UK and Russia: The Future for African Security? | Nathan Wilson
As the UK moves into new frontiers Post-Brexit, one sector of international trade that is often overlooked is that of the security and defence sector. Mix this with the most overlooked part of the Earth (Africa) and you have a recipe for those with an appetite for destruction. Before exploring this topic further, we need to explore the new kings of this frontier… Russia.
Russia is a nation that many obsess over. Its history, culture and most importantly its politics. The nation’s alleged involvement in US politics is what mostly dominates political debates around the topic in the last few years. However, Moscow has been silently making major inroads across that of Africa. It remains unclear if the actions are to counterbalance Chinese involvement in the continent or merely seeking to expand outside of Western sanctions, but Russia has recently moved ahead with its military partnerships aided by private contractors. Although Russia has not been a major player in the region since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, it has in the past helped supported various nations politically and financially (prominent examples being Angola and Mozambique throughout the Cold War) with their security.
With America’s retreat from the Middle East, the creation of a power vacuum for a nation to fill remains ever more significant. The origins for this movement started before the Trump Administration with President Obama’s pivoting towards Asia and the South China Sea. The current Biden Administration now attempts to fully divert from this continuing decline. The US since has also downplayed its influence in Africa. What this has meant is that there has been a major reduction in ambassadors and staff to the region (the US ambassador to South Africa arrived more than three years late (in 2020 instead of 2017).
This has not been helped after former President Trump stated during a speech to the United Nations in 2017, referring to a non-existent African Country of “Nambia” twice, with the new Biden Administration unlikely to buck this trend anytime soon. As such, it looks like Russia will take advantage in countering China’s influence expansion across the continent. Africa’s problems with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are numerous and well documented. By the financing of major public infrastructure projects in these poorer nations, China has effectively brought several nations into its economic sphere for influence through debt control. In doing so, China has flooded the continent with its own technology and infrastructure.
With Russia there exists little focus on technology and infrastructure. Instead, Russia will extend its power and influence through military assistance and the media. According to Asia Times, Russia is now the biggest supplier of military hardware to Africa, this comes having signed military agreements with twenty-one African nations. Alongside this, as well as signing military deals and training partnerships with half of Africa’s nations and nuclear energy partnerships with Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and Zambia. These being just some of many examples since 2014’s sanctions against Russia.
Examples of such partnerships will only strengthen Russia’s role within the continent and its security trade. This is like Iraq post-Saddam, with American military contractors flooding into the nation. However, Russia is using its veterans from the Ukrainian and Chechen conflicts to help fight and secure this often-unstable continent. A major example of such a private contractor firm is that of the Wagner Group. The Wagner Group is run by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is known for his connections to Vladimir Putin.
The Wagner Group became importantly clear in October 2019 after seven of its members were killed in Mozambique, fighting against Islamic Extremists in the north of the country. The event displayed the extent that Mozambique is currently Russia to help with counterinsurgency within the nation. In addition, Mozambique is not turning to neighbouring countries like South Africa but instead is reliant upon Russia for its assistance, in the tackling of its security problems.
The same can be said about Tanzania, which recently signed a cooperation agreement in which Russian military forces will give training in the country. Other deals that have been agreed is that of Nigeria, Sudan, Mali, Madagascar and Eritrea. As a result, all these deals have generated trade between Russia and Africa to that of $20.4 billion in 2018.
In October 2019, President Putin organised the first ever Russia-Africa summit to display the nation’s efforts within the continent. For the summit, 43 out of Africa’s 55 heads of state attended.
What we could be seeing is a geopolitical scramble for the continent, is one of the fastest-developing parts of the world. Moscow sees Africa as an asset just like Beijing does. As such, it remains vital for Russia to hold Africa into its geopolitical orbit. After America left the Middle East, Russia successfully moved into the vacuum that was left. What remains unclear is: what does this mean for security within the region? It is no secret that Russia since facing US sanctions has explored alternative means of expansion while avoiding America’s watchful eye. We have seen Russia form promote trade with Singapore and make inroads into SE Asia, but the direct focus on military and security offers an alternative from more traditional oil and gas revenues.
In examination, one could infer many things about this increasing trend from within this region. Like with all things security and defence is a business and trade sector. As the UK attempts to promote its Global Britain Brand around the world, maybe it could learn from Russia and its actions regarding the security industry. Alongside this, the UK needs to learn from the mistakes of the US and define its relationship to the arms trade and jointly resolve security issues within the continent.
Overall, besides, it being increasingly relevant for security scholars to explore future Russian advances into this often undervalued and explored region of the world, it remains important in seeing a possible place for the UK into this field.