Many things have changed in the Russian presence in Africa since the Soviet times. Moscow is no longer sending its ‘military advisors’ (a euphemism for soldiers and officers) throughout the continent, but Russian arms and troops – in a different way – still have a role in local geo-politics.
An element worth mentioning is the fact that Russia takes part in most of the ongoing UN peacekeeping missions in the continent: over time it has dispatched personnel to operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Liberia, Sudan, South Sudan, and the Western Sahara and it has deployed more men on the ground than France, the United Kingdom, and the United States combined. Another sign that Putin is well aware that peacekeeping is – under the present circumstances – a tool as useful as direct military presence used to be in the past in Moscow’s relationship with the African Union. In 2011, for instance, 180 policemen for AU missions were trained in Russia and the following year the Russian ambassador to Addis Abeba, Vladimir Utkin, and AU Commissioner for Peace and Security, Ramtane Lamamra, signed an agreement over the transfer of $2 million from Russia’s state coffers to the African Union peace fund.
That amount of money, however, almost vanishes when compared to the value of the arms sales contracts that Moscow signed with African countries. In 2013-2014 the Kremlin authorized 25 deals for a total of 1.7 billion dollars. The main beneficiaries were Northern African countries such as Algeria (which buys a staggering 90,8% of its arms from the Kremlin) or Egypt (in particular for anti-aircraft defence), while before the fall of both Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Muammar Gaddafi, Tunisia and Libya were also among Russia’s partners in this trade. Russia’s share in sub-Saharan Africa arms market, on the other hand, is less relevant: a mere 2% of its military export goes to this area, but things might be bound to change in the future. In fact, many countries are now willing to modernise their arsenals or repair tanks, aircrafts and helicopters. For this purpose, they now look at Russia’s technologies and expertise as they did, many years before, to the Soviet Union’s. ‘Old friends’ such as Angola (which in 2013 signed a $1 billion worth deal) are as well treated as new clients like Namibia, which recently purchased from Moscow – for the first time in 15 years – mortars, ammunitions, military vehicles and Kornet-E anti-tank missiles.
It is no surprise that Russia, which according to the figures provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) has been the world’s second-largest arms exporter for the last five years, is willing to increase its share in the African arms market. The paradox, however, is that in some areas Moscow both provides, directly or indirectly, the weapons used by the belligerents and deploys the peacekeepers who are supposed to stop them.
A typical case is that of South Sudan, where Russian troops are part of UNMISS (the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in the country) and where Salva Kiir’s government has been supported in its fight against the rebels by the Ugandan army. According to some reports, Kampala’s air force, during the campaign, employed some of the Sukhoi Su-30 twin-engine fighters it bought from Russian arms maker Rosoboronexport for $744 million three years ago.
A quite different case is that of Mali: when France decided to start operation Serval in order to oust Islamic militias in Northern Mali, Russia’s official position was in favour of restoring the country’s national unity, but by diplomatic, and not military, means.
Just a couple of months before (namely in September 2012), however, Moscow had agreed to provide the government in Bamako with assault rifles, machine guns and ammunition worth $12 million. Finally, it must be noted that Russia does not only sell weapons to African countries, but also helps local industries to develop them. For instance, the already mentioned Rosoboronexport cooperates with South African arms’ industries – as it does with those of other BRICS states – in the development of new types of ammunition, and a center to repair helicopters and for training of both pilots and technicians has been opened in the country. (D.M.)