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Selling Weapons and Sealing Deals: is Russia a Reliable Defense Partner for Africa?

‘It would be naive to think that Russia has a very legitimate concern about Africa, its people or about their development,’ political analyst Louis Gitinywa tells Anadolu.

Early in November, while a large-scale massacre of civilians was taking place in a village in the north-central region of Burkina Faso, Defense Minister Kassoum Coulibaly was in Moscow to strengthen defense cooperation with Russia.

Following the collapse of political systems in Mali and Burkina Faso over the past two years, the military juntas in both countries are reeling with insecurity stemming from a rising number of terrorist attacks.

Amid domestic instability and diplomatic crises with key Western partners in their war against terrorism, the two countries have been distancing themselves from former colonial powers and instead collaborating more closely with Russia.

Russia is not the only country trying to expand its influence in Africa and like the others, Louis Gitinywa, a Rwanda-based political analyst, does not believe that Moscow has a “very legitimate concern” about Africa or its people.

“The African continent cannot rely on foreign powers to maintain national security. I don’t think Russia, the US, China or India can be reliable partners. At the end of the day, you have to understand that this is a geostrategic political chase, where every power looks out for its own interests,” Gitinywa told Anadolu.

“It would be naive to think that Russia has a very legitimate concern about Africa or about its people, or about their development. The only reliable partnership is by African countries trying to walk hand in hand in order to push our national interests.”

According to Freddie Egesa, a security analyst based in Uganda’s capital Kampala, while Russia may not have the financial muscle compared to China or the US to facilitate its push into Africa, it has weapons that many African governments eagerly wish to have.

“Central African states remain fragile,” he said, pointing to the several military coups the region has experienced since 2020.

“But Russia is keen to maintain foreign influence through military interventions here and there, which also serves to safeguard its commercial business interests,” said Egesa.

Russia’s defense influence in numbers

A total of 40% of Africa’s weapons imports between 2018-22 were from Russia, followed by 16% from the US, 9.8% from China and 7.6% from France, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

A 2022 report by the RAND Corporation, an American think tank, said Russian “weapons sales and transfers to African countries in recent years have increased from approximately $500 million to more than $2 billion annually, far outstripping US and Chinese transfers both in nominal value and in growth.”

The key importers of Russian weapons systems, according to the report, included the North African countries Algeria and Egypt.

“Sales to Algeria and Egypt account for nearly 90% of Russian arms exports to African countries,” the report said.

For Algeria and Egypt, 73% and 34% of their arms imports, respectively, came from Moscow.

Other African importers of Russian defense materials include, but are not limited to, Mali, Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Angola.

Moreover, a recent report by the Morocco-based Policy Center for The New South, a think tank, also noted that the return of Africa to Russia’s foreign policy is evident in military and security matters.

It showed that while Russia signed only seven military cooperation agreements between 2010 and 2017, the number jumped to 20 from 2017 to 2021.

More than half of the 20 agreements were signed with countries that had no previous military ties to Russia, according to the report.

This July, at the second Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Moscow has inked military cooperation deals with over 40 African countries.

At the summit, the participants also agreed to establish a new permanent Russia-Africa security mechanism, aimed at combating terrorism and extremism on the continent.

All for its own interests?

A study by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies shows that Russia’s influence is biggest in the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, Sudan and Zimbabwe, countries with a Wagner Group presence.

Though Moscow denies it, President Vladimir Putin is said to use Wagner fighters to help expand Russia’s presence in Africa, forging security cooperation with military juntas and other countries.

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu has noted that relations between Russia and Burkina Faso are “based solely on the principles of mutual respect and consideration of each other’s interests.”

But Gitinywa insisted Russia is “pursuing and defending their own national interests, and it doesn’t matter what they are putting on the table.”

He underlined that the national security of a country relies on its own security and defense forces.

In Mali, after 10 years of helping in the fight against an insurgency linked to the al-Qaeda and Daesh/ISIS terrorist groups, France withdrew its forces last year with modest impact.

Mali has also asked the UN to withdraw its peacekeeping mission known as MINUSMA.

“If the Burkinabe or Malian governments have failed to guarantee security in their territories, I don’t think they will rely on foreigners … I don’t think foreign powers will because they are deployed for very precise and targeted interests, and once the countries don’t respond to their interests, they will leave,” said Gitinywa.

Egesa believes stringent policies by the US and France’s waning popularity in the Central Africa region have created a security vacuum which Russia has been able to fill.

But still the competition between Russia and the West in Africa intensified following the war in Ukraine.

“Russia has increased its influence in the region by positioning itself as an alternative to Western partnerships. But this was on the backdrop of France’s waning influence in the Sahel region after its military presence grew unpopular among the local populations,” he said.

Source : Anadolu Agency