, later this year.

Within days of Lavrov’s tour last year, Macron gave a speech in Benin in which he drew attention to Russia’s actions. Far from being a friend of Africa, France’s president said, Russia had revealed itself as “one of the last imperial colonial powers”.

The western diplomatic response, says Ramani, is a clear sign of the “erosion of Russia’s stealth advantage”.

By David Pilling and Andres Schipani. Cartography by Steven Bernard. Additional reporting by Aanu Adeoye.

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