Intervening to Undermine Democracy in Africa: Russia’s Playbook for Influence

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Joseph Siegle reviews Samuel Ramani’s Russia in Africa:  Resurgent Great Power or Bellicose Pretender? (Hurst, 2023).

It is often said that since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the abandoning of communism that Russian foreign policy lacks an ideology.

However, in reading Samuel Ramani’s methodical chronicling of Russian foreign policy in Africa under Vladimir Putin, Russia in Africa: Resurgent Great Power or Bellicose Pretender, an explicit and consistent ideology is strikingly evident—to prop up and normalize authoritarian governments.

This is a key takeaway from Ramani’s impressively researched and dispassionately narrated analysis supported by 1,400 citations drawing from English, French, Russian, and Arabic sources—a welcome historical benchmark from which to assess Russia’s actions in Africa today.

Lacking significant investment capital (Russia is the source of less than one percent of foreign direct investment in Africa), trade prospects, or an appealing governance model, Ramani’s chronology reveals that Putin chose the path of disruptor to elevate Russian influence on the continent.

Drawing from tactics first developed by Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov in the late 1990s, Russia would become what Ramani terms “a crisis proof partner of authoritarian regimes.” Whenever an African authoritarian government would face United Nations sanctions, allegations of fraudulent elections, or criticism for human rights abuses, Russia would cast itself as the beleaguered regime’s defender on the global stage. Russia could then gain outsized influence with the indebted regime at minimal financial cost. This elite cooption model was thus the perfectly suited asymmetric tool for Russia.

Moscow realized it could deflect any reputational costs for propping up repressive regimes by spinning its actions as advancing multipolarity in a world dominated by the West, supporting African solutions for African problems, and resisting neo-colonialism.

In addition to bolstering Russia’s posture as a Great Power, the strategy had the functional benefit of providing an immediate entry point into Africa that would have taken Moscow years to cultivate through conventional means such as trade, foreign direct investment, development assistance, or cultural and educational exchanges.

Africa has become an ever more essential element of Russia’s geostrategic posture as it has attempted to evade its own international isolation and sanctions following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and attacks in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and its full-bore invasion of its neighbor in 2022.

A Recurring Pattern of Intervention to Prop Up Authoritarians

Ramani’s detailed historical review powerfully demonstrates, like a repeating video clip, the frequency with which Russia has applied its “counter revolutionary” strategy of enabling authoritarian regimes and undermining democracy across every region in Africa.

North Africa

Resisting colored revolutions is viscerally tied to Putin’s fears that popular demands for democracy pose a direct threat to his own president-for-life ambitions. These fears were stoked with the Arab Spring protests in North Africa that saw the overthrow of Zine Abedine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya in 2011. Ramani notes that concerns about a colored revolution gaining traction in Moscow were punctuated by polls at the time that showed 74 percent of Russians would participate in a rally or protest. The outbreak of mass protests in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square after the compromised 2011 Duma elections sharpened this obsession.

Moscow subsequently used the brutal crackdown on Arab Spring protestors and ensuing instability to fan narratives about the “flaws of liberal democracy” and “the virtues of Russia’s own model of state-managed political order.” Russia would later blame the pro-democracy movements in North Africa on militant Islamists and claim that the Arab Spring created a “green arc of instability” from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa.

Russia has been actively thwarting democracy across the Maghreb ever since.

This is most vividly seen in Libya, where Russia has supported Khalifa Haftar’s attempt to install himself as the new strongman in the mold of Muammar Gaddafi. Russia has deployed Wagner paramilitary forces, launched air strikes, and engaged in a massive disinformation effort to bolster Haftar and his collection of eastern-based militias. Russia agreed to ship military equipment to Haftar’s forces in eastern Libya via Egypt as early as 2015, in violation of a UN arms embargo. Russia has likewise consistently undermined UN efforts to establish a unified government in Tripoli, approve a constitution, and hold credible elections.

In Egypt, Russia became a staunch supporter of the 2013 military coup led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, providing arms and political support. In 2018, the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper and Sputnik Arabic signed a media cooperation agreement aimed at coordinating their narratives. In 2019, Sputnik amplified Egyptian state media messaging that the Muslim Brotherhood was to blame for mass protests against the Sisi regime. Sisi subsequently co-hosted the Russia-Africa Sochi Summit in 2019.

Russia was, furthermore, highly threatened by the Algerian Hirak protest movement that led to the ouster of longtime Russian ally, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in 2019. Russia responded by branding the protesters as radical Islamists. Russian disinformation, mirrored by Algerian media outlets, redirected attention to criticisms of French neocolonialism.

Working alongside Egypt and the UAE, Russia has similarly been a strong proponent of Kais Saied’s dismantling of democratic institutions in Tunisia.

Greater Horn of Africa

In Sudan, Russia blocked UN sanctions in 2006 against four officials in the government of Omar al-Bashir for their role in the Darfur genocide. Violating an arms embargo, Russia instead provided attack helicopters and Antonov-26 military planes that were used in Darfur.

In 2012-2013, Russia strongly supported Sudan’s resistance to African Union demands for a referendum on whether Abyei would join South Sudan. Russia similarly barred the release of a 2016 UN report showing that Bashir-aligned militias earned $54 million a year in illegal gold mining operations.

The deployment of Wagner forces to Sudan in 2018 was aimed at helping prop up Bashir. This included the training of the feared National Intelligence and Security Services who engaged in the heavy-handed suppression of pro-democracy protests. Russian disinformation discredited the protesters, labelling them “anti-Islamist” and “pro-LGBT.”

Following Bashir’s ouster in 2019, Russia supported the military government and subsequent coup led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in 2021 that derailed the planned democratic transition. Even while Moscow provided the Sudanese military with more arms and surveillance technology, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned against external interference in Sudan.

In South Sudan, Russia vetoed proposed UN sanctions against the government in 2014 for human rights violations committed in the young country’s civil war. Russia, similarly, blocked UN sanctions in 2015 to freeze the assets of warlords responsible for perpetuating the conflict.

Counter to its claims of non-interference, investigations revealed that South Sudanese forces were using Russian amphibious armored vehicles and Mi-24 attack helicopters. Russia subsequently opposed an arms embargo against South Sudan in 2016 and further efforts to institute sanctions in 2017. While South Sudan continued to spiral into conflict, mass displacement, and economic contraction, Sergei Lavrov reiterated Russia’s opposition to Western democracy promotion efforts in 2021.

West Africa

Russia’s well-documented support for the military governments that mounted coups in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso helped undermine democratically elected governments in each country. In some cases, these juntas were also bolstered by the deployment of Wagner forces, for example in Mali, and highly organized disinformation campaigns promoting the juntas and denigrating the effectiveness of democracy. Russian backing has also enabled each of the juntas to push back against ECOWAS deadlines to transition back to civilian governments.

Central Africa

Under the guise of security cooperation and the deployment of Wagner forces in 2018, Russia has effectively captured the pliable government of Faustin-Archange Touadéra in the Central African Republic. Russians now fill the roles of presidential guard, national security advisor, and senior advisors in the Ministries of Finance and Customs. Russia interfered heavily in the 2020 election to keep Touadéra in power. Intimidated opposition leaders have fled the country.

Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza’s extralegal evasion of term limits in 2015 and the violation of power-sharing provisions of the Arusha Accords that had brought Burundi’s 12-year civil war to an end in 2005, set off protests that were brutally repressed. Roughly 100 people were killed and hundreds more injured. Russia blocked a UN resolution condemning the Nkurunziza regime, calling for non-interference.

This action was particularly significant as it enabled a spate of term limit evasions in Central Africa including by Joseph Kabila in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Denis Nguesso in the Congo, and Paul Kagame in Rwanda. Russia supported each of these extra constitutional extensions of power as it did in Guinea with Alpha Conde in 2020.

Russia has also been a vocal endorser of flawed elections. In 2016 and 2021 Russia defended the integrity of the Uganda elections enabling President Yoweri Museveni to retain his 34-year hold on power, despite widespread evidence of fraud. Museveni reciprocated by calling for a Russia-Africa Summit in 2017.

The Russians likewise backed Felix Tshisekedi’s controversial 2018 claim of electoral victory in the DRC despite the skepticism of the African Union.

Southern Africa

In Zimbabwe, Russia blocked sanctions against 13 senior ZANU-PF officials involved in orchestrating the post-election violence in 2008. Violent intimidation of the opposition caused Morgan Tsvangirai, whom independent observers felt won a first round of voting outright, to pull out of the second round.

After the 2017 military coup led by General Constantino Chiwenga ousted Robert Mugabe, Russia interfered in Zimbabwe’s 2018 election to help ensure Emerson Mnangagwa emerged victorious and ZANU-PF retained its stranglehold on power. Mnangagwa later negotiated an arms-for-minerals pact with Russia involving the purchase of MiG-29 and MiG-35 jets that critics contend mortgaged Zimbabwe’s mineral resources to Russia.

Russia similarly interfered in the Madagascar election in 2018 through disinformation, paying journalists to write flattering stories, and hiring young people to attend rallies, ultimately coming behind the winning candidate, President Andry Rajoelina.

This paralleled Russian interference in the 2019 Mozambican elections and, through fictitious polling results, amplifying the popularity of the ruling FRELIMO party.

While South Africa has relatively stronger democratic institutions than most African countries, the absence of a competitive multiparty system exposes it to risks of state capture seen elsewhere on the continent. This was evident in Russia’s scheme to construct a $76 billion nuclear power facility under President  Jacob Zuma, widely seen as a patronage-boondoggle. While the deal was ruled unconstitutional by a South African High Court, Russia continues to seek its revival while sponsoring race-tinged disinformation messages and playing factions of the ANC against one another.

Crude but Effective

While just a sampling of Russian maneuverings to undermine democracy in Africa, this litany of cases is sobering for its breadth and depth. Russia has been systematic in advancing its normative objective—and has been at it for two decades.

At its core, Russia’s strategy is a crude one—protecting repressive actors so they can deploy coercion without hindrance and so retain power. This is akin to guarding the door while a violent crime takes place inside. This is coupled with Russia’s highly sophisticated disinformation campaigns infused with Orwellian messaging on non-interference and African empowerment.

This strategy has been effective. Many of the African autocrats Russia has supported remain in power. Any discussion of African democratic backsliding, thus, needs to factor in Russia’s heavy thumb on the governance scale. In short, Moscow’s enhanced influence on the continent has come on the backs of African citizens’ democratic aspirations.

This expansion of Russian influence has occurred even while Moscow faces isolation internationally and a contracting economy. Ramani coins this the paradox of “external expansion and internal decline.”

This review of cases, moreover, underscores that Russia’s influence strategy in Africa requires domestic enablers. In most cases, Russia’s influence is procured through deals with dictators. It is only because these regimes can sidestep checks and balances that they can pursue deals that are unstrategic for their countries and detrimental to citizen interests—though politically and financially beneficial to themselves.

This lack of accountability, moreover, makes these regimes highly vulnerable to state capture by external actors, thereby sacrificing African sovereignty.

Many ordinary citizens recognize the threat. Ramani cites Pew Research Global Attitudes annual surveys in Africa showing that Putin and Russia are highly unpopular, rarely generating favorability ratings among more than a third of the population.

Therein lies a major vulnerability of the Russian strategy. It is shallow. It relies on elite collusion. Meanwhile, it generates deep resentment toward Moscow by Africans aspiring for freedom. Ask the Sudanese youth who have been on the streets demanding a genuine democratic transition since 2019. The same could be said for millions of Algerians, Egyptians, Ugandans, and Zimbabweans, among others, despite relentless Russian efforts to control the information space.

A takeaway for the international democratic community is the need to stand with and for African citizens. As Ramani observes, part of Russia’s success in weakening African democracy can be attributed to the distractedness of the world’s democracies.

Russia’s systematic undercutting of democracy in Africa underscores the need for African reformers to push for more robust checks and balances on executive power. Ensuring national decisions are shaped by popular will and not the pliable interests of unaccountable individuals is vital—not only for democracy but for safeguarding African self-determination.

Joe Siegle is the Director of Research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington. The views expressed are his own.


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