Death, Dictators and Diplomacy: Russia’s Rise in Africa

By Dayan Reynolds

Malians hold Russia’s flag during a demonstration in Bamako, Mali in 2021.
Image Credit: Amadou Keita/REUTERS

Hundreds of civilians were brutally massacred by Russian forces. Not as part of the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine, but in the African country of Mali. Under the guise of mercenary deployment and in cooperation with Malian forces, Russian troops killed hundreds of locals in the rural market town of Moura.

The bloody weeks-long event in late March is the greatest proof thus far of the dangers of Russian intervention in Africa. It’s also only the latest episode in a much larger foreign policy play to supplant the West on the world’s second-most populous continent.

Across Africa, Moscow is strengthening connections with a number of dictators looking to maintain their hold on power. Rather than shy away from risky investments, Russia is leaping at opportunities to pull in some of Africa’s most isolated or at-risk governments. 

Mali is one example, but similar military partnerships have emerged in Sudan, Libya and the Central African Republic. These are all fragile regimes desperate for support.

This has placed Russia in its own foreign policy niche, one with which the West can’t seem to compete. A deep-rooted (and understandable) concern over imperialistic encroachment on the continent has severely restrained the role that Europe and the U.S. can play in Africa.

Legacy agreements that still border on exploitation are under heavy attack. Most recently, growing anger with France in West Africa has forced it to reconsider its policy of “Françafrique” – a Monroe Doctrine-style commitment to prop up authoritarian rulers in its former colonies in return for access to resources.

Ironically, however, the West faces criticism even when trying to incentivize positive reforms. Many of Africa’s more authoritarian leaders are wary of deals that come with commitments for democratizing their countries or improving human rights. 

Pushing “Western solutions to African problems” on the most sensitive topics, such as migration and sustainable development, has frequently made the West unpopular in African capitals. Antagonism to these policies has left a key window open for investors in the East, namely Russia and China.

Indeed, many of the leaders most critical of Western influence in Africa are the same ones looking to the East for aid. And while China might be the primary benefactor from this growing schism, Russia isn’t missing out.

France’s departure from West Africa was the precursor to Mali’s invitation for Russian mercenaries. Similar diminishing Western economic and diplomatic support in the Sahel region and further south has been met with a rising Russian presence.

Economic investment alone cannot explain support for Moscow on the African continent. By virtue of its post-Soviet constraints, Russia lacks the means to throw the same volumes of cash at African states it once could. 

While Russian business ties with Africa have doubled in the past few years, the total amount remains small compared to other powers. Bilateral trade with Russia reached a total of $7 billion across the entire continent in 2021, while trade with Europe and the U.S. was at roughly $44 billion. Trade between Africa and China was more than twice that.

What Russia lacks in financial resources, however, it makes up for with strategy. Both before and since the start of the war in Ukraine, the Kremlin has made key diplomatic inroads in Africa. These efforts finally paid off over the past two months. 

At the United Nations in early March, several African states avoided voting to condemn Russia’s war. Even more refused to support kicking the country off the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in April. Altogether, it was a bold demonstration of Russia’s rising soft power influence.

Many of the countries abstaining or voting against the resolutions are not ones typically thought of as staunch Russian allies. Tunisia, Uganda, South Africa, Rwanda and Somalia (among others) are not traditionally considered as being firmly in Moscow’s camp.

In total, nearly half of the continent failed to support the April resolution for removing Russia from the UNHRC. Multiple African diplomats expressed frustration with Western meddling in African affairs, but were more amenable to global actors in the East.

Modern Russia’s steady foray into the continent is not the most surprising event in international affairs. Even lesser regional powers like Turkey and India are looking for ways to expand their influence in Africa, including taking pages out of the same notorious playbook authored by the West during centuries of imperialism.

What is more unexpected, however, is the speed at which the shift is occurring. Western diplomats were reportedly caught off guard by the UN votes, especially amid reports of atrocities by Russian hands on the continent.

Regardless of how the war in Ukraine impacts Russia’s influence in other corners of the world, one thing is clear: its stock in Africa is still on the rise. 

Moura was only the latest example of Russia’s malign intervention into the continent. It won’t be the last.

Dayan Reynolds is a Master’s student at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia. He was born and raised in rural southwest Missouri. 

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