Competitive values: Russia’s conflict with Europe in Africa

Russia’s role in Africa takes on a new meaning in light of its all-out war on Ukraine. The Kremlin may not have previously seen its ambitions in Africa in terms of conflict with Europe, but this is now the reality.

President Cyril Ramaphosa during plenary session at the Russia-Africa Summit held in Sochi, Russia

Russia has markedly increased its influence in Africa in the last four years. Many European and African leaders have been concerned about this trend. But Europe has failed to grapple with it as a strategic threat, instead falling back on country-specific responses. A prerequisite of a coherent strategic response is to understand the objective of one’s opponent. Yet Europeans are not even sure whether Russia has a strategic objective in Africa.

Still, regardless of Russia’s original intentions, its role in Africa takes on a new meaning in light of its all-out war on Ukraine. The war has deepened the divide between Russia and the West in just its first two weeks, prompting a remarkable economic decoupling between the sides.

The war has also sparked a multi-regional contest between Russia and the West that will soon extend to Africa. The Kremlin may not have previously seen its ambitions in Africa in terms of conflict with Europe – and African countries want to avoid such conflict at all costs – but this is now the reality.

In the new strategic view Russia has adopted since launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the role of Africa appears to have two main dimensions. Firstly, Russia sees Africa as a source of commodities such as rare or valuable minerals. Gold extraction features in nearly every recent Russian expansion into Africa. This activity, which seemed to be mere profiteering just weeks ago, will now likely become part of a concerted effort to build a war chest that might help Russia cope with Western sanctions.

Secondly, Russia could use Africa as an alternative battlefield on which to weaken Europe and thereby ease the pressure on Russian forces in Ukraine. This might take the form of simply creating instability to shift Europeans’ attention to the south, and to divide EU member states on the issue of which region to prioritise.

Russia in the arc of instability

In Africa, Russia is focused primarily on the swathe of insecure, autocrat-dominated countries that together make up an arc of instability. Aided by the foothold it established in Sudan in 2017, the Kremlin’s activities in Africa now extend from Ethiopia and Libya to the Central African Republic and, most recently, Mali.

These countries need external security support for various reasons. Those in the east face armed or popular uprisings, while those in the west – in the Sahel – contend with these challenges and with the persistent threat of transnational armed extremism.

The state-building tools Europe currently uses in the arc of instability include peacekeeping, political dialogue, and aid. Mali stands out as a country in which Europe has done even more: training the country’s army as France deployed forces to fight extremists directly.

Europe spends billions of euros on state-building with the objective of promoting stability and democracy. But Russia’s objective is influence. Through far cheaper security assistance – an asset whose scarcity inflates its value to autocratic governments – Russia is efficient in gaining influence.

Russia has found opportunities to intervene where Europe has pushed autocrats to undertake painful changes – either because the unrest they face is rooted in their approach to governance or because they have violated democratic principles that Europe shares with pan-African institutions. Following a hiatus in the post-cold war period, coups and dubious extensions of presidential terms are back in vogue in the arc of instability.

Russia, then, can provide a welcome alternative to Europe’s lectures and conditions. For the most part, Europe provides no security assistance. Where Europe does so, as in Mali, this assistance comes with conditions attached. Russia’s comparative geopolitical advantage is in exporting security assistance with no questions asked.

Russia is the most influential non-Western actor in several countries in the arc of instability. But an axis of Middle Eastern powers – which comprises the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, and which is known as the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) – follows a similar approach. For geographical reasons, this grouping is most active in Libya and the eastern part of the arc of instability. While Russia is engaged in power projection, these Middle Eastern states are trying to dictate geopolitical outcomes in their neighbourhood.

Taken together, these countries provide African autocrats with an alternative that prevents Europe from gaining the influence it needs to achieve its state-building objectives – or, in the case of Mali, threatens to displace Europeans altogether.

What can Europe do?

In the new conflict with Russia, this approach is Europe’s Achilles heel.

Europe’s focus on state-building as its central objective implies that who governs African countries is secondary to how they govern. In contrast, Russia and the MESA axis are in the business of picking sides, promoting their allies, and creating client states. With their thumb on the scale, Europe’s state-building objective – which is ambitious at the best of times – becomes impossible to achieve. When Europe focuses on state-building that requires equidistance from all local actors, this creates an opportunity to gain an advantage by backing only one group of actors – autocrats. Therefore, Europe’s approach to state-building is a relic of a bygone age in which the arc of instability was insulated from external interests. In the new conflict with Russia, this approach is Europe’s Achilles heel.

EU member states with robust militarily capabilities have sometimes attempted to compete with their rivals in Africa by adopting a similar approach, presenting this as realpolitik. The idea is that Europe should deal with autocrats on their own terms by playing down the need for democratic reform, stepping up security cooperation with them, and thereby competing with Russia and the MESA axis. Europe should, so the argument goes, embrace the reality that armed force remains the ultimate arbiter of power while democracy is fragile and transient. The question is: what use is the access and influence Europeans gain in this way?

A compromise on values might be practical if a higher strategic imperative merits this. But, generally, no such imperative is apparent. Europe’s objective is not to plunder natural resources such as gold in Sudan or Mali (anymore). African autocrats are not especially effective at reducing migration to Europe, despite their claims to the contrary. And, in any case, the arc of instability is a negligible source of such migration. Finally, there is little point in Europe compromising on its values to secure autocrats’ permission for its state-building objectives if that effort will be fatally undermined by Russia and the MESA axis.

Ethiopia and Libya may be exceptions to this. Their geopolitical value creates a strategic imperative that does not apply to other parts of the arc of instability. Thanks to its massive – if underdeveloped – economy and its importance to east Africa’s security order, Ethiopia draws in China and the United States as much as Russia and the MESA axis. Libya’s energy resources and strategic position near Europe draw in the same cast of characters (aside from China). The motive for the counter-terrorism campaign in Mali also approaches a real strategic imperative. But, with an alternative offer from Russia, the Malian government has shown Europeans the door and thereby made the choice for them. Otherwise, Europe has no major economic or geopolitical interests in Mali.

Rather than compete for influence on autocrats and participate in a race to the bottom by compromising on its values, Europe should prioritise its natural allies in Africa.

Sudan provides the readiest example of what such an approach would look like. The country’s popular protest movement shares Europe’s democratic values and provides a durable alternative to autocracy. As the movement is focused on values, Russia and the MESA axis will be unable to compete with Europe for influence on it.

Learning from Sudan, Europe should support allies who share its values across the arc of instability. Sudan made the decision easy because the protest movement formed by itself. In other contexts, there is no such ready-made solution to hand. Many African countries are home to actors who share Europe’s values but – due to state repression or their internal differences – have not coalesced into a politically influential bloc.

If Europe drops state-building as its central objective, it will remove the leverage that autocratic governments gain in return for their cooperation with, and permission for, European efforts in this area. Free of the sunk costs of state-building and the need for equidistance, Europe could change the focus of its engagement. Europe could shift the diplomatic priority it normally assigns to government institutions to actors that share European values, regardless of whether they are in power. In many cases, these actors would not be in power – meaning that Europeans would need to begin to rediscover a technique they first employed in Soviet countries in eastern Europe: support the growth of popular democratic movements that operate in a repressive environment.

Europeans’ inclinations towards security assistance still have a place in this new approach. But rather than seeking an accommodation with autocrats, they would be implementing strong countermeasures to the security support provided by Russia and the MESA axis. For example, instead of spending years cajoling Sudanese paramilitary leader Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo (known as ‘Hemedti’) in the vain hope of changing his behaviour, Europeans would have targeted him with sanctions after the first massacre of members of the protest movement. This approach would have helped prevent him from becoming an increasingly powerful tool in Russia’s hands – especially if it was combined with significant financial aid for the protest movement, including that for the development of political parties and security training for front-line protesters.

Such a strategy would alienate some governments in the arc of instability. But Europe could bear that cost because it would measure success differently: in the growth of constituencies that share its values across the region. When these constituencies eventually come to power, they will be the partners Europe’s state-building efforts were unable to find in autocrats.

So, Europe need not discard state-building altogether. State-building tools are still useful. But Europe would prioritise assistance for partners that are a prerequisite for successful state-building.

Europe’s foreign policy in the arc of instability needs an injection of strategic purpose. Many Europeans interpreted the recent vote at the United Nations General Assembly to condemn Russia’s war on Ukraine as a litmus test of African countries’ support for democratic values. The reality is that Europe is no longer Africa’s pre-eminent international partner. Instead, it is one of several major partners. In this environment, Europe needs to shore up allies who share its values – starting with Sudan’s protest movement.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Africa programme

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