Russia’s “controlled chaos” in Africa faces diminishing returns

Russia’s “controlled chaos” in Africa faces diminishing returns

Russia’s recent maneuvers in Africa represent a curious blend of strategic ambition and inherent limitations. Leveraging a policy of "controlled chaos," Russia has amplified its influence on the continent through aggressive economic and military tactics. However, the cracks in this approach are beginning to show, potentially heralding a decline in Moscow’s sway over Africa. This is the thesis of a Polish think tank, the Center for Eastern Studies.

Africa’s attractions to Russia are several: growing political clout in the UN, with 54 votes in the UN General Assembly; natural resources, including minerals central for emerging clean energy technologies; and geostrategic location (access to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, Mediterranean and Red Sea, as well as control of global shipping bottlenecks). Africa is central to Russia’s efforts to break out of the international isolation in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Despite grandiose promises, Russia’s economic engagement in Africa has remained modest. Trade volumes have not only stagnated but decreased; Russia's trade with Africa is dwarfed by the United States, EU, and China. Russian foreign direct investment in Africa is negligible, comprising less than 1% of total FDI in the continent. 

As the largest arms supplier to the continent, Russia’s military influence in Africa dominates its approach. The Wagner Group, and its successor the Africa Corps, have played a pivotal role, providing military support in exchange for resource concessions in countries like Libya, Mali, Sudan and the Central African Republic. However, this engagement has often exacerbated local conflicts and undermined regional stability.

Propaganda and information warfare is another arena where Moscow has excelled. Russia has adeptly used anti-Western rhetoric to position itself as a champion of national sovereignty and anti-colonialism, appealing to African resentment of Western powers. This narrative, coupled with disinformation campaigns and electoral interference, has fostered a pro-Russian sentiment among some African governments. However, this support is not uniform, with democratic nations such as Sierra Leone and Malawi often opposing Russia’s actions.

Recently, Moscow’s aggressive pursuit of influence through destabilization has started to backfire. Its broader international policy has aggravated Africa’s socio-economic challenges, notably in food security. 

As African countries grow more assertive, the Kremlin’s room for maneuver is shrinking. The reliance on authoritarian regimes and fragile states limits Russia’s long-term influence across a heterogenous collection of nations. Moreover, Western sanctions and the ongoing war in Ukraine are likely to constrain Russia’s capacity to expand its military and economic footprint in Africa. 

The very instability that has allowed Russia to gain a foothold may ultimately undermine its position, as African nations reassess their relationships in pursuit of more balanced and beneficial partnerships.

 *Lonzo Cook is a journalist and writer. He spent two decades at CNN in a series of senior editorial and management roles including leading breaking news operations across Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. In addition to writing on international affairs, national security and business, he works with media companies and corporations on how to evolve and create content to stay relevant to key audiences.


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