Africa – Russia: friendship for convenience – grain and military mercenaries

African countries have become the main focus of Russia’s foreign policy since Moscow launched a war against Ukraine and found itself isolated and under harsh economic sanctions. However, African “allies” accept this friendship to get profit. These countries need Russian grain, weapons, and military mercenaries.


At the last UN vote on the war in Ukraine, the Russian position lost being in a record minority. The European Union’s resolution on the territorial integrity of Ukraine was supported by 143 states, while 35 abstained, and only 5 were against the document. Most of the non-aligned African countries – Congo, Burundi, CAR, Namibia, Uganda, Tanzania, and others. Even Eritrea, which had previously voted against such resolutions, decided to abstain this time.

Developing countries in Africa are Moscow’s last allies

In August 2022, Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu used the Army-2022 forum to assert that Russia is not isolated and that “NATO’s attempts to isolate Russia have failed”. Delegates from Burundi, Cameroon, Guinea, Mali, Sudan, Uganda, Chad, Ethiopia, and South Africa came to Russia for this event. 

The Russian foreign minister – Sergei Lavrov – made a tour of four African countries: Egypt, Congo, Uganda, and Ethiopia. Although Russia did not sign any new agreements during the visit, the Kremlin has not paid such close attention to the African continent since the days of the Soviet Union. Previously, Moscow rather didn’t pay any particular attention to what was happening in Africa, but now the continent is turning into the last hope of Moscow’s foreign policy.

On the one hand, by gathering African friends, the Kremlin tries to avoid complete isolation caused by its war of aggression against Ukraine. On the other hand, some African states sincerely support Russia’s having a commanding ground in anti-globalization, and anti-Western views. They probably see these relations as a continuation of the former Soviet Union’s policy in Africa. Some countries are just accustomed to being in close relations with Moscow. 

Mercantile reasons for “friendship” with Russia

However, some other African states support Russia just for mercantile reasons. They find Moscow is an important partner in several vital sectors of the economy: agriculture, fertilizers, and the military-industrial complex. And the Kremlin could well use each of these sectors for its interest and take advantage of the EU’s weakened presence. 

Africa’s grain trade with Russia 

The economic consequences of Russia’s war against Ukraine impacted Africa as well. The war halted grain exports from Russia and Ukraine for an extended period. It caused wheat prices to rise by 60% in some African countries. This brought Africa to the brink of a food crisis. According to the UN data, Russia and Ukraine export 44% of their wheat to Africa.

Ten African countries import more than half of their grain from Russia. These include Benin, which buys almost exclusively Russian grain, Sudan (70%), Egypt (62%), Rwanda (63%), Madagascar (62%), Congo (61%), and Senegal (59%). Most of these states take a neutral or pro-Russian stance on Russia’s war against Ukraine, both at the UN voting level and in their official declarations.

In some cases, the African countries do not see or do not want to recognize the real causes of the grain crisis – the Russia-Ukraine war. In June, Senegalese President and Chairman of the African Union Macky Sall, who personally met with Russian president Putin, noted that disruptions in grain supply are connected primarily with the Western sanctions. However, these sanctions are just a reaction to Russia’s war of aggression. 

Therefore, the causal relationship is clear. But not all state leaders have full and unbiased information. The Russian propaganda campaign in foreign media and social networks, which promoted the idea that sanctions were the main cause of the food crisis in Africa, was efficient to some extent. Therefore, it is highly likely that Russia will continue using its partners in Africa to simulate that it is not isolated, but also to undermine the unity of the Western states in sanctions.

Fertilizer trade

The war of Russia against Ukraine has also affected the cost of fertilizers. The global prices soared by 32%. Russia is the world’s largest fertilizer exporter. Russian supplies of ammonia and urea (14% of total exports in the world) and ammonium monophosphate-based fertilizers (22%) are especially significant.

In addition, together with Belarus, which also has difficulties with exports due to the war and sanctions, the volume of exports of potassium carbonate is 40% of the global. Therefore, the situation with the purchase of fertilizers is particularly difficult for African countries. Ghana suffered the most, where Russian-Belarusian imports account for 52%. Kenya was on the verge of a food collapse due to a huge reduction in supplies.

The largest importers of Russian fertilizers in Africa are Benin ($54.7 million), South Africa ($57.98 million), Ghana ($39.6 million), Kenya ($16.94 million), and the Democratic Republic of Congo ($12.68 million). In this list, we again see countries that did not support the UN resolutions condemning Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.

In September, Vladimir Putin said that Russia was ready to transfer 300,000 tons of fertilizers, which had fallen under sanctions and had been blocked in EU seaports, to developing countries free of charge. A few days later, he stressed that this proposal remained unanswered by the UN and the European Commission. It’s expected that the Kremlin will follow the same tactics: shifting the blame for the crisis in African countries from Moscow to the West.

The military-industrial complex and Russian mercenaries in Africa

The agreements made during the 2019 Russia-Africa summit have increased Russia’s military presence in the region and turned it into Africa’s largest trade partner in the military-industrial complex. According to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute, by 2020, Russia accounted for nearly half of the world’s military exports to Africa. Among the largest importers of Russian military equipment are Egypt, Algeria, Angola, Sudan, and Ethiopia.

Through arms trade, Russia pursues not only economic but also political interests in Africa. In the Kremlin’s view, the export of military-industrial facilities corresponds to a strategy to confront a unipolar world represented by the United States. However, the war in Ukraine and Moscow’s bitter defeats and equipment and personnel losses on the battlefield will inevitably reduce Russia’s trade turnover in this sector. The military equipment losses suffered by the Russian army in Ukraine and the Western sanctions that have hindered the production of high-tech military equipment will significantly reduce Russia’s military-industrial complex capabilities.

Nevertheless, Russia’s military aid to Africa is not only in the export of military equipment but also in the activities of the private military company Wagner, also present in the wars in Ukraine and Syria. Even though Russian officials have repeatedly denied any connection between Wagner and the Russian government, it is obvious to European experts that this PMC is a conductor of Russian foreign policy on the African continent. Since 2017, Russian Wagner’s mercenaries have taken part in armed conflicts in Mali, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Libya, and Madagascar.

Russian Wagner mercenaries gain control of diamond mining in CAR

In the Central African Republic, for example, Russian military mercenaries are helping President Touadera fight the rebels who control a large part of the country. However, Wagner’s interests in CAR are not limited to supporting the president. The mercenaries are also working with the rebels to gain control of diamond mining in the country. Wagner’s double game in the CAR shows that Russia is interested in the continuation of the civil war in the country. 

Russian military mercenaries control oil production in Libya

In Libya, the main goal of Russian military mercenaries is to control the oil-producing regions in the country. According to Western experts, Wagner fighters block oil production, and the difficulties thus created in the supply of oil increase the price per barrel, which plays into the hands of the Kremlin, a large oil exporter in the world.

Over time, Wagner has gone beyond the scope of the classic private military company, as it is engaged not only in military assistance to pro-Putin regimes in Africa, but also in propaganda campaigns on social networks, and hooting militants.

However, not everywhere in Africa Wagner has achieved its goals. The Russian mercenaries were defeated in Mozambique by local ISIS rebels. Jasmin Opperman, an expert on terrorism in southern Africa, said that the reasons for the failure of Wagner in Mozambique were the inability of mercenaries to communicate in the same language as the regular troops and a lack of understanding of the peculiarities of combat operations in the jungle.

Europe’s presence in Africa

The EU remains the largest trading partner for much of Africa. However, close trade ties are not the only factor that affects the relationship. The EU annually provides large amounts of humanitarian aid to Africa, which is the main instrument of “soft power” on the continent. Since 2015, there has been a separate trust fund, the Emergency Trust Fund for Aid to Africa, to which EU countries have allocated at least five billion euros.

China also tries to impose its “soft power”, bringing up its key companies in various African countries. China also issued loans to the governments of all countries on the continent except Libya. It was through lending that Beijing tried to control the actions of states and strengthen its economic presence. However, last year Xi Jinping announced that Beijing was only willing to invest $40 billion in various projects in Africa, a third less than the amount originally announced by China. There is probably more economic logic in this decision than political: China’s economic growth has slowed since the coronavirus pandemic, and the trade war with the United States has diverted more resources.

It allowed Europe to regain its influence on the continent. Especially since the new head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen claimed in 2019 to reset relations with Africa based on an “equal partnership”. Nevertheless, a chance to enhance the relationship was not seized due lack of successful diplomatic efforts. 

The less presence of China and Europe secured a good basis for Russia to strengthen its influence in Africa. Russia, with its current economic crisis, is unlikely to compete with the EU in terms of financial aid, but the Kremlin can directly help authoritarian regimes with other resources.

Russian military presence in Mali

This is exactly what happened in civil war-torn Mali, where the need for a strong military force was quickly filled by the Russian Wagner fighters after the French troops’ withdrawal was announced. A similar situation has developed in Ethiopia, where Europe turned its back on the ruling regime of Abiy Ahmed Ali in 2020 after the brutal suppression by the regular army of a rebellion against the autonomous region of Tigray.

The EU is concerned about such developments. That’s why the president of France, historically much present on the African continent, Emmanuel Macron made a tour of Africa in 2022 as well. In July he visited three countries: Cameroon, Benin, and Guinea-Bissau, and during his visit he said that France would not reduce its military presence in these states, making it “less visible” but “strategic”.

Africa’s importance in geopolitics in times of tensions

Hopefully, a closer partnership with the African nations will be part of the EU’s strategic ambitions. Otherwise, Russia will expand its military footprint in Africa and use it as leverage against the West on the global stage. Russia’s involvement in the war in Ukraine, efforts to redefine internationally recognized borders in Europe, and escalating hostilities with the West are worrisome developments.

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