Putin’s Africa Push: A New Battleground for Influence
As two Russian nuclear bombers touched down in South Africa on Wednesday, dozens of African leaders were gearing up for the opening of a flagship Russia-Africa summit in Sochi at which President Vladimir Putin would call for closer ties and increased trade.
The summit is part of a Kremlin initiative to win business and rekindle Russian influence in parts of Africa that were for many years in the Soviet Union’s orbit.
With many leaders receptive of Putin’s message – attracted by the lack of conditions attached to trade deals, arms sales, and debt write-offs – the summit represents the opening of an additional front in the new cold war being fought between the West and Moscow.
The push into Africa is guided by the Kremlin’s ‘grey cardinal’ who oversees Russian foreign policy for the Middle East and Africa, Mikhail Leonidovich Bogdanov. As deputy foreign minister, Bogdanov plays a dual role; overtly, he promotes Russia’s foreign policy interests on the continent. In fact, he is much more focused on developing trade and selling Russian products and businesses into Africa, focusing in particular on countries that receive less attention from other powers.
Bogdanov’s focus on trade has made him a favoured patron for Russian businesses operating in the rougher parts of Africa – many of which in turn act as de facto agents of influence for the Kremlin.
One highly active agent with overt military intent is PMC Wagner, a private military contractor owned by sanctioned businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. Wagner has sent its mercenaries into the Central African Republic (CAR) and Libya, both countries often visited by Bogdanov as he seeks to secure Russia’s position at the forefront of their future. Documents revealed by the Guardian in July show how Wagner’s activities are coordinated with senior officials inside Russia’s foreign and defence ministries, and linked to areas of commercial interest.
The natural resource sector is a clear priority for Bogdanov. In 2017, the deputy foreign minister traveled to Guinea to open new laboratory facilities on behalf of Rusal, oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s aluminum giant. Rusal is one of the largest companies in the impoverished African country, where it operates the massive Dian-Dian bauxite mine.
Demonstrating Rusal’s continued proximity to the Kremlin, operations are now run by Alexander Bregadze, who joined in May 2019 after eight years serving as Russia’s ambassador to Conakry, Guinea’s capital. Another sanctioned individual, Victor Boyarkin, was a key advisor to Deripaska and Rusal in Guinea for many years, while also acting as the Kremlin’s special envoy to Conakry.
Meanwhile, Deripaska remains under US sanctions, which note that he “claims to have represented the Russian government in other countries” and “does not separate himself from the Russian state.”
“They are trying to seize the spoils,” Gen. Tony Thomas, former head of the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command, said at a 2018 security conference at the University of Texas at Austin. “They are very active.” Russia also has major oil and gas interests in Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Libya, Senegal, South Africa, Uganda, and Nigeria, according to the Pentagon.
Another regular visitor to Bogdanov’s office is Konstantin Malofeev, a businessman with philanthropic interests aligned to the conservative Orthodox Church and the Kremlin interests. Malofeev’s World Congress of Families (WCF) is active in attempts to project Russia’s image in Africa as a defender of traditional mores against the imposition of “European values” by the West.
The Orthodox businessman is considered by many to be the closest private figure to Bogdanov, reaffirming his status as one of the Kremlin’s most active tools in its conflict against the West. Like Deripaska and Prigozhin, Malofeev is also under US sanctions, in his case due to his funding of separatists in Ukraine, another theatre of the new cold war.
In an interview with Russian outlet Tsargrad, Malofeev, who is known for his deeply anti-Western views, referred to Africa as the next geopolitical battleground between Russia and the West.
With the arrival of the nuclear bombers in South Africa, it looks like this prediction will be proven correct – and the West needs to ensure it is ready.