During US Foreign Secretary Antony Blinken’s trip to Africa this week, countering Russian influence will be one of his priorities, just as it was for French President Emmanuel Macron a few days ago.
Focus is good. Russian influence in Africa has grown steadily over the past decade and poses various problems, both for local populations and for American and European interests. The sooner we take care of it, the better.
Blinken and European leaders like Macron must be careful, however. Trying to coerce Russia in Africa is one thing. But if we put too much pressure on African leaders to pick sides, it could easily backfire and make matters worse.
Moscow’s influence on the continent was highlighted earlier this year when, in the UN vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 17 African states abstained and eight did not vote. at all.
The ensuing drama in Mali, where Russian mercenaries played a notable role in expelling Western troops, added to the headaches in European capitals.
Yet these are just the latest symptoms of a longer trend. Russia has gradually increased its influence on the continent over the past decade.
Since their invasion of Crimea, they have concluded at least 20 military cooperation agreements with African states and sent mercenaries to several countries.
Their exact strategy depends on the country, but the playbook is often very similar. Russia offers support to embattled dictators desperate to cling to power and protects them militarily (eg via the Wagner mercenary group) and politically (eg via their veto power in the UN Security Council) .
In return, they receive political influence as well as concessions over resource extraction (eg in Sudan, where they notoriously smuggle gold).
The Russian influence in Africa should not be overestimated. As many pundits point out, their power on the pitch is often less impressive than the news reports suggest. Yet even in its relatively minor spoiler role, Russia’s presence poses problems.
To begin with, Russian involvement often has negative consequences for local populations. It engages in state capture that props up highly corrupt elite cliques, breathes new life into autocratic dictators, and slows democratic change, while perpetuating problems with resource extraction.
There is also a clear security risk to Europe – especially given the current situation – as Russia seeks to build new military bases on NATO’s southern flank, for example in Libya and Sudan. .
Influence along major migration routes could allow Moscow to use refugees as a weapon against Europe, as its allies in Belarus did last year.
Finally, Africa has the potential to become a key partner for Europe in the decades to come, particularly in terms of energy transition. This represents big upside potential for both sides – but Russian destabilization could put it in jeopardy.
The argument for countering Russian influence in Africa is clear. What’s less clear, however, is how best to counter it. Here, the West must exercise caution.
There is no point in panicking about the Russian presence, nor in sulkily retreating from all the places that open their doors to Russian state-linked actors. Instead, we need case-by-case evidence-based assessments.
We must also be realistic that many African states view the current situation as the start of a new cold war and are extremely reluctant to choose sides.
It’s understandable. The past few years have seen much greater international engagement on the continent (not only from China, but also from India and Middle Eastern countries) which has given states new leverage and new opportunity which they are reluctant to part with.
They might – not entirely unreasonably – fear that if they follow Western wishes now to sever ties with Russia, they might soon be asked to do the same with China.
Instead, we have to convince them on merit. By showing that ultimately prioritizing cooperation with Europe and the United States can be the best and most sustainable path for them.
To begin with, it requires showing that we are serious, that we are credible when we talk about partnership on an equal footing; that our promises to support infrastructure development, for example through the EU’s Global Gateway initiative, come to fruition; and that we can help regional integration initiatives progress to their next levels.
It will be difficult and will take time. It will also force us to go back and correct some of our own past mistakes. But in the long run, it may offer the best way forward.