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A series of coups in West Africa and the pompous but not-so-successful Russia-Africa forum in Saint Petersburg left many wondering: what does Putin want with the “dark continent”? Why Prigozhin and his private terrorist group, the Wagner PMC, have been so active there for years on end? And finally, who sews the Russian flags waved by protesters in African city squares? African studies expert Maxim Matusevich puts the recent developments in the larger context of political ideological, and economic interests of Putin's Russia, which sows chaos to reap transactional benefits.

  • What's with the Russian flags?

  • Protection against Constitution: How the Kremlin aids and abets dictators

  • Russia's benefits: uranium and votes in the UN

  • Russia weaponizing refugees

  • The US returns

  • St. Petersburg forum takeaways

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What's with the Russian flags?

After the military coup in Niger, TV footage showed Russian flags in the crowd of the new government supporters. Similarly, protesters in Côte d'Ivoire waved Russian tricolor flags during the recent riots. The larger context features a series of coups that followed the same scenario, like in Mali and before that in Burkina Faso: a junta overthrows the old government with close ties to France and comes to power; France and ECOWAS (the West African economic organization) express their condemnation, and Russia says “this is your sovereign affair” but provides the services of Prigozhin's mercenary groups to protect the junta. A similar dynamic recently occurred in Sudan, which is going through a civil war. West Africans who follow the events in Mali or Burkina Faso can see that the coup and the junta’s subsequent rise to power are usually facilitated by Russian assistance.

Russia has no formal ties to the forces behind the African coups, and we are yet to see evidence of the Kremlin’s significant involvement, but pro-Kremlin organizations are active on the continent and always ready to step in. Anton Shekhovtsov, a political scientist and expert in far-right movements, published a study at the European Platform for Democratic Elections, showing how the AFRIC (Association for Free Research and International Cooperation) election monitoring agency interferes with electoral and political processes in African countries. The Association is most likely connected to Prigozhin's money: although he never made an appearance there, AFRIC activists make no secret of it. Founded in St. Petersburg, AFRIC is a somewhat strange alliance of imperialists, Russian nationalists like Konstantin Malofeev and Alexander Dugin (who is friends or at least acquainted with some organization members), right-wing Europeans (such as those associated with the German AfD) and left-wing anti-imperialists like Kemi Seba, once convicted in France for anti-Semitism.

On the ground, Russian embassies (traditionally made up largely of intelligence officers) actively engage with the local and Russian population, sometimes handing out flags as well. However, Russian flags in the protesters’ hands can hardly be treated as evidence of Russia’s special operation; rather, they reflect the locals’ perception of Russia as a natural alternative to the previous government with ties to France and the West in general.

That said, Russia is not the only such alternative. China, for one, has a much bigger economic influence on Africa, building railways and roads, planting trees, and erecting residential areas, whereas Russia’s supplies to the continent are mostly limited to weapons. Yet China distances itself from politics, stays away from “cultural wars”, and refrains from positioning itself as an ideological alternative. Finally, the PRC will most certainly refuse to provide military support to any political force, so the local population does not see China as an alternative to the West.

Protection against Constitution: How the Kremlin aids and abets dictators

Wherever Russia implicates itself in Africa, the narrative is centered on a “multipolar world” and the importance of “sovereignty” – meaning that the West should not interfere in domestic affairs, even during coups or when presidents cling on to power for two decades or more. Take President Touadera of the Central African Republic: his second term is nearing its end, and he can't run for a third one under the constitution. But he seems unwilling to leave, which is unfortunately common in Africa and oh-so-familiar for Russians. Meanwhile, Russia’s Wagner PMС is guarding Touadera, holding his regime in place and sending a clear message: “You can go ahead and change the constitution to keep your post – it’s no big deal.”

Guinea witnessed similar developments not long ago. When Alpha Condé, the elderly president, was reluctant to step down, the West started questioning the constitutional nature of his intentions, but the Russian ambassador in Conakry supported Condé, saying that the constitution, unlike the Bible or the Quran, can be easily rewritten to adapt to the new reality.

Some of the African elites in power loved this approach: if they want to abolish the constitution or stay in power indefinitely, the West may “express concern”, but they can still count on Russia's military or diplomatic support. So it is not surprising that Wagnerites are being invited to countries like the CAR, Mali, and now apparently Burkina Faso. At the same time, Russia's influence is hybrid: a combination of Wagner PMC and “soft power”. The Central African Republic is a good example: the presence of Wagner fighters, who have been fighting the rebels and guarding the president for several years was complemented by the opening of the so-called Russian House – an embassy-affiliated cultural institution. The Russian House runs a radio station, recently held a beauty pageant, and screens movies for the locals, including a film on the adventures of Russian mercenaries in Africa financed by Prigozhin. Meanwhile, the beauty pageant promoted traditional gender roles and was meant to demonstrate Russia's commitment to upholding so-called “traditional values”, showcasing the country as a stronghold of these values and “classic masculinity”.

However, “soft power” faces certain challenges, including the Wagnerites’ image of sadists and thugs: thus, they committed unspeakable atrocities last year in Central Mali, slaughtering up to 500 people in the village of Moura (just one of many examples). The Wagner PMC came to Mali after the junta that seized power began to squeeze out the UN and the French, who had previously provided security in the Sahel. The resulting vacuum is a favorable environment for Islamist insurgents associating themselves with ISIS and al-Qaeda. For example, Boko Haram, an extremely violent terrorist organization operating in northern and northeastern Nigeria, also positions itself as an Islamist group. All of these movements pose a threat to the current regimes. Until recently, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger invited the French to counter this threat. The French Expeditionary Corps had over 2,000 troops deployed in Mali and 1,500 in Niger. And when the junta began pushing out the French, their place was taken by a Wagner contingent, less numerous but free from any considerations of the rules of war or the protection of civilians.

Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger used to combat Islamists with the help of the French, who are now being replaced by Wagner troops

The ruling juntas, who view violence as an appropriate method of quelling uprisings, aren't bothered by Wagner fighters’ brutality. However, combating violence with more violence only exacerbates conflicts and deepens the divide. This dynamic has been seen in Mali, Burkina Faso, Northern Benin, and now, apparently, Niger, where frightened local populations turn to Islamists for protection. The resulting vicious circle turns the problem into a malignant tumor.

Russia's benefits: uranium and votes in the UN

Of course, Russia's support of African dictators is not selfless.

Firstly, faced with isolation because of the war in Ukraine, Russia needs diplomatic backing. Half of the African UN member states refuse to vote in favor of proposals condemning Russia. Nevertheless, only one country regularly votes in Russia's favor: Eritrea, a notoriously totalitarian state not dissimilar to North Korea. The rest prefer to abstain, but Russia contents itself with this outcome: “See, as hard as the West is trying to isolate us, they've failed so far.” However, this type of propaganda lacks momentum to sway the Western mainstream perception of Russia as a rogue, aggressor state waging an imperialist war against Ukraine and perpetrating war crimes. Nevertheless, there are Western audiences and political forces (on both the far-right and the far-left ends of the spectrum) who remain critical of The New York Times and The Washington Post and see the African countries’ support of Russia as evidence that “it's not all black and white”.

Secondly, the Kremlin seeks commercial benefits. Thus, both Russia and Niger are among the world's ten largest uranium exporters, and curbing Niger's supplies to Europe would create a shortage that could make France reluctant to impose anti-Russian sanctions.

To improve its political standing, Russia is reinforcing its media presence on the continent, especially in French-speaking countries. For instance, the editor-in-chief of Cameroonian outlet Afrique Media attended the African forum in St. Petersburg and even took photos with Evgeny Prigozhin. Soon after RT France got shut down following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Afrique Media partnered with RT. The channel is highly likely to be receiving financial support from Russia.

On another note, the francophone RT also enjoys certain popularity online. The majority of West Africans have a vague notion of Russia or even its geographic location, so RT’s influence mostly targets elites, the educated minority, residents of capitals and large cities, and activists.

Russia weaponizing refugees

Russia has another ace up its sleeve to use in its confrontation with the West in Africa: the flow of refugees to Western countries. Over the recent years, we’ve seen more than once how political turmoil in historically turbulent regions triggers an outflux of refugees – at times disastrous. Africans who fled from conflicts in their countries to Syria or Afghanistan in the last ten years have been scrambling to get to the West, where the arrival of tens of thousands of new immigrants often causes profound political and societal controversy and fuels the popularity of the ultra-right. This trend favors Russia, which seeks to destabilize Europe. Moreover, the rise of the ultra-right also plays into the Kremlin's hands because such parties as Germany's AfD or Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France mostly sympathize with Russia.

Russia is perfectly happy with the flow of African refugees to Europe

Back when it was bombing Syria, Russia streamlined the tactic of creating refugee flows and leveraged it to blackmail Turkey and the European Union. There’s ample evidence suggesting that a similar destabilization policy could be used in the turbulent Sahel. With most refugees headed for Europe and not Russia, the Old World is understandably fearful of yet another refugee exodus. Therefore, Russia runs no risk by destabilizing the Sahel but gets tangible political dividends.

The US returns

Americans largely lost interest in West Africa following the end of the Cold War and ceded the leading role in the region to France. The humanitarian operation in Somalia in 1993 was conceived as a famine relief effort but ended in a fiasco, claiming the lives of 19 American special ops fighters and turning the US off African initiatives for a while. Further on, just a few months after the Mogadishu tragedy, the Tutsi genocide shook Ruanda, where hundreds of thousands of people died as the West, including the US, chose not to intervene.

Africa returned to the spotlight of America's attention after 9/11, when the northeast of the continent became one of the hot spots in the combat against Islamist terrorism. Since then, the American presence in Africa is mostly limited to anti-terrorist operations in the name of national security. Niger still hosts several American military bases, including those equipped with drones, with a contingent of over 1,000 US troops tasked – at least before the coup – with reining in the Islamist threat in the Sahel.

Washington's current interest in Africa also has to do with the proliferation of Russian and Chinese influence across parts of the continent. The war in Ukraine intensified these trends, as we saw at the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington. Superpowers are wooing Africa again, seeing that African states are becoming a stage for global confrontation, like in the Cold-War era.

St. Petersburg forum takeaways

This context presents the opportunity for a more objective assessment of the Russia-Africa Forum in St. Petersburg, which the Russian propaganda extolled as a splashing success since day one. The event's tangible results speak otherwise. Only 17 heads of state visited Russia (not including five VPs, four prime ministers, and a parliament chair) against 44 at the previous summit in 2019. Even the states that display a certain understanding toward Russia still treasure their relations with the West. After all, their ties to the West are much stronger, with higher trade volumes and the looming threat of sanctions. Suffice it to say, Russia accounts for a much lower African trade volume than China, the EU, or the US. Africa can't afford to pay the potential price of Russia's friendship. Despite the unanimous support of “anti-imperialist” slogans among forum participants, no forum can change the reality: the West is a trade partner, a holiday destination, a source of property, assets, and jobs, and a safe haven during wars.

At the end of the summit and with little fanfare, the South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, who is generally sympathetic with Russia in appreciation of the Soviet contribution to the fight against apartheid, made a statement about Putin's promises of free grain: we’re thankful to the Russian president, of course, but we’re not here for gifts; we place much higher importance on renewing grain shipments across the Black Sea. Offers of free aid are humiliating enough, and with Russia bombing Ukrainian grain storage facilities, the Kremlin’s further advances on the African continent may face serious pushback that no amount of propaganda can paint to look like a success.

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