The U.S. has sharply altered its strategy in Africa in response to growing foreign influence on the continent, restricting aid for countries which “take action counter to U.S. interests”. Announcing the new policy, national security advisor John Bolton particularly called out Russia’s efforts to “increase its influence in the region through corrupt economic dealings”.
Historically, China has been the main global power ramping up its clout and investment in Africa. Now, however, Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of Putin’s closest allies who has helped the Russian president pursue his covert operations around the world, including in Ukraine and Syria— and who was indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for his interference in U.S. elections—is spearheading what appears to be a focused attempt to extend Moscow’s geopolitical reach in Africa.
Russia’s historic Cold War alliances with African countries are providing a fertile platform for Moscow’s new diplomatic incursions, as Prigozhin shores up strongman presidents and wages a weaponry-for-assets campaign in regimes that are dissatisfied with the West, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Libya and the Central African Republic.
The multifaceted push to gain influence in Africa comes as Putin prepares to host dozens of the continent’s leaders next year at the first Russia-Africa summit. Prigozhin’s strategy to unleash his mercenaries and spin doctors on Africa is likely to butt heads with China’s own crusade for leverage on the continent— particularly in the tension-fraught Horn of Africa, site of China’s only overseas military base.
The battle for Africa’s assets
Africa has moved steadily up Putin’s list of priorities as he’s endeavored to shore up Russia’s superpower status and stabilize his country’s economy. Today, the continent offers fresh possibilities not only for pressing Moscow’s political suit in strategic locations but also for opening up vast and profitable new markets for oil, gas and mining collaborations. Local media in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), for example, report that Russia is actively involved in installing autocratic leader Joseph Kabila’s chosen successor with an eye on the DRC’s enormous mineral deposits.
In addition to pursuing mineral wealth, Russia is gaining clout through energy partnerships: Moscow is negotiating nuclear cooperation agreements with at least 16 African countries. While some of these collaborations– like those in Angola and Ethiopia – are still in their infancy, Nigeria and Sudan have progressed towards detailed agreements, while Egypt has finalized a deal for the construction of a suite of reactors at El Dabaa.
Russia is challenging China’s dominance in Africa
Despite these initiatives, Russia has a long way to go to catch up with the empire of influence which China has built in Africa. China’s already-substantial $40 billion worth of investments in Africa is set to be dwarfed by Beijing’s pledge of a further $175 billion over the next ten years, primarily in the form of loans for infrastructure development. Much of the funding is intended to drive Beijing’s fabled Belt and Road initiative, including a bold new proposal in Tanzania to transform the country’s Bagamoyo coastline into the largest port in Africa.
While many Africans have welcomed Beijing’s investment as a route to strengthening the continent’s economy, analysts fear that a number of African countries are becoming excessively indebted to China: an eye-watering 72 percent of Kenya’s $50 billion in debt, for example, is owed to creditors in Beijing.
As Russia ramps up its African interests in parallel with China, tensions between Moscow and Beijing will inevitably escalate. The battle for influence is likely to be particularly acute in the Horn of Africa, after Russia’s decision to place a so-called ‘logistics facility’ in Eritrea, which occupies a highly strategic location in a hotly contested region.
The Horn of Africa: a particular flashpoint
Russia had initially intended to open the installation in neighboring Djibouti, which has already become a noteworthy flashpoint in the struggle among great powers for influence in Africa. China has injected nearly $1.4 billion—equal to a staggering 75 percent of Djibouti’s GDP— in the country, which it is now touting as its ‘gateway to Africa’. The U.S. and China, among other nations, have set up duelling military bases in close proximity, while the tremendous amount of money Djibouti owes to Beijing has raised speculation that the country’s autocratic government intends to gift China with a key port, Doraleh, which it unlawfully seized from the Dubai-owned firm DP World.
Nowhere in the world are so many rival military installations situated in such tight quarters, but it’s China’s naval base—ironically, originally also referred to as a “logistics facility” until live-fire drills and an extraordinary four-layer security perimeter put paid to that façade— that has caused the most consternation among Western powers. Washington has been particularly concerned, warning of “serious consequences” if Doraleh fell into Chinese hands and worrying that a China-controlled port might restrict the U.S. military’s access to its only African base.
Tensions set to rise
In an electric region where the slightest diplomatic vibration could set off a political avalanche, any shift in the balance of power in the Horn of Africa could see the fur fly. Earlier this year political temperatures spiked as the U.S. military laid the blame for an incident in which two pilots on an American cargo plane were injured by exposure to a laser beam squarely at the door of the Chinese military. The Horn of Africa, with its foreign powers jostling for influence, is already a powder keg; Russia joining the fray could provide a dangerous spark.
It’s doubtful that the new U.S. strategy to punish African countries who draw too close to Beijing or Moscow’s orbit will do much to pour water on the fire. As Russia and China continue to build parallel influence networks in Africa—Russia with its mercenaries and Moscow-friendly strongmen, China with its railways and ports—it’s highly likely that more hotspots like the Horn of Africa will pop up.
*Isabela Fernandez is a young international affairs and economic policy expert living in the Washington, DC area. She attended University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins SAIS and now works for a nonprofit focused on economic development.