Is Russia Outflanking the West Again in Africa?

As NATO, the E.U. and the U.S in particular, attempt to limit the fallout from Putin’s war against Ukraine, is he already working behind the scenes to undermine fledgling African democracies with a view to further destabilising the West and promoting the rise of new, ever more violent autocratic regimes across the continent?

A young Vladimir Putin in military uniform probably about the time he was posted to Dresden.

Back in what Vladimir Putin might call the ‘good old days’ of Soviet Imperialism he found himself posted by the KGB to what was ostensibly an East German backwater in Dresden. It was, however, 1985 and the USSR was already ailing; the proverbial ‘sick man of Europe’ in waiting. Perhaps, for his yearning for these bygone times, he must have been fully aware that the days of the USSR were numbered.

And for Putin, then a month short of his 33rd birthday, the sleepy Dresden posting must have felt a million miles from the fast-paced, hustle and bustle, cloak and dagger drama of East and West Berlin. But Dresden had what Berlin did not; and that was the quiet, unassuming, bland air of a city of no consequence, when in fact for Putin, it was probably the perfect place away from prying Western eyes, to engineer and perfect the destabilising tactics that he has since used to great effect as President of the Russian Federation.

By the time Putin arrived in the GDR (German Democratic Republic) it was widely accepted, even amongst Russians in the know, that Soviet hegemony and its sphere of influence was on the wane.

Locked in the Cold War but realising it was too far behind technologically to win any military war, ever since the sixties the Soviet Union had found its strength lay in disinformation, in planting fake rumours in the media to discredit Western leaders, in assassinating political opponents, and in supporting front organisation that would foment wars in the Third World and undermine and sow discord in the West (1).

In conjunction with the Stasi, the brutal East German secret service, the USSR through its iron fist, the KGB, secretly sponsored several terrorist groups including the PFLP — the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, an off-shoot of the PLO — and the Red Army Faction, more commonly known as the Baader-Meinhof Group, in a bid to stir up anti-Israel, anti-American sentiment in the Arab world and Middle East more generally.

Dresden then, with its much lower profile, became the ideal refuge and meeting place for these groups when things became too hot elsewhere. Whilst Putin has tried to put distance between these groups and his role in Dresden, there is evidence (1) that shows his involvement was much more hands on than he would have us believe.

It is suggested that Putin was actively involved in these meetings and may also have taken a participatory role in other ‘activities,’ (1) such as searching out specific studies on ‘deadly poisons that leave few traces’ — a chilling foretaste of later attacks on Litvinenko and Skripal —and becoming the ‘handler’ for Rainer Sonntag, a notorious neo-Nazi, known to have stoked the rise of neo-Nazism in a post-Berlin Wall Germany.

A man with a supposed interest in how market economies function, he later secured a prestigious ‘candidate of science’ degree, a PhD equivalent, from the St. Petersburg Mining Institute for a dissertation entitled ‘Strategic Planning for the Renewal of the Minerals-Raw Materials Base of the Region in Condition of the Formation of Market Relations.’

The dissertation though has been kept ‘secret’ by the Mining Institute and has not been openly examined, although one of the Institute’s reviewers later said that is was ‘written by a market-orientated person.’

Although never proven, it is suspected that Putin may have used those market-orientation skills to help squirrel away assets, that may have amounted to millions of (German) Marks as the USSR began to fall apart, the money possibly fed through various front companies in Switzerland and Liechtenstein owned by a shady Austrian businessman, Martin Schlaff (1).

And during the tough, hungry days following the collapse of the Soviet empire, Putin, by then working as an aide to St. Petersburg’s first democratically elected Mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, was allegedly involved in the ‘disappearance’ of funds resulting from the reciprocal trading of metals for food, neither of which ever materialised.

It seems clear that Putin’s days in Dresden, and those first formative years with Sobchak, engendered him with many of the skills that he has later used not just to destabilise and undermine the West, but also to dominate and subdue the Russian people.

Whilst Putin is known to be a student of history, perhaps we in the West have not always appreciated the degree to which his personal story and experiences have influenced and affected his views, his philosophy and his strategic outlook.

Underestimation and ignorant culpability: The West’s part in the current crisis.

The War in Ukraine has arguably come about because Putin has felt emboldened by the weak and insipid responses of the US and its allies in the West to previous Russian aggression in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine’s Donbas and Crimea, and Syria, as well as perhaps being further bouyed by the calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan.

By underestimating both Russia and, more pertinently Putin himself, perhaps the West has inadvertently contributed to creating the monster that now faces us from across the Iron Curtain 2.0 and we must shoulder our part of the blame in this current crisis.

Putin first telegraphed his dissatisfaction the NATO’s expansion and his objectives vis-a-vis Ukraine back at the Munich Security Conference in 2008. Whilst some saw the threat inherent in his words and said as much, the powers that were ignored those warnings, despite Putin repeatedly stating that military action may be the consequence of what he saw as an increasingly pernicious and aggressive NATO strategy.

Are we now in danger once again of underestimating the depth and reach of Putin’s ambitions in Africa?

Fomenting African dissonance…

With the UN General Assembly condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine by 141 votes to 5 the moral isolation of Russia sat squarely alongside its increasingly isolated economic status that may well lead to an unheralded sovereign debt default.

What that sizable condemnation doesn’t tell is that a large number of the 35 abstentions were from African nations including South Africa, the Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan, Algeria, Angola, Zimbabwe and Madagascar among many more.

The refusal of so many African nations to condemn the invasion is indicative of the extensive reach and influence Russia now has across the continent, and even in the midst of the current crisis, it is not sitting still.

On February 17th 2022, amid the diplomatic kerfuffle of the (then) imminent Ukraine crisis, President Macron announced the withdrawal of all French and allied troops from Mali due to a breakdown in relations between France, the allies and the ruling junta, after 9 blood soaked years fighting against a jihadist insurgency.

A series of recent coups across West Africa has weakened the former colonial powers position enormously and this political fragility had now spread to Mali.

Assimi Goita, head of the ruling junta who took power in Mali following a coup in August 2020, had initially gained French support after promising elections early in 2022. But after reneging on that promise relations soured rapidly with Macron confirming in his statement that “the political, operational and legal conditions are no longer met to effectively continue their current military engagement in the fight against terrorism in Mali.”

And no sooner was the announcement made than Russian mercenaries from the notorious Wagner Group began arriving in Bamako “to secure their business interests and (stabilise) the junta.”

The chances of the current conflict crossing over or expanding into Africa are inconsequentially small. Russia is not pursuing its objectives in Africa with a view to imperialist expansion; rather it is using Africa as an ongoing theatre of operations to further its interests, both economically (by garnering access to Africa’s rich mineral and precious metals deposits) and militarily (by using mercenary proxy forces which give the Russian government a degree of deniability should things go awry), in large part to undermine and destabilise the region politically with a view to reducing Western influence and sway, thereby making it harder for Western powers to push their own democratic agendas.

As such Russia has been pursuing its strategic aims across Africa in a muscular, aggressive way for the past decade or more, with little push back from most Western powers. Through active measures Russia has secured…

/… a foothold in the eastern Mediterranean, gaining naval port access in the Red Sea, expanding natural resource extraction opportunities, displacing Western influence, and promoting alternatives to democracy as a regional norm.

//…However, Russia’s opaque engagements are inherently destabilizing for the citizens of the targeted countries, resulting in stunted economic development, human rights abuses, disenfranchisement of African citizens, the perpetuation of illegitimate governments, and social polarization.

Using a tried and tested playbook, Putin’s Africa strategy involves a rapid interception to prop up and secure an isolated and/or weak leader with advisors and/or military support, most often provided by Wagner mercenaries. Following a pattern used in Syria, the Donbas and Libya to name but three, this self-serving Russian support is, despite outward appearances, designed to promote alternative forms of governance to democracy, thereby further weakening the liberal international order and to push authoritarianism as a viable and workable alternative in a new international order.

This kind of elite-level capture is an asymmetric tool employed by Russia that is relatively pain-free. It requires little in the way of material investment and provides a strategic entry point into multiple areas of mutual interest between the African elites and Russia itself. With little or no popular engagement necessary, and by targeting malleable leaders in fragile positions, Russia gains a foothold by providing security and political advice in return for influence and access to natural resources, and all achieved without the added encumbrance of having to adhere to any human rights concerns or more generally accepted international norms.

The backbone of the political support provided is often a crash course in how to organise and run successful disinformation campaigns, something which, as we saw above, Putin had began to perfect during his time with the KGB in Dresden. As a way to undermine fledgling democratic processes and instill political apathy among the populace, they are shown how to run campaigns that highlight themes including…

“//…democracy’s ineffectiveness and weakness, the futility of supporting any candidate, and the inherent trade-off between democracy and security — essentially an advertisement for strongman rule. By suggesting there are no real differences between political systems (and therefore no real advantages of democracy), the messaging encourages a passive fatalism among citizens to simply accept their elite patronage-based governments as no worse than the alternative.”

But as Joseph Siegle points out, there is an irony often present in the final wash with Russia’s efforts to garner influence across the African political environment.

By, on the face of it, actively promoting democratic elections, open information platforms, and a free media, Russia actually seeks to subvert those elections while furthering Russian interests, sowing popular dissension and a general disenchantment with, what are inevitably, unsatisfactory democratic outcomes.

Siegle explains that, “The veneer of democratic legitimacy bestowed on an African leader who gains or retains power through elections, even if under dubious means, is powerful.” And this provides Russia and the ‘democratically elected leader’ with a valid excuse to govern and rule as they see fit. When they then bring in Russian mercenaries as a necessary security measure to contain dissent or quell disorder, who is to complain?

This facade of democracy is carried on across Africa despite growing calls among a largely young population for a more transparent and fair democratic process. Fully 25% of African leaders have been in power for 20 years or more, and nearly all hold some kind of sham election process, but the fact remains that of 54 African nations less than 10 hold genuinely fair, free and open elections.

This inability to rid itself of a post-colonial reliance on so-called ‘democratically elected’ strongman is a huge factor in the economic malaise and stunted development of many African nations.

Russia is adept at plying its influence to entrench these anti-democratic systems using pliable, ineffective leaders desperate to cling onto power, as tools to stifle local development and democratic aspirations, thereby keeping the vast majority living in abject poverty all while serving their own economic and political interests.

The West has ignored Russian advances in Africa for far too long and needs to do much more to counter the increasingly nefarious and lawless states that are arising. West Africa in particular is a boiling pot of Islamic extremism, political subjugation and low development.

Western governments need to work harder to build mutually beneficial and transparent trade deals, promote better education, increase technology and promote the benefits of democracy without moralising or using potential further investment as a stick to punish non-democratic outcomes in their struggles to make strides to better governance.

None of this will be a quick fix. Only with time and patience can Russia’s influence be stifled and the reliance on these co-opted leaders be terminated. Africa has huge potential and the West has served the people of Africa poorly over the centuries. Russia is now continuing this trend of using Africa for it’s own nefarious purposes. But in the West we have (I hope) moved beyond Imperialistic endeavours and see the shortcomings and limitations of such an exploitative system.

There will always be corruption. But we must work to limit that through transparency, honesty and openness in our approaches and show that we have their best interests at heart, and I’m sure the African people will respond in kind, given time…

I finish with a few images from an amazing trip I made to Mali in 2009, just as all the terrorist troubles were beginning. I hope and pray I may once again visit a Mali free from the rigours of extremism, violence and subjugation, and hopefully, not before too long.

Stay strong Africa!

Thank you for reading.

  1. Putin’s People: How the KGB took back Russia & then took on the West; Catherine Belton, 2020.
My guide and my friend, Mahmoud.
Dusk in the Sahara.
From the Dogon mountains looking out towards the desert & Tombouctou beyond.
Strange rock formations on the edge of the desert.

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Peter Winn-Brown

Peter Winn-Brown

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Sports nut with a penchant for international politics & affairs, history and the West's turbulent relationship with Islam.