Is the Democratic Republic of Congo Considering a Pivot to Russia?

Félix Tshisekedi, president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, on Oct. 23, 2019. Photo credit: Kremlin press photo via Wikimedia Commons; CC BY 4.0.
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In August 2022, the minister of defense of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Gilbert Kabanda Kurhenga, visited Moscow to attend the 10th Conference on International Security. On the sidelines of the conference, he met a number of his Russian counterparts, such as the deputy minister of defense, Alexander Fomin. During his visit, Kabanda declared that “[t]he Russian Federation, as a good friend, has always refrained from blackmailing us, blaming us or imposing subjective sanctions[.]” According to reports, he even “went so far as to express a ‘strong desire’ for ‘multifaceted support’ from Moscow against the armed groups present in the eastern DRC.”

On the Russian side, the head of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, Anatoly Punchuk, reassured “Minister Gilbert Kabanda of the availability of his country to equip the FARDC [Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo] and train Congolese officers.” This didn’t seem far-fetched: Russia delivered a large consignment of weapons to the DRC in February 2021. Leaked documents showed this consignment included 10,000 Kalashnikov rifles and around 3 million cartridges of ammunition.

What was particularly striking about this delivery was that it was a gift, paid for by the Russian government. But the situation is more complicated than Kabanda’s meetings would indicate. Soon after, DRC President Felix Tshisekedi publicly disavowed some of his minister of defense’s comments, saying that he had gone “off script” in Moscow and had been talking from a personal, rather than a government, perspective. In doing so, Tshisekedi was trying to make sure that he did not upset Europe and the United States, which are important partners for the Tshisekedi government.

There is a struggle for influence happening in the DRC. Although the president guaranteed Western diplomats that support from Moscow is not on the table—something he later repeated in an interview with the Financial Times—there are pressures within his administration to shift to Russia. This tension was evident in a series of more than 30 interviews I conducted with a range of individuals: Congolese policymakers focused on security and foreign policy, international diplomats, journalists, analysts, and civil society actors. Most of the interviews were conducted in Kinshasa in October 2022, while others were conducted online.

Although Russia plays an active role in this quest for influence by offering incentives, such as those shipments of weapons, anti-Western sentiments in the DRC are at least as important. These sentiments have been magnified by the M23 rebellion and perceptions of Western complicity in this crisis. This has resulted in pressure within the Congolese administration, particularly from the security forces, to “shift to Russia,” as well as Western efforts to counter this influence.

Russia’s Growing Influence in Congo

Russia has been particularly active over the past several years in trying to extend its influence through parts of Africa—a policy that has been documented in the Central African Republic, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Sudan. In these countries, Moscow has been extending its political, security, and economic influence. The Wagner Group’s security partnerships are the most visible manifestations of this policy, but Russia has also invested in African countries’ mining and energy sectors. With its minerals and ongoing conflict, the DRC fits the criteria for Russia’s interests—a fact affirmed by leaked Russian documents from 2018 and 2019.

And, indeed, there has been an increase in Russian activity in the DRC over the past several years. In June 2018, the DRC and Russia ratified a military and technical cooperation agreement that had been dormant for 19 years. The deal was initially signed by Laurent Kabila in 1999 but was set aside until Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov visited Kinshasa nearly two decades later. The agreement covers a range of issues, including provisions about arms deliveries, advisory missions, and the training of military specialists in Russian schools.

Since 2018, Russia has explicitly expressed a desire to further develop this military cooperation; it is particularly interested in assisting the DRC’s efforts to combat armed groups in the east and is waiting for a formal request from Kinshasa. The weapons delivery in 2021 was seen as a way to build on the deal, trying a tactic Russia had used previously with the Central African Republic, to which Russia gave a major consignment of weapons in early 2018. That donation meant the (unannounced) beginning of Wagner’s operations in the Central African Republic: The weapons delivery was accompanied by 175 Wagner Group military instructors.

Moreover, there’s a strong demand in Kinshasa for weapons as well. The Tshisekedi government recently approved an ambitious military spending plan, worth $3.5 billion from 2022 to 2025. The DRC government is looking to buy weapons and talking with a wide range of suppliers. Congolese security officials told me that Russia is considered a particularly attractive partner. Because the Congolese army is equipped with post-Soviet Russian-made weapons, Russia is seen as a one-stop shop to buy compatible arms cheaply and in greater quantities. Moreover, Russia is seen as being an easier partner with which to work. In the words of a former security official I interviewed, “[Russia] wouldn’t go through all these hurdles which the West imposes.”

Another significant event was the 2021 arrival of Russian diplomat Viktor Tokmakovin Kinshasa as the embassy’s second in command. Tokmakov previously was based in the Central African Republic, where he was widely considered one of the architects of the Wagner Group’s activities in the country. His arrival and engagement with figures from the Congolese political and military establishment has been seen as a prelude to the arrival of Wagner forces.

Throughout this period, Russian contacts have continued: A delegation of members of the Russian parliament visited the Congolese parliament to discuss “security issues” in December 2022, and there have been a series of high-level meetings between the Russian ambassador and the Congolese government, including separate meetings with the president and DRC’s first lady. The Yango ride-hailing app, owned by Russian information technology giant Yandex, expanded its African operations to Kinshasa in August 2022.

Despite Russia’s considerable efforts, these contacts haven’t materialized into much—just (unconfirmed) reports about orders of military helicopters from Moscow and (likely false) rumors about the arrival of the Wagner Group.

The M23 Crisis and Anti-Western Sentiment

Russian efforts for influence are less important than the strong anti-Western sentiment held by many in the DRC. In March 2022, the M23 rebellion launched a new offensive in the North Kivu province in the eastern Congo. The renewed activity of the rebel group, which had been largely dormant for about 10 years, led to a major humanitarian crisis, with over 450,000 people displaced and many killed.

Despite mounting evidence of Rwandan support to the rebel group, the international community was slow to condemn Rwanda, with many countries choosing not to publicly condemn the country. Congolese felt that very little action was taken to support their sovereignty—a point made more stark by comparison with the invasion of Ukraine, which began soon after. In the words of an army commander I spoke with: “We also condemned Russia’s invasion in Ukraine. Our problems are the same, we also were invaded by a neighboring country, Rwanda. But the West never acknowledged the aggression on the DRC.”

The U.N. notification regime for the DRC, which obliges all weapons exports to the Congolese government to be reported to the U.N. sanctions committee, has proved to be a contentious issue. The requirement was established through a 2008 U.N. Security Council resolution, which ended the weapons embargo for the Congolese state but kept it in place for armed groups. A new U.N. resolution in June 2022 further weakened the notification requirements and applied only to a smaller group of light weapons and military training provided by third parties.

Although weakened, the notification requirements led to frustration among Congolese officials, many of whom feel that they have prevented the Congolese government from buying the necessary weapons to defeat the M23 rebels. Many considered this an “embargo, but framed differently.” In the words of an army commander I interviewed:

They force this embargo on us in an intelligent way: They tell us, in order to get weapons, you need to register them. But this is not acceptable for a sovereign country. How can a country that is fighting armed groups, that is fighting against terrorists—why do we need to do so? Why do we need all these authorizations? … Us Congolese, we do find this unjust. This is just a weapon embargo of which they changed the name.

Part of this perception is a product of widespread misunderstanding of the notification regime, but it is also a result of political instrumentalization. There’s a broad consensus among analysts that what is needed is primarily a structural reform of the Congolese army to address its weaknesses; buying more weapons will not solve its problems. Blaming the notification regime has allowed the military to externalize responsibility and shift attention to access to weapons sales, putting the blame on the West.

Despite this degree of instrumentalization, the qualms expressed about the notification regime infringing on the DRC’s sovereignty are widely shared. The U.N.’s conditions tapped into a sense of national pride and are considered a humiliation and means for the West to exert continued control of the DRC. These feelings have a long history in the country, with the way in which the “West” is understood to include not only the United States, France, and the United Kingdom but also the United Nations and its peacekeeping force in the DRC, MONUSCO.

Many Congolese feel that these actors impose a whole barrage of conditions on the DRC that do not help the Congolese but, rather, further suppress the country’s development and the military’s ability to secure the country. The U.N. notification regime is perceived to be just the latest manifestation of this. Among Congolese army officials, the MONUSCO conditionality policy (which involved human rights screening of officers before the military could receive MONUSCO support and involved MONUSCO maintaining an undisclosed “black list”) also added fuel to the fire, as did the EU and U.S. sanctions against senior army officers.

Many officials have a sense that all of this would be much easier with Russia, which doesn’t demand compliance with human rights and weapons sales conditions. An army commander summarized this to me in the following manner: “The perception we have here in the DRC is that we receive threats from the West: We got sanctions which are unjust. We are menaced, threatened. We have problems in getting weapons—they put embargoes on us. … When there’s elections or other issues, they see always problems.” Russia has worked to amplify the message that the West and the United Nations have tried to keep the DRC under their control. It has also, at least rhetorically, opposed the notification regime, calling it an “arms embargo” on social media—though, while Russia could have voted against the notification regime at the U.N. Security Council, it didn’t, choosing instead to abstain.

These anti-Western sentiments have been amplified by other recent actions by the United Nations and European Union. First, all of this has happened amid strong frustrations with MONUSCO, which most Congolese consider to be largely ineffective, and has led to violent protests against the United Nations. These feelings have been fueled by a statement by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who stated in a TV interview with French media that the U.N. peacekeepers are “unable to defeat M23.”

“The truth,” he told France24, “is that the M23 is today a modern army, with heavy equipment that is more advanced than the equipment of MONUSCO.” Second, the European Union, through its European Peace Facility, announced that it would give 20 million euros to the Rwandan Defense Forces for their deployment in Mozambique. The prospect of Europe aiding Rwanda, even as evidence mounts that the Rwandan government is aiding the M23 rebellion, has particularly upset the Congolese government and broader Congolese public.

From Anti-Western to Pro-Russia 

These events have inflamed anti-Western sentiments in the DRC—particularly against the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, which the general public accuses of not only inaction toward M23 and Rwanda but also active support of the rebellion and its foreign backers.

In the current geopolitical context, these tensions have translated into pro-Russian attitudes. After Guterres’s statement, a high-level security official told me that it had generated frustration in security circles and a readiness to shift to a new partner. “If that’s what you’re saying, what are you doing here?” he said. “Please take your baggage, and leave—we’ll find another way to solve the M23 question. Why should we be helped by people who said they’re not capable of helping? That’s how we’re orienting ourselves to Russia. What Wagner did in [the Central African Republic], they can also do here in the DRC.”

Russia has become both an avenue to protest the West and an instrument to exercise pressure. Several diplomatic sources relayed an incident in which President Tshisekedi, meeting with EU diplomats after news broke about the EU security assistance for the Rwandan Defense Forces, asked them, incredulously, “You don’t understand you are pushing us towards Russia in this way?” In other words, contested policy choices by Western countries or the U.N. have led to the threat of going to Russia.

Similarly, some Congolese interlocutors told me that the Tshisekedi regime had made the “Russia threat” to obtain more weapons from the West to combat M23, but the move did not result in greater arms provision. Overall, though, the geopolitical landscape is in flux, and the Congolese government’s exercise of the “Russia option” is at least as much about the way it can be leveraged in relations with the West as it is of its actual Russia policy. This dynamic was also evident in the 2018 ratification of the long-dormant Russian military agreement; the move came at the very end of the Kabila regime, and, while strengthening ties with Moscow, it also was a rebuke to Western criticism of Kabila’s extended rule.

This shift from rhetoric to reality is being reinforced by the perception that the West is, as a Congolese security adviser told me, “demanding a lot, but doesn’t give much.” This feeling is especially strong with regard to the United States, which is particularly important for Tshisekedi. Washington played a central role in his appointment as president, and his relationship with the United States is seen as a major counterbalance to former President Kabila’s ties to China (and a similar frustration with the DRC’s relationship with China is evident as well). But various Congolese interlocutors have expressed frustration with the supposedly “special” partnership Tshisekedi has with the United States, which—it is felt—hasn’t translated into much in the way of concrete investments. As a Congolese army official summed it up to me, “Why have endless meetings with the West—including the U.N.? Why not do as Mali and [the Central African Republic] have done and switch to Russia?”

Statements like this signal not only anti-Western sentiments but also a degree of opportunism. I was often told by officials across the Congolese government, “We’ve tried the EU, the U.S., China. Why don’t we try Russia?”

Western governments have tried to address this potential pivot to Russia in a number of ways. On the one hand, they have expressed concerns about the DRC-Russia rapprochement, publicly and directly to the Tshekedi government. The issue was raised by Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo in a bilateral meeting with President Tshisekedi during the U.N. General Assembly last fall. It also came up during U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Kinshasa in August 2022. On the other hand, Western governments have also taken action. For example, interviews with diplomats and Congolese officials highlighted how France was the main driving force behind the decision to lift the highly unpopular notification regime against the DRC in December 2022—with the French minister of state for development visiting Kinshasa the day after. In doing so, they hoped to get back into Kinshasa’s favor.

That being said, frustrations with the West remain—particularly within the Congolese security sector. Security officials see weapons as a central issue: The West is very hesitant to supply weapons, instead preferring to supply nonlethal equipment. As an army commander told me, “None of this would happen with Russia—sanctions, demands, human rights—none of this business would be present.”

Another commander pointed to what he considered a Russian success story. “What is happening in Mali, I can’t believe it,” he said. “It is so noble and, in the current African context, very unexpected. They [the Russians] are right to say that the time has come for Africans to reclaim their independence. We are at a turning point.” It’s no surprise that the minister of defense, who had such glowing comments about the DRC-Russia relationship last summer, is a retired army general and is advised mostly by army officers.

Civilian policymakers express more nuanced views—often anti-Western, but not necessarily pro-Russia. In the estimation of one civilian interlocutor working in the security sector, the DRC should “use the determination of the Ukrainians to resist against our aggressors before relying on Russia, which will do absolutely nothing. Putin will never decide to attack Rwanda for us. So stop dreaming and supporting a meaningless carnival. The DRC is a giant. Unfortunately, it has become a dwarf due to lack of self-esteem.”

In this overall context, the broader public seems to generally hold pro-Russian attitudes. This was illustrated starkly by a nationwide poll conducted in January 2023, which showed that Russia has by far the most support among a roster of foreign countries and international organizations—61 percent of Congolese expressed a “good” or “very good” opinion of the country. Some manifestations of pro-Russia feeling appeared during demonstrations in support of the Congolese army in their fight against M23; some demonstrators—including a delegation of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), the party of President Tshisekedi—held placards in support of Putin, asking him to intervene. In Kinshasa, a number of small demonstrations were held in support of Russia last year. And dozens of young people demonstrating against French President Emmanuel Macron’s arrival in Kinshasa on a visit in early March were holding pro-Russian placards.

This environment is fertile ground for misinformation on social media, particularly against individual Western actors. A widely shared video purportedly showed the French ambassador being chased from the Congolese parliament, and another popular post showed images of a French plane stationed in the eastern Congo supposedly supplying weapons to M23. Both were incorrect and have been debunkedin a number of publications, but they are indicative of the national mood.

The “Lumumba Scenario”

So, with all this pro-Russia sentiment, why hasn’t the Tshisekedi government developed closer relations with Russia—for example, buying more weapons from Russia? There’s been pressure on the president to do so from a variety of constituencies within his administration. Yet here the potential long-term consequences seem to play a role and are an important reason why the Russia option is not being pursued more thoroughly. Regime insiders and analysts cited one name—or, better, one scenario—over and over: the “Lumumba scenario.”

In brief, Patrice Lumumba, DRC’s first prime minister after independence, turned to Russia after not getting the support he needed from the West; it ultimately led to his assassination. Insiders claim that the current regime fears a similar scenario. The president, and many other officials in the Congolese government, don’t feel that they are receiving the support they need from the West, and so they are considering turning to Russia. They don’t fear that pivoting to Russia would result in Tshisekedi’s assassination, but they do worry that it would ultimately result in their losing power: The West would undoubtedly reduce its support (both politically and economically) for the regime, and this would threaten the power of President Tshisekedi, while the networks of former President Kabila, a potential rival, remain strong.

This helps explain why Tshisekedi now holds the Russia dossier so tightly. Throughout 2022—and particularly in the second half of 2022—the various bodies working on foreign policy and security within the Congolese administration were full of discussion on the issue, but by the end of the year, the dossier had largely disappeared from these fora. Instead, it became firmly controlled by the presidency.

Since then, an increasing number of other actors have gotten involved in the DRC. Turkey, Russia’s main competitor in Africa’s arms market, has started delivering weapons to the Congolese government, as has South Africa. The Congolese government has also started working with around 400 private Romanian soldiers and has bought Chinese military drones. And, important symbolically, the Congolese minister of defense met the Ukrainian vice minister of defense on Feb. 11 in Kinshasa, where they stated their intent to improve their bilateral collaboration.

Russia may not even be in a place to provide the support the DRC would like. It’s questionable whether the Wagner Group could send troops; their operations are already stretched thin in Africa, and it would be difficult for them to relocate from the Central African Republic, Mali, or Libya to the DRC. The Russian presence in Congo is also limited, generally. Its embassy, for example, has only five diplomatic staff, a particularly small number compared to other missions. That being said, there’s much more to Russian engagement than Wagner alone—as its engagement in other African countries has shown.

Much will be determined by how long the Tshisekedi government remains on good terms with the Western diplomatic community. There are increasing concerns among policymakers about a range of governance issues, such as the level of corruption in the Tshisekedi regime (including in the direct entourage of the president), the auctioning of oil blocks in protected areas, and a contested deal with Dan Gertler, a controversial businessman who has been under U.S. sanctions since 2017.

The upcoming elections will be crucial for the DRC’s international partners—a view that Secretary Blinken expressed explicitly during his visit to Kinshasa—but there are already worries looming about the electoral process. It remains to be seen how, and if, the DRC’s relationship with the West will hold up in these circumstances.

Kristof Titeca (@KristofTiteca) is professor of development studies at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp.

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