The cover of a recent issue of Time magazine left little to imagination. It featured a menacing looking president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, looming over a globe dotted by white location pins bearing red stars. The issue’s feature article claimed in its title that Russia was engaged in a wide-ranging and largely successful effort to cobble up an empire of failed states and rogue regimes, many of them on the African continent. Almost simultaneously with this Time piece, the New York Times published a lengthy article on Russia’s alleged military expansion across Africa. Putin’s Russia, asserted the article, seeks out openings in the regions and countries where the rule of law has been compromised or non-existent. In the absence of US interest and commitment on the continent and against the background of America’s “disengagement” under Trump, the Russians are staging a post-Soviet comeback in Africa—as the famous Russian saying goes “свято место пусто не бывает” (a holy space won’t stay empty).
Such reports of Russia’s expansionist policies on the continent have proliferated in the last couple of years, and reached a crescendo in the aftermath of the mysterious murder of three Russian opposition-financed journalists that took place in the Central African Republic (CAR) last summer. The tragedy highlighted Russia’s growing clout in an African country torn asunder by civil and religious strife—it has been reported that Russian mercenaries and special forces now provide security for the nation’s beleaguered president Faustin-Archange Touadéra. At the same time, it was not lost on western reporters that the former chief rebel and one-time president Michael Djotodia had been educated in the Soviet Union, where he resided for an extended period of time.
In Sudan, the recently deposed president Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the notorious long-time strongman, under indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, engaged in direct diplomacy with Vladimir Putin and brought in Russian mercenaries to help him curb the massive popular protests threatening his rule. If one assumes, as many a western journalist is apparently prone to do, that these examples of collaboration between Putin’s regime and African strongmen are indicative of a broader and well thought out strategy of dislodging the western powers from their long-held positions of geopolitical arbiters then the panicky headlines and sensationalist reporting may well be justified. Yet knowing the uneven and difficult history of Soviet and Russian involvement in Africa one might counsel some caution.
The current flare-up of western concerns about Russia’s African expansionism is somewhat reminiscent of earlier such panics. In 1960, Americans had convinced themselves that Congolese nationalist Patrice Lumumba was in fact Moscow’s stooge. The consequences of these fears proved to be lethal for Lumumba and dire for the Congo. In 1967, after the Soviets had thrown their weight on the side of the Federalists in the Biafran War, western observers predicted Moscow’s rise as a major power broker in West Africa. A decade later Soviet and Cuban involvement in Angola and the Horn of Africa were supposed to be the harbingers of another Soviet takeover of Africa. However, the reality of Soviet adventurism was far messier whereby the return on the investment of political capital and resources often proved to be inadequate. There was little evidence that Patrice Lumumba harbored any particular affinity for Marxism-Leninism and plenty of evidence that he only reached out to the Soviets after having been rebuffed (and insulted) by the Americans. The wartime honeymoon between Nigerian federalists and their Soviet friends hardly survived the war, while Angolans, even at the height of their Marxist-Leninist phase, continued to profitably sell oil to the west. Even during the Cold War, when ideology did matter to some extent, Soviet commitments on the continent sometimes belied their claims to ideological purity. Much of the decision-making was motivated by crude pragmatism and opportunism. The Biafran War offered a case in point: in that conflict, Moscow backed a side that had absolutely no interest in any aspects of Marxism-Leninism. In fact, the leadership of Biafra tended to be far more “leftist” in their outlook than their staunchly pro-western opponents in Lagos. In 1977, at the height of the Ogaden war, the Soviet Union readily dropped the “socialist” Barre regime in Somalia to pursue a more promising alliance with Ethiopia.
Obviously, the Russia of Vladimir Putin bears few similarities to the Soviet Union of Leonid Brezhnev. Yet historians may want to acknowledge certain historical continuities. Now as then, the Russians in their dealings with their African partners claim to present an alternative model. Where the Soviets peddled the ostensible benefits of socialist modernization their Russian successors care little about socialism. But there is also a continuity of sorts, which can be generally summarized as a politics of anti-liberalism. While the Soviets assaulted western liberalism from the left, the twenty-first century Russian leadership challenges the west from the right or, on occasion, from a place that cannot be easily defined ideologically—there is a distinct postmodern aspect to their critique. Putin’s regime has placed the principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity above the pieties of western liberalism; to Putin, democracy, transparency and human rights are far less important than stability. It’s a fundamentally conservative vision that emphasizes the zero-sum nature of global politics and places no demands on individual rulers beyond their ability to “maintain order” and provide business opportunities to the Putin oligarchy.
I would argue that contrary to common western apprehensions the Russians have returned to Africa not to build an “empire” of any sort but rather to pursue lucrative business opportunities. It is likely that the “omnipotent” and “omniscient” Putin is the product of a feverish imagination of those western observers who have been taken in by the ongoing handwringing over Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential elections in the United States. Whether or not Moscow actually influenced the outcome of the elections in any substantive way remains an open question, but the agony over the election of Donald Trump may have inspired a search for other areas of Russian global mischief. Some of these anxieties are not entirely unfounded but it would help not to exaggerate the power and reach of Putin’s regime. But what about his despotic clients in Africa, kept afloat by their alliance with Moscow? one might ask. Well, as of this writing, one of Putin’s closest African partners, Omar al-Bashir, finds himself under arrest in Khartoum—overthrown in a military coup, which may have been an attempt to satisfy the demands by the hundreds of thousands of protesters.