Russia’s growing influence across Africa over the past decade, laid bare by Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, has sparked significant concern, leaving Europeans struggling to find ways to counter it.
If China measures its influence across Africa through the volume of infrastructure investment, the EU is trying to build a broad political and economic relationship based on trade, investment, aid, and technical support from Brussels in exchange for African states doing more to control irregular migration.
Russia’s strategy in Africa, meanwhile, has so far involved a mix of arms sales, political support for its authoritarian leaders, and security collaboration at the expense of French influence in the Sahel region and central Africa, typically in exchange for business opportunities and diplomatic support for Russia’s foreign policy preferences.
After Trump’s administration ignored Africa for four years, his successor, Vice President Joe Biden, has started to rebuild the US’s influence there.
Moscow’s relative popularity in the Global South continues to frustrate observers in the West.
Most recently, weeks where a visit by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is followed or preceded by high-ranking EU or US administration officials, have become commonplace.
On his first swing through the continent in January, Lavrov visited South Africa, Eswatini, Angola, and Eritrea. In a second leg in February, he stopped by Mali, Iraq, Sudan, and Mauritania to shore up support for Russia in Africa.
Russia has long used “memory diplomacy” in Africa, but after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, these tactics have really started to pay off.
“Russia tries to sell itself to Africans as an anti-colonial power, with a big dose of victim mentality towards the West,” a frustrated EU official said. “This seems to strike a chord with many people in the region.”
“What many countries in the region fail to acknowledge, is that Moscow itself has not fallen short of brutal colonialism in its neighbourhood,” the EU official added.
South Africa, meanwhile, has become the most vivid example of the West vying for influence over Russia’s charm offensive on the continent.
“Russia was among the few world powers that neither had colonies in Africa or elsewhere nor participated in [the] slave trade throughout its history. Russia helped, in every possible way, the peoples of the African continent attain their freedom and sovereignty,” Russia’s embassy in Pretoria tweeted last year, sparking anger in Europe and the United States.
In the span of a few days, Lavrov and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, as well as the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell, paid a visit to the country.
Pretoria has had close ties with Moscow for a long time, ever since Russia helped the African National Congress fight against apartheid. Despite this, Pretoria has officially taken a neutral position on the conflict, which has upset Washington and Brussels.
“I very much hope that South Africa, our strategic partner, will use its good relations with Russia and the role it plays in the BRICS group to convince Russia to stop this senseless war,” Borrell then said, speaking alongside Pretoria’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor.
Earlier, Pandor gave Lavrov a warmer welcome.
A reporter asked her if she would repeat the call from her ministry early last year for Russia to leave Ukraine. She said she wouldn’t, pointing out that a lot of arms had already been sent to Ukraine since then.
The next month, South Africa held military drills with China and Russia that were widely criticized. In response, the EU said that South Africa has the right to make its own foreign policy, but that the drills were not what the bloc “would have preferred.”
Disinformation and food propaganda
Beyond the diplomatic battle, comes another one.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly accused the West of being responsible for disrupting the global supply chains – something that has hit African states, which are particularly reliant on wheat and grain imports, harder than most.
The International Monetary Fund said that between 2020 and 2022, the prices of basic foods in sub-Saharan Africa went up by an average of 23.9%.
EU leaders had appealed to African countries not to fall for a Russia-led propaganda campaign that portrayed the current global food insecurity caused by a disruption to the global supply of grains and fertiliser as the result of Western sanctions against Moscow.
Experts believe a key reason why some pro-Russia disinformation narratives about the war in Ukraine have found resonance, especially in Africa and Southeast Asia, is that they have successfully tapped into pre-existing anti-US and anti-West sentiments.
EU officials have called for a more proactive approach to disinformation and propaganda, but so far the bloc has had limited resources to deal with the matter.
“The global battle of narratives is in full swing, and, for now, we are not winning,” the EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, admitted shortly after.
But the narrative sticks—and is evolving.
Most recently, the EU said it would launch a new platform to counter disinformation campaigns by Russia and China.
Beyond the platform, Borrell also announced he plans to strengthen EU delegations abroad with disinformation experts “so that our voice can be heard better” in “a long-term battle” that “will not be won overnight.”
“This is one of the battles of our time, and this battle must be won,” Borrell stated.
EU missions and operations are increasing “targets” of disinformation and manipulation of information by foreign actors, while EU delegations “face an increased risk of becoming a target of these initiatives, with potential threats putting staff at risk”, a senior EU official told reporters recently.
However, there are indications that African leaders are increasingly resistant to Western diplomatic attempts to target Russia.
African Union chair Macky Sall has expressed concern about the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act, a bill that has Wagner’s activities in its crosshairs and is currently on the table in the US Senate. He argues that this could lead to sanctions against African firms doing business with Russian counterparts.
The EU’s diplomatic and security plans in the Sahel are also in trouble because of Russian influence.
One mentioned by the EU source is the bloc’s training mission in the Central African Republic, where reports that EU instructors might have provided training to local forces controlled by the Russian mercenary group, Wagner, sparked concerns about Moscow’s increased destabilizing influence in the region.
The EU has recently launched programmes aimed at tackling what the European Commission describes as Russian ‘disinformation’ on social media in the Sahel.
Officials in Brussels are also keenly aware that Russia wants to expand its presence via the Wagner group in the region, but it is less clear whether they can do anything to stop it.
Military regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso have stepped up their diplomatic contacts with Russia, and it is likely that Chad, Niger, and other countries in the Sahel and neighboring regions will also be targeted by the Kremlin.
Investment and doubt
In the coming months, the EU is likely to offer financial inducements – potentially several billion euros – primarily to North African states, for migration control after the bloc’s leaders doubled down on the need to increase repatriations and tackle irregular border crossings at their own summit in Brussels last month.
At a meeting between the European Commission and African Union in November, the two sides agreed that the EU would start to allocate funds for infrastructure investment from its ‘Global Gateway’ programme and provide support for an African Medicines Agency (EMA), along with the creation of a ‘high-level dialogue on economic integration with a view to strengthening trade relations and sustainable investment.’
The EU’s Global Gateway scheme, intended to be the bloc’s answer to China’s Belt and Road initiative, will start paying out €750 million in infrastructure funding to African states over the coming year.
However, these are small sums compared to the Chinese or US offers—the Biden government has promised to invest at least $55 billion in Africa over the next three years and wants to increase bilateral trade with Africa via the tariff and quota-free trade offered by its Africa Growth and Opportunity Act—and African diplomats regularly complain that accessing EU funding involves more bureaucratic hurdles.
Where Russia is out of step with its international rivals is in the EU and Chinese-led campaign for the African Union to have a seat at the G20, while the US and Europe also support an African permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
In the meantime, however, the reality is that Moscow has managed to acquire more political leverage in Africa than its economic and diplomatic investment suggests it should. For most of the last decade, EU officials have been increasingly frustrated by China’s growing economic influence in sub-Saharan Africa. There is now a growing reason for them to cast their eyes nervously to the east.