Russia’s Mercenary-Industrial Complex in Africa

Attara, Dakka Sebbe, Nienanpela, Dioura, and Ouro Fer — these five Malian towns saw elders murdered, civilians tortured, and property looted by the Wagner Group in January and February of 2024. And they are not isolated cases. Across the Sahel, the Wagner Group and the Africa Corps perpetrate massacres, rape, torture, and arbitrary imprisonment, all in the name of counter-terrorism and regime protection. Security cooperation with Russia’s newest mercenary invention is a recipe for trouble for new partner states and their populations. Deals with Russian private military companies exacerbate the terrorist threat in the Sahel and further erode any semblance of civil-military norms, however fleeting they may have been.

Moscow’s offerings — a concoction of private military companies, cheap weapons, and regime protection — are laying the groundwork for enduring insecurity that will only benefit Russia in the long run. Besides creating a demand and dependency for Russian boots on the ground, Moscow’s mercenary diplomacy creates new opportunities and new markets for Russia’s broader defense industrial base. They lay the foundation for Russia’s weapons industry, an industry that has dwindled in the lead-up to and since the invasion of Ukraine. Whether supplying Africa Corps or selling/donating defense articles to African clients, Moscow’s military-industrial base stands to benefit from enduring insecurity in Africa and beyond.

Over the past several months, the United States has been forced out of a long-standing security mission in Niger, while the status of American troops in Chad remains an open question. As Nathan Powell recently argued in these pages, Washington has certainly made its share of mistakes in dealing with its African partners. Niger’s prime minister suggested as much in a recent interview.

But Russia has also played a savvy game, selling itself as an important security partner ready to capitalize on Washington’s real, or perceived, shortcomings. African leaders see more viable, and arguably more pragmatic, security alternatives today than in years past. And new military juntas have been more emboldened to gamble on new partners rather than stick with the status quo. Russia has also exploited anti-French sentiment, alongside America’s real and perceived ties to France. Democratic values and norms are easily linked to neocolonialism and capitalism by the Kremlin’s disinformation cyber army. Russia’s opportunism and exploitation of the fractures in relations between the West and several African states build legitimacy for Moscow despite Russian mercenaries’ mixed record.

Against that backdrop, Washington should be prepared to implement a patient and multifaceted response. U.S. policymakers should not abandon military support altogether, but they should recognize that military tools are only a piece of the strategic solution. Isolating juntas and lecturing Africans on their security partners only play into Moscow’s hands. Instead, Washington should also recognize that in the near and mid-term, learning to coexist with Moscow and Beijing is a necessity. In doing so, however, the United States must prove to African governments that Washington is a worthy and reliable partner — the partner of choice across all sectors from security to economic. At the same time, Washington should continue to expose Russian private military companies as chaotic enforcers of insecurity, emphasizing Moscow’s underwhelming investment on the continent, enhancing diplomatic engagement, and delivering on promises of economic investment.

However, the United States should remember that this approach will take time to work. Moscow’s ability to use mercenaries as a preferred tool to capitalize on democratic retrenchment took years to come to fruition, and Washington should have no delusions about the time it will take to regain popular trust in this region.

The False Promise of Security

Russia sees strategic value in Africa. While states like China have dangled infrastructure aid and debt relief packages to cultivate relationships across the continent, Moscow has pulled the security lever, signing dozens of security cooperation agreements with African governments over the past decade. While it too has tried to use debt relief and grain donations as diplomatic tools, Moscow’s preferred approach for its African engagements has come in the form of private military companies like the Wagner Group. Their deployment across several African states since at least 2017, however, is far from an antidote for insecurity.

Rather than rectifying underlying security challenges, Russian mercenaries thrive on chaos, adopting violent approaches to counter-terrorism while insulating dictators as part of their advertised “regime survival package.” Even when ushering in some semblance of security, Moscow’s mercenary diplomacy is ill equipped to offer durable solutions. Instead, these so-called mercenaries serve at the Kremlin’s behest, as both a geopolitical tool and an instrument incentivized to maintain some degree of insecurity — keeping regime insiders safe even if civilians are not.

For Moscow, insecurity is good for business. It equates not only to durable contracts, but also to more of them, this time for the Kremlin’s Wagner replacement, the Africa Corps. Although international observers, local opposition parties, and even some soldiers may eventually question the reliance on Russian contractors, the political elite are unlikely to break off relations in the near term as long as their positions are secure. This dynamic creates fractured states and furthers the cycle of violence between national militaries, terrorist groups, and civilians. One needs to look no further than Wagner’s current deployments to see the serious flaws in their counter-insurgency practices, which are replete with atrocities — over 500 civilians killed in the town of Moura, Mali, by Wagner and Malian armed forces; indiscriminate executions at the al-Takwa mosque in Bambari, Central African Republic; or the murder of disabled civilians in Ippy, Bodol, and Grimari, Central African Republic.

For the military juntas dealing with the Kremlin, this is a catch-22. On the surface, the Kremlin’s promises of security assistance are desirable for regimes concerned as much with their own survival as they are with systemic insecurity. Though it is difficult to decouple regime security from state security, these military dictatorships are highly focused on real or perceived short-term security gains that can help them market their legitimacy, even at the expense of long-term stability. The reality is that Russian contractors are merely window-dressing for Moscow’s true aspirations to create lasting demand for Russian security assistance by perpetuating conflict. And despite its anti-colonial rhetoric, the Kremlin’s approach to security partnerships is riddled with resource exploitation. If client states lack budgetary resources to settle the bill, Russian private military companies are happy to accept resource concessions as an alternative method of payment.

Russia’s Financial Gains

Such insecurity simultaneously ensures a durable, even growing, market for Russia’s broader defense industrial base, which has dramatically atrophied since its invasion of Ukraine. For Russia, it’s a win-win proposition — not only providing an opportunity to foster dependency on Russian mercenaries, but also giving Moscow reliable markets for Russian weapons — all while sticking it to the West.

Capitalizing on insecurity and ensuring it persists also give Russia a method for sanction-busting. By turning rubles into dollars or West or Central African francs through weapons sales and mercenary contracts, the Kremlin can unfreeze its assets and provide a release valve for its economy. While Yevgeny Prigozhin was likely doing this for his own gain, a Russian state-backed organization like Africa Corps can flip this process into state profit, even if the logistics of doing so are complicated.

Historically, Russia has accounted for a significant percentage of international arms transfers to Africa. Until its invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Moscow’s arms exports to the continent were more than those from China and the United States combined. While much of that business was concentrated in four countries (Algeria, Angola, Egypt, and Sudan), the Kremlin sees a burgeoning market across the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa where weapons shipments are as much a diplomatic win as they are a monetary one. That is to say that traditional returns on investment may be measured in dollars made, but for Moscow, return on investment is as much about securing diplomatic support, allies at the U.N., and geopolitical influence as it is about profit.

Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine has directly impacted its ability to maintain its status in arms markets and fulfill its arms export commitments. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, it ceded its position as the world’s second largest arms exporter to France in 2021 and 2022. Researchers expect that trend to continue in the near term, especially for advanced weapons systems such as fighter aircraft and surface-to-surface missiles that major Russian clients like India may rely on. However, Moscow is also a leader in lower-end weapons systems, such as assault rifles, carbines, pistols, and light machine guns, systems that its cadre of current African clients demand and that any future ones are likely to welcome. It dominated the market in sub-Saharan Africa and only recently lost its position to China. While it has struggled to increase its capacity to produce advanced weapons, it has been able to refurbish and churn out lower-end weapons. Russian analysts have termed this approach “military-industrial fast food,” which can be used to “quickly and effectively saturate the armed forces” of a client state.

While small arms are the fast food of the military-industrial market, Russia will eventually wish to reclaim market share in more advanced weapons systems. One clear gap in the market today is helicopters. The war in Ukraine has halted Russian and Ukrainian activities in the market, including Ukrainian sales by Motor Sich to Russia and both Russian and Ukrainian ventures with Airbus S.A.S. Ukraine and Russia were key actors in international helicopter sales before the war, driving down international supply. Meanwhile, the United States and NATO partners are buying or sending any available helicopters to Ukraine. This trend includes purchases from Ecuador, a declined offer in Colombia, deliveries from Slovakia, and donations from Argentina. Countries across Africa are already feeling the effects of limited supplies, with Benin’s Mi-171 attack helicopter order halted by sanctions on Russia, driving concern around the country’s counter-terrorism campaigns.

By establishing a reliance on Russia for security assistance and light weapons sales, the Kremlin could also seek to establish a dependence on Russian-built systems to support Russian-led counter-terror and coup-proofing operations. Indeed, Wagner forces have proven less capable in operating non-Russian helicopters, including French SA 341/342 Gazelles, so it may benefit all involved to rely on Russian systems.

Russian mercenary groups can ultimately help grease the wheels for Kremlin weapons sales, especially in the Sahel where the United States is in retreat. Moscow’s approach, strategic or otherwise, will undoubtedly aim to capitalize on its various private military company partnerships across Africa today to ensure Moscow’s weapons producers have a robust network of clients tomorrow. As soldiers engage with the Africa Corps and learn Russian tactics and approaches, they will become increasingly familiar with, and reliant on, Russian weapons systems. This gives the Kremlin a clear avenue for the resurgence and proliferation of its weapons exports across Africa.

Wagner Group cut its teeth on natural resource exploitation deals in exchange for security, often utilizing heavy equipment deliveries as key incentives in fomenting partnerships. In Mali, Wagner’s deployment coincided with the arrival of Mi-171 attack helicopters, while in the Central African Republic and Sudan, it was accompanied by Ural 43200 heavy trucks. Future deals with Wagner’s replacement may see weapons and equipment shipments exchanged for oil, gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt, or even wood. Such exchanges already help Russia evade international sanctions, and cracking down on illicit trade across these sectors has proven difficult.

For its part, and despite challenges associated with replenishing its own weapons cache, Russia is keen on reclaiming its position in the arms export market, particularly as it funds Russian research and development including the Su-75 “Checkmate” —a fifth-generation fighter aircraft designed to compete with the American F-35. Economist Andrey Belousov’s recent appointment as minister of defense confirms this approach. Belousov favors budget increases for the military and is likely to encourage investment in this sector. While Ukraine is, and will remain, the priority, Moscow will gladly utilize such an injection across its defense sector to flood its African engagements with lower-end weapons systems. Whether sold or donated, this serves the Kremlin’s interests.

It is important to note that a desire to reclaim status in the arms export market and the ability to do so are distinct. While the Kremlin may value its historic position as a major arms exporter, the jury is still out on whether it can return to its glory days. For its war in Ukraine, Moscow has had to adapt to survive, relying on a confluence of factors to keep production of essential weapons systems going, from diversification in purchasing patterns to reliance on Soviet-era stockpiles. Countries like China, Iran, and North Korea have helped Moscow weather its defense production challenges. All this is to say, the Kremlin has been resourceful in defense production and has even found some recent success, reportedly producing artillery munitions at a pace nearly three times that of the United States and Europe. These munitions, of course, are for an ongoing war and are different from weapons systems that would be in demand by African clients, but this illustrates Moscow’s ability to turn the gears on weapons production.

In the mid- to long term, Russia can readjust its wartime economy from Ukraine to reprioritize toward international demand, including more expensive systems like attack helicopters. Given dual use of these systems by Ukrainian and Russian armies, Russia is unlikely to see the reputational risk costs associated with other systems.

A Western Response

Washington finds itself in a difficult position and the near-term forecast is concerning, especially as Russia’s Africa Corps has expanded to Burkina Faso and now Niger. Russia’s approach to deploying private military companies as a method to maintain insecurity, encourage and inflict human rights abuses, and actively battle civil society benefits the Kremlin through multiple channels. Where mercenaries go, weapons will follow. The scheme facilitates Russia’s revisionist efforts, forcing a Cold War redux that will leave the West cleaning up the pieces.

Countering Russian mercenaries and weapons flows remains a difficult proposition, particularly given host countries’ decisions to partner with Moscow instead of Washington. Washington will need to do better in convincing past and future African partners that Russia’s prescribed solutions to their security challenges are shortsighted at best. That may be difficult with Washington’s loss of legitimacy in the eyes of some states and Russia’s diplomatic full-court press, but Moscow has no penchant for long-term economic investment or interest in governance support that could genuinely help client states improve the prospects for long-term security. The United States needs to convincingly tell that story.

At a minimum, Russia’s brash decision to invade Ukraine and the subsequent knock-on effect of its inability to export certain defense articles or provide servicing on some defense articles are a clear signal of the Kremlin’s unreliability. Washington should also emphasize the limited economic and development investment Moscow has made on the continent. Accounting for less than 1 percent of all foreign direct investment in Africa, Russia has shown it has minimal interest in investing in Africa outside of security, and by all indications, it has no plans to adjust course. Where it has invested, it has done so to the benefit of Russia almost exclusively. Amplifying messaging on the narrow scope of Russia’s economic investment in Africa gives African leaders more accurate information and supports their agency in weighing the pros and cons of working with Moscow.

Efforts to expose Russia’s nefarious intentions in Africa are already under way, as illustrated by the State Department’s Global Engagement Center tracking of Russian disinformation. But packaging this in ways that reaches appropriate audiences has room for improvement and growth. The United States can amplify its messaging with local media, including local and independent journalists as well as through social media. The Russians have found success through such media strategies, and Washington should recognize the value of African voices for legitimacy building. While Russia uses lies and propaganda to advance its interest, the United States can find value in encouraging transparent reporting, supporting local journalists, and continuing to invest in digital information literacy. The latter is currently part of the Digital Transformation with Africa initiative, which was launched in 2022 and institutionalized with the Africa Digital Policy Council. In only its second year, the initiative has seen significant progress, with hundreds of millions of dollars in pledges and much attention focused on digital infrastructure projects. It is critical that as digital infrastructure investment continues to increase, sufficient support is given to institute programs focused on information literacy and combatting disinformation.

Additionally, Washington should consider “rebalanc[ing] the 3Ds,” defense, democracy, and diplomacy. In many ways, and despite U.S. Africa Command commander Gen. Michael Langley’s reflection that the command “plays a supporting role to interagency efforts,” there is a perception that the United States overemphasizes its military investment and engagement at the expense of diplomatic engagement. This is largely based on assumptions related to resourcing differences between the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and other government agencies, along with the fact that the United States has spent billions on counter-terrorism in Africa over the past two decades. But an over-militarized approach, or the perception of it, does little to differentiate it from the Kremlin’s proposition. And while the military instrument of national power is a key feature of U.S. foreign policy in Africa, it is far from the most significant — or at least, it should be.

Likewise, lectures on democracy have proven to be an Achilles’ heel for U.S. foreign policy in Africa, particularly in some recent high-level diplomatic kerfuffles. Democracy promotion on its surface is not inherently negative, but U.S. strategy must be consistent. If America values pragmatism — that is, working with undemocratic regimes — over consistency in responding to undemocratic trends, that may be a fair proposition, but it is necessary to reflect on how that message is then received by others and what that then entails for future messaging and relationships.

Last, and most important, is diplomacy (and development). Washington can and should have an advantage in this space even as Moscow and Beijing continue to deepen relations with African countries. As one analyst recently noted, African countries don’t have a problem with maintaining “a security partner in Washington, a development partner in Beijing, and a trade partner in Moscow … that’s a win-win-win.” Washington has to reflect on this and recognize that it is far from the only game in town. Rhetorically, the United States already acknowledges this reality, but developing a tolerance for coexisting in this dynamic environment and a strategy where the United States evolves into the preferred partner is critical. Though imperfect, the U.S.-E.U. infrastructure investment in Angola to revitalize the Lobito corridor has shifted Luanda away from Beijing and Moscow.

More recently, President Joseph Biden’s decision to designate Kenya a “major non-NATO ally” has been chock full of talking points about the deepening economic partnership that the designation brings. Meanwhile, the 2023 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit focused on building economic capacity, governance partnerships, and promoting public health, while providing opportunities for new entrepreneurial connections across the Atlantic. Making good on these promises and expanding investment across the continent are key steps in building stronger relationships with African states, while also effectively countering Russia.

Still, it is hard to ignore the trajectory of insecurity in places like the Sahel, so abandoning military tools altogether would be imprudent. But recent Western counter-terrorism approaches in Africa lacked clear goals and buy-in from relevant partners. This can be addressed in clear-cut and well-tailored national and international strategies to tackle terrorist threats in the Sahel that include buy-in from African militaries, but it must include a broader approach that supports African societies’ efforts to build strong and enduring civil and political infrastructure.

The harsh reality is that Russia thrives on and benefits from perpetual insecurity in multiple ways and shows no signs of slowing down. It is easy to deflect and merely suggest that Moscow is just an opportunist and that the allure of partnering with Russia will fade. But a reactive approach and strategic complacency are what contributed to Moscow’s fortune in the Sahel and beyond. The United States must reflect, ask tough questions, and take action. While today’s problems in the Sahel may appear monumental, they can get much worse very quickly — and it won’t be Moscow volunteering to pick up the pieces.

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