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by Herman J. Cohen

The conflict in Gaza has taken center stage in global affairs. But while the eyes of the world are drawn to the Middle East, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been working in the background to expand Russia’s influence in Africa. His tactics are drawn from the Soviet Union’s Cold War playbook. He offers military support, now via the mercenary Wagner Group, to unstable regimes across the continent, helping them retain power in exchange for diplomatic allegiance and natural resources.

If the US does not meet this issue head-on, the consequences for African nations and the international community could be dire. US policymakers should look at the history of the Soviet Union’s diplomacy on the African continent– a period I witnessed personally as a diplomat on the ground– for clues on how to effectively respond to and combat this growing issue.

Russia in Africa

A string of coups in Africa’s Sahel region, most recently this past August in Gabon, have opened a unique set of opportunities for Russia to insert itself – and Putin has not been hesitant to fill the vacuum of power. Moscow’s presence across this unstable region has become unmistakable. Anti-government demonstrators in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso flew the white, blue, and red flag of the Russian Federation ahead of the overthrow of their respective governments. Mali’s government is now reported to be working alongside Wagner Group soldiers, and Burkina Faso’s leadership has hailed Russia as a strategic ally and admitted receiving significant military aid from the country.

Late last year, the Wagner Group’s Sahel contingent “rebranded” itself as the Africa Corps, an apparent homage to Nazi Germany’s notorious Afrika Corps. No matter the name they operate under or the insignia on their uniforms, both US and African policymakers should be clear-eyed that what we are seeing across the continent is largely a continuation of Soviet-era Africa policy. The unexpected silver lining? This approach has embedded within it the same core vulnerabilities now as it did then, which we can use to counteract this growing campaign of influence.

The stakes are high. As a United States diplomat who worked face-to-face with several 20th-century African strongmen like Muammar Gaddafi and Joseph Mobutu, I know from firsthand experience that ignoring this issue will not yield benefits, nor a path to self-rule for the 1.2 billion people on the continent. The US must, in 2024, pay close attention to what Moscow is attempting and pre-empt it by fostering economic development. Challenged democracies may find what Russia is offering dangerously enticing.

Russia’s renewed and expanding involvement in Africa has already returned large dividends, as Putin grabs for economic gains in the face of international sanctions placed on him in response to the invasion of Ukraine. Many of the juntas that sprang up in the wake of this recent spate of coups in about a dozen African countries now enjoy military backing from Putin and Wagner.

Russia’s actions on the continent are gaining support from African nations in the United Nations General Assembly, where Russia is accumulating votes from its newest allies. In response to a 2022 resolution condemning Russia for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, half the African delegations voted no, while the other half abstained.

My experience as a diplomat in this region tells me we’re seeing an old strategy. The Russian approach of using chaos as an opportunity to insert itself by offering military support to unstable regimes in the Sahel has significant parallels to what they did in the wake of the initial colonial European withdrawal from the continent.

The Soviet Union reaped significant rewards from its Cold War-era push, while the people and their nations and economies lost out. But perhaps, by drawing lessons from the past, we can help African nations avoid the same pitfalls.

Decolonization and Token Gestures

Beginning in 1955, the Soviet Union worked to identify and support African nationalist leaders whose anti-Western views could align with their Marxist worldview, including Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Agostinho Neto of Angola. In countries like Ethiopia and the Congo, Moscow provided socialist-leaning leaders and anti-government militias with munitions, military advisors, and training.

Two decades later in Angola, when the 1975 withdrawal of the Portuguese created chaos in the country, the Soviets sent troops from friendly Cuba to make sure the communist-aligned Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) emerged the winner. These Cuban troops would remain in Angola for 16 years to ensure that the MPLA stayed in power. Perhaps here we can see a parallel with Russia’s modern-day use of the Wagner Group as a military proxy, helping to prop up friendly leadership.

A crucial detail is this: lacking an equivalent to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Soviets had no way to foster meaningful economic development. Instead, they focused on paltry symbolic gestures like creating “people’s palaces,” to house the local African-Marxist political party and serve as a meeting place for the local parliament.

Economic Development and Lessons from the Past

The economically dysfunctional Russia of today still cannot offer African regimes economic support. While authoritarian leaders like Faustin-Archange Touadéra in the Central Africa Republic secure their positions with Wagner Group support, little benefit is shared with the general population. Instead of fueling economic strength for the public, national resources like diamonds and gold are diverted to feed the Africa Corps/Wagner machine and sent clandestinely to Russia.

There is an effective counter to Russia’s growing influence in Africa that avoids drawing us into a prolonged and costly military conflict. Rather than confronting Russian proxies on the ground, the United States can supply African countries with the economic development they have needed since the early days of the Cold War.

We’ve helped to turn countries like South Africa into rich trading partners. We should aim to do the same for others. The instability that has proven fertile ground for Russian influence is largely downstream from economic deprivation. By continuing to foster trade and economic growth among African nations, we can inoculate them to the influence of Russian state actors, without ever having to go toe-to-toe with them militarily.

Investments in USAID, in multilateral banks and smart trade agreements like the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) are helpful steps to counter the growing Russian influence. We must also work to encourage investment in these African countries, both by their own growing middle classes and by foreign investors. It’s important to make other countries on the continent wealthier, and therefore more stable, for the benefit of their citizens, US national security, and the geopolitical world at large.

Maybe people weren’t looking closely enough before Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago. And so, even as the world must keep focused on Israel, Palestine, and Ukraine in 2024, this is not a time to be distracted from Moscow’s intentions and allow Wagner’s Africa Corps’ destabilizing activities to take root in the Sahel.

Our policymakers need to stay focused on a strategy of fostering economic development. Show Putin he will not find success there any more than he has found in Ukraine. Remind Africa’s people and leaders to be wary of Russians bearing “gifts” and provide them viable alternatives to Moscow’s enticements.End.

Ambassador Herman J. Cohen is a 38-year veteran of the Foreign Service and a former advisor to presidents. During his career in the Foreign Service, Ambassador Cohen served in five African countries and twice in France. He was the ambassador to Senegal, with dual accreditation to the Gambia, from 1977 to 1980. He also served as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan (1987-1989), principal deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and research, and principal deputy assistant secretary for personnel, as well as assistant secretary of state for African affairs under President George H.W. Bush (1989-1993). Ambassador Cohen is the author of a number of books, including a recent memoir entitled Africa, You Have a Friend in Washington: An American Diplomat’s Adventures South of the Sahara (2023).


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