Russia: How the Kremlin is Gradually Overtaking Africa

Russia: How the Kremlin is Gradually Overtaking Africa

From private military companies supporting local governments to Russian state-linked corporations exploiting the resource-rich continent, Moscow has launched an active campaign to regain its sphere of influence in Africa. Russia’s use of greyzone military capabilities, and its position as a critical security provider for the conflict-ridden and politically unstable continent, strengthen the Kremlin’s leverage to contest Chinese and American interests in Africa.

Reclaiming Africa 

After almost three decades of absence from Africa, Moscow has made significant investments in returning to the Soviet Union’s former glory on the continent. The 2014 annexation of Crimea and Russia’s involvement in Syria served as examples of the revival of an old global superpower, seeking to restore its international foreign policy influence. In the aftermath of turmoil in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, Moscow has turned to one of its former partners – African countries, which once enjoyed flourishing relationships with the Kremlin. Assessing the continent as a low-cost high-profit opportunity, Russia has aimed to rapidly rebuild relationships with African countries in recent years, via three pillars critical to its foreign policy – private military companies, resource exploitation and improving military trade.

Private military companies 

Russia has significantly furthered its geopolitical interests using hybrid warfare and exploiting greyzone capabilities in a variety of conflict and non-conflict zones.  A prominent actor such as the Wagner Group, a private military company (PMC) which exists in legal ambiguity, has allowed the Kremlin to continue its military interventionism policy at a lower political and financial cost, as Moscow denies its existence. The Wagner Group gained notoriety with its involvement in the 2014 Ukrainian crisis and its support for President Bashar al-Assad against US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, and has proven to be a useful tool for Russia’s ambitions in Africa. The Group’s soldiers have already set foot on the continent, as they have provided technical support and participated in military operations on the side of General Haftar against the UN-recognised Government of National Accord in Libya since 2018. 

The Wagner Group, the most prominent of Russian PMCs, has been deployed in a number of African countries to help national strongmen quash civil unrest and retain their political positions. Most recently in December 2020, Wagner Group members provided support to the Central African Republic’s (CAR) president Faustin-Archange Touadera amid the turbulent presidential and parliamentary elections, during which rebels took over the city of Bangassou. Sudan, the first African country in which Russia launched a naval base, has also enjoyed the help of the Wagner Group. In 2018 and 2019, the government forces of Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir were assisted by The Wagner Group in order to handle growing opposition in the country. Similarly, after signing a bilateral agreement to improve the two countries’ relationships, Wagner Group operatives were allegedly deployed in the country. They have also been active in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Mozambique, Egypt and Eritrea. 


The logistic and military support that private military companies provide to African governments helps Moscow create a favourable security environment for regaining access to the continent’s rich and diverse resources. As most countries assisted by the Wagner Group are plagued by economic crisis, lawlessness, poverty, political instability and lack of democratic reform, this improves Russia’s position as a key security provider and hence opens opportunities for its energy companies. While it doesn’t seek to exploit raw materials such as China, resources pave the way for Russian influence on the continent and in the world, and also allow Russia to secure new energy deposits in light of the gradual decline of its own. 

State-owned and associated companies have been gradually thriving on the continent. Russia has won a concession to produce off-shore gas in Mozambique, and Rosatom, the state nuclear power company, has been offering nuclear power technology to a number of African countries, with an agreement to build the first nuclear power plant in Egypt. In addition, giants like the oil producer Lukoil, stainless steel manufacturer Rusal, oil refiner RT Global Resources and Renova Group exploit various resources throughout Africa such as oil, diamonds and manganese. 


Although Russia is not Africa’s biggest trade partner, as it has to compete with Africa’s stable trade relationships with India, China and the US, its cheap military equipment is a staple on the continent. Russia is an important defence partner for African countries and defence relationships appear to be growing with sales of military hardware such as armed personnel carriers, tanks and small arms doubling in the last five years. In addition, between 2014 and 2019, Russia accounted for 16% of the continent’s (excluding Egypt) supply of weapons and it has signed weapons deals with countries such as Angola, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea. Notably, Moscow has also tripled its  overall trade with Africa since 2010. Hence, despite Russia’s inability to match the US and China’s wealth and export resources, it has the opportunity to establish itself as a key military equipment importer, whose arms trade doesn’t entail painful reform processes. 


Recent US and French isolationist policies have created an opportunity for Russia to re-enter the once Soviet-dominated Africa. Russia’s growing influence threatens democratic reforms on the continent and apparently worries Western powers, as French army operatives were de-platformed from Facebook after disseminating anti-Russian and pro-French propaganda on the continent. At the same time, Wagner Group members’ fake profiles were also banned from the social media platform for spreading pro-Kremlin narratives across CAR, Libya, Mozambique and other African countries. 

Russia has made claims to regain influence over the continent by planning to build more naval bases, extend trade relationships, and support autocratic leaders with private military groups, and it will realistically continue to follow that strategy; however, as a new player in Africa it will inevitably face the resistance from the continent’s two already competing power actors – the US and China.

Categories: Africa, Insights

About Author

Boryana Saragerova

Boryana Saragerova received a MA in Terrorism, Security & Society from King’s College London. She has previously attained a BA degree in International Relations from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”. Boryana specialises in international affairs, and political instability and international security, namely terrorism and extremism, insurgencies, regional and global conflicts and has expertise in Public and Private International Law. She has worked on a diverse set of topics from the prevention of religion-motivated violence in Bangladesh, during the 64th International Student Conference in Tokyo, Japan to bilateral and multilateral relations in South-Eastern Europe during her internship at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Bulgaria.