Perhaps you’ve heard: not only is Moscow about to maraud its way through Ukraine, not only is Tsar Vladimir I seeking a new Eurasian empire, but – as if to add insult to injury – Russia is "returning” to Africa in a big way, intent on "displacing" the influence of the continent’s apparently rightful influencers (interesting language, that – no?). Anyway, at least that’s the hyper-panicked Russophobic narrative emanating from America’s top think tanks, papers of record, and bipartisan but paltry politicians.
Naturally it’s almost all brazenly bunk – but hey, what else is new. Still, call me crazy, but a touch of truth – or at least reasonably sound critical analysis – seems appropriate before the cries of Washington’s (and Paris’s) in-house Chicken Little’s cause the drop of, if not the sky itself, plenty of new munitions and military men down upon Africa.
Let us begin, as is often oh so illustrative, with some of the language being thrown about. Take a February 2nd brief from the Brookings Institute – typically considered the “top think tank in the world” year in and year out – titled "The future of Russia-Africa relations." This oft-considered credible and prestigious outfit just so happens to be funded, to the tune of many millions, by the likes of the French and Qatari embassies, defense contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton and Northrup Grumman, the US State Department, and George Soros’s Open Society Foundation – all of which have a stake in America’s African adventures. Furthermore, Brookings’ current president is none other than retired Marine Corps four-star general John Allen, and counts such hyper-hawks as Robert Kagan, Michael O’Hanlon, and Fiona Hill on its staff – plus Biden-bunch national security players like Emily Horne, Amanda Sloat, Rush Doshi, and Mara Karlin among its alumni.
Suppose it’s no surprise, then, that Brookings’ latest brief is chock full of euphemism, hypocrisy, and glaring omissions straight out the gate.
Sentence one (Part one): "Russia has been aggressively pursuing its strategic objectives in Africa in recent years." Has it now? That sounds an awful lot like what Washington has done with exponentially increased intensity – and far greater human/fiscal resources – since September 2001. Oh, and, correct me if I’m wrong – but Moscow, unlike the Pentagon, hasn’t carved out a distinct geographic African military command (USAFRICOM in 2008) and appointed a neo-imperial uniformed proconsul to organize operations on the continent. By the way, said command’s website includes a mission statement that states – clear as day, and unapologetically, that its purpose is "to advance US national interests."
Sentence one (Part two): Russia, through its ostensibly nefarious actions, is "promoting alternatives to democracy as a regional norm." Well, sure – foreigners frankly do that when they meddle in lands thousands of miles from home. Bet the good ole USA – and its French friends – do a far better job at that whole democracy-promotion thing though, huh? Hardly. On top of a Washingtonian and Parisian penchant for propping up strongmen, plus training and advising local security forces who flagrantly abuse human rights – there’ve now been nine U.S.-trained African officers who’ve went coup-crazy since 2008. Since 2010, in fact, there’ve been six coups by US military minions in just two key West African countries – Mali and Burkina Faso (one of the Malian fellas pulled off two in the span of nine months!)
Sentence four: To gain influence, "Russia relies on…mercenaries" (so does the US, the West, and all the rest), "arms-for-resource deals" (check), "opaque contracts" (says the country that lost hundreds of billion of dollars in Afghanistan alone), "election interference" (do nine coups – even assuming they’re indirect – by our proxies count?), and "disinformation" (uh, the Pentagon hides US troop numbers and locations from the public and even many members of Congress, so…)
Sentence five: "Russia’s Africa-focused initiatives are typically concentrated on propping up an embattled incumbent or close ally: Khalifa Haftar in Libya" (that any different from Haftar’s next door neighbor, and murderous dictatorial coup-artist – Egypt’s al-Sisi, recipient of America’s second largest annual military aid package?), "Faustin Archange Touadera in the Central African Republic" (true – but what of Franco-America’s favorite, and way longer-serving monster: Chad’s Idris Deby?), "and coup leader Colonel Assimi Goita in Mali" (he of US military training, that is).
Get the point? Not to say that any or all of what the Russians – or most external powers – are doing in Africa is exactly on the up-and-up, but when this sort of linguistic nonsense emanates from Washington’s top think tanks it only solidifies the increasing international suspicion than American hypocrisy truly does know no bounds.
Always Absent: Context, Contrast, and Perspective
Here, as ever, some key facts and figures get in the way of Washingtonian rhetoric. Without taking too deep of a dive, consider a small batch that compare – and perspectivize, so to speak – America’s Russo-African alarmism.
- Despite recent reports about Russian flag-waving at anti-Western (mainly anti-French) rallies in Mali and Burkina Faso, African perceptions of Moscow are at best middling. According to a 2021 poll, only nine percent of Africans listed Moscow as the outside power for which they held the most positive image.
- Russian trade with Africa is relatively modest and pales in comparison to American or (gasp!) Chinese commerce with the continent. Africa accounted for just 2.1 percent of Moscow’s global trade in 2018, and had an overall African balance of trade that was one-fifth of Washington’s and one-thirteenth of Beijing’s. Besides, more than 60 percent of Russia’s continental commerce was with just three countries – Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco.
- Militarily, whilst Wagner Group Russian private security contractors are active in Africa (so are American, French, British, and South African elements, just for starters), Moscow’s military operations and relationships are quite limited. Sure, Russia has active security-related agreements with 43 African countries. Then again, the US counts 176 such agreements with 49 African states.
- In fact, official, uniformed, Russian military operations are almost nonexistent in Africa, and even its military assistance programs are comparatively minimal. The only exceptions are Moscow’s marginal missions in Libya and the Central African Republic. A Rand report – rarely packing the pacifism, those – notes that "the remaining examples of Russian training activities on the continent are quite limited and episodic." It goes on to contrast this with the US, "which averages more than $150 million per year in individual and collective training to partners in the USAFRICOM area of responsibility." (That, of course, leaves out the billions in straight-up military aid shipped to Egypt’s dictatorship each year, since Sisi’s fiefdom falls under the purview of USCENTCOM – Washington’s Mideast proconsul).
- The exact number of troops Moscow has deployed in Africa is difficult to determine, but likely amounts to – at most – a few hundred. What we do know – despite AFRICOM’s best efforts to conceal it – is that both Washington and Paris station some 6,000 soldiers on the continent apiece, Germany has about 1,100 in place and even Italy has had about 450 deployed (in Libya).
- Russia, following a trend that also applied (even more so) to the Soviet Union, does lead the way in weapon’s sales to Africa – but even this is deceptive. In 2018, it shipped more than $2 billion worth of arms Africa’s way, compared to about $600 million American and $100 million in Chinese sales. That said, nearly 90 percent of those weapons went to just two countries – Egypt and (more so) Algeria. That’s hardly the continent-wide arms-bonanza of Western imaginations – and not a notable change from past patterns.
- In terms of total global assistance – development, humanitarian, and military – America sent 400-times as much funding Africa’s way in 2017.
So much of this entire Russian "return to Africa" affair is so much exaggerated hullabaloo. Even the Rand Corporation – essentially the DOD’s in-house think tank and research institute – concluded (in a report specifically for AFRICOM’s Air Force component, AFAFRICA) that "there is little evidence that the Kremlin has a grand plan for Africa," because "the continent remains peripheral to Russian grand strategy." The Rand study goes on to state, categorically even, that: "in sum, our analysis indicates that Russian involvement will not be uniformly problematic for AFAFRICA."
In the end, count on African agency to – once again – surprise all those Western, Russian, and Chinese would-be masters of the universe, who treat the continent like just one theater in a global boardgame of Risk. My guess, and hope, is the continent’s citizenry, leaders, and elites alike will ultimately throw a wrench in the best laid plans – or neo-imperialist fantasies – of these foreign frenemies. This prediction recalls the words of then-Tanzanian President Julius Nyere way back in 1965 – when Moscow, Washington, and Beijing were previously parrying for continental control: "We will not allow our friends to choose our enemies."
Sorry, Brookings – and amen to that!
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer, the director of the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, and Mother Jones, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught history at West Point. He is the author of three books, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War, and most recently A True History of the United States. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2022 Danny Sjursen