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Russia strengthens military influence in Africa, defying US and France

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ADDIS ABAB, Ethiopia – August 8, 2020: Ethiopians hold up a poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a pro-government rally condemning the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Minasse Wondimu Hailu / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Russia is challenging the status quo in Africa, using insecurity and diplomatic disputes with Western powers as a springboard to expand its presence on the continent.

From Libya to Nigeria, Ethiopia to Mali, Moscow has in recent years forged key strategic military alliances and an increasingly favorable public profile across Africa.

At the heart of this effort is to offer alternatives to countries that have become unhappy with Western diplomatic partnerships.

The second Russia-Africa summit is scheduled for 2022. At the inaugural summit in Sochi in 2019, President Vladimir Putin pledged that Russia “will not participate in a new” distribution “of the continent’s wealth; on the contrary, we are ready to engage in competition for cooperation with Africa.

Through the UN, Russia has also provided aid in the form of food and medical aid, alongside its growing trade, economic and military support across the continent.

Russia’s bilateral push

In the past two months alone, Russia has signed military cooperation agreements with Nigeria and Ethiopia, Africa’s two most populous nations.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that Africa accounted for 18% of Russian arms exports between 2016 and 2020.

Russian mercenaries have also provided direct assistance to the governments of Libya and the Central African Republic, according to the UN.

“A group of Russian instructors has been sent to CAR at the request of its leaders and with the knowledge of the UN Security Council’s Sanctions Committee on the CAR established by resolution 2127,” a ministry statement said. Russian Foreign Office in July. “As a guide, none of them participated in combat operations.”

Reuters reported in July that US lawmakers had blocked a billion dollar arms sale to Nigeria over allegations of human rights violations by the government.

Less than a month later, Russia signed an agreement with President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration to provide military equipment, training and technology to Nigerian forces.

MOSCOW – Members of a Nigerian delegation inspect a Russian military Mil Mi-28NE Night Hunter helicopter on the opening day of the MAKS-2021 International Aviation and Space Show in Zhukovsky, near Moscow, on July 20, 2021.

DIMITAR DILKOFF / AFP via Getty Images

Although historically a key diplomatic and trade partner of the United States, Buhari’s government found itself at odds with Washington amid the #EndSARS protests in 2020, and again after a recent fallout with Twitter.

Meanwhile, militant Islamist groups such as Boko Haram and ISIS’s West Africa Province continued to wreak havoc in the northeast of the country.

This confluence of factors paving the way for the strengthening of Russian influence was also playing out in Ethiopia. Russia has lent its support to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government after Western governments opposed his forces’ military response to an insurgency in northern Tigray.

Ethiopia has felt that the United States in particular is aligning itself with Egypt in the ongoing Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam dispute. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also spoke of Addis Ababa’s anger in March, accusing Tigray forces of “ethnic cleansing”.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov then met his Ethiopian counterpart Demeke Mekonnen in June. Moscow has deployed election observers to Ethiopia, while the EU withdrew its observers, citing “continued violence across the country, human rights violations and political tensions, harassment of professional workers. media and opposition members detained “.

SOCHI, RUSSIA – OCTOBER 23, 2019: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (4th L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (2nd R) during Russian-Ethiopian talks on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa Summit 2019 at Sirius Park of Science and De art.

Donat Sorokin TASS via Getty Images

Russia has provided strategic weapons both as a potential defense against any Egyptian strike against GERD and to aid government forces in Tigray.

“The gains of the Tigray Defense Force (TDF), which has captured parts of Afar and Amhara regions in recent weeks, make the desperately needed arms supply all the more important for Addis Ababa, and Moscow. is likely to comply with such a request, possibly on the basis of an immediate purchase and subsequent payment, ”said Louw Nel, senior policy analyst at NKC African Economics.

In what Nel called a “sign of things to come,” Ethiopia and Russia signed a military cooperation agreement in July, focusing specifically on knowledge and technology transfers. However, Nel noted that Ethiopia “would be reluctant to allow the deployment of Russian personnel there other than for training purposes.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.

“Creeping accumulation” in the United States

The United States has pledged to revive its economic and trade commitments in Africa, but an anticipated troop drawback gives way to significant spending on operational bases and longer-term plans to maintain a strategic presence, according to a recent Pangea Risk Intelligence Company report. -Risk.

In 2018, then-US national security adviser John Bolton highlighted Russia’s “expansionist influence across Africa,” and Washington was keen to maintain its grip on the continent.

The Biden administration is expected to maintain the 27 operational outposts of the U.S. military on the continent, while the country’s Africa Command (Africom) prioritizes counterterrorism objectives in the Horn of the Africa and the Sahel regions.

The United States is also establishing a presence in other strategically important regions, such as the Red Sea and the Gulf of Guinea. Some $ 330 million would be spent by 2025 on the construction of US military bases and related infrastructure projects, while Africom is developing a 20-year strategic plan.

This will focus on counterterrorism, special forces operations and humanitarian support, as well as safeguarding US trade interests in the face of the growing presence of China and Russia.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and staff members participate in a virtual bilateral meeting with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari during a video conference at the State Department in Washington, DC on April 27, 2021.

LEAH MILLIS / POOL / AFP via Getty Images

The report notes that the Cape Verdean authorities have since July 2020 concluded a status of forces agreement with the US military to allow US troops to operate from its archipelago.

“Such an agreement makes sense given the global geopolitical competition in the West African region and the need to counter the growing risk of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, both of which pose an existential threat to US business interests,” said the CEO of Pangea-Risk. said Robert Besseling.

“However, the one-year SOFA with Cape Verde raises questions about the broader US diplomatic and judicial engagements in the country, and whether this sets a model for US-Africa relations in the future.”

International Crisis Group Africa Program Director Comfort Ero said the “creeping build-up” of the US military on the continent came with mixed messages, accusing the US and African governments of lack of transparency.

The United States is likely to phase out its direct military presence in insecurity hotspots, but continues to seek SOFA deals with countries of strategic importance, Pangea-Risk said, adding Washington would be reluctant to withdraw. entirely because of the Chinese and Russian presence.

France is fighting in the Sahel

France maintains the largest presence and the largest number of troops of all the former colonial powers in Africa, notably in the form of 5,100 soldiers in the Sahel, where the border area between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger has become a hotbed of violence.

“Paris is inconsistent in its treatment of friendly regimes, engaging in an unconstitutional transfer of power in Chad but taking a harsher line following a coup in Mali,” Nel of the NKC said.

French President Emmanuel Macron has supported an army-led transition from Chadian President Idriss Deby, who was killed in action against rebel forces in April, to his son. This violated the country’s constitution and led to anti-French protests and the vandalism of a Total gas station.

PAU, France – French President Emmanuel Macron (left) greets Chadian President Idriss Deby ahead of a summit on the situation in the Sahel region in Pau, southern France, January 13, 2020.

GEORGES GOBET / AFP via Getty Images

However, when Colonel Assimi Gota established a military regime in Mali, Macron denounced the coup and suspended a joint military operation with the Malian army. The protests that followed were also hostile to France, while Russian flags and posters were visible.

“Given the clearly negative trend for political stability in Mali, there is reason to consider the danger that it will end up resembling the CAR, where the weak government of President Faustin-Archange Touadra is essentially held in place by the Russian force: the mercenaries of Yevgeny. The Wagner group from Prigozhin, ”Nel said.

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