Russia is moving to expand its sphere of influence in Africa through new military bases and increasing troop numbers, in a move military experts say is aimed at building a military force in the form of a Russian AFRICOM capable of competing with the roles that the US military command in Africa (AFRICOM) plays, which is more evident in Libya, where the United States has shown its dismay at the Russian role in supporting the Libyan National Army.
A German report stated that Russia took permits to establish military bases in six African countries, including Egypt and Sudan, in a step that reveals Moscow’s desire to protect its role in Libya through a belt of bases that would make targeting this role extremely risky, something the United States has experienced in Syria.
AFRICOM, in more than one statement, expressed Washington’s concern about Russia’s repetition of the Syrian scenario in Libya, tipping the balance of the conflict in Russia’s favour, tracking the movements of what it describes as Russian-backed Wagner mercenaries.
Last July, AFRICOM said there was “increasing evidence through satellite imagery of Russian military cargo aircraft, including the IL-6 transporting supplies to fighters from Russia’s private Wagner Military Group…The type and size of the equipment reveal an intention to maintain offensive combat capabilities”. But Russia has consistently denied the US military’s statements.
It is widely believed that the Libyan conflict will serve as a test of the effectiveness of battle strategies for pivotal states, especially the United States and Russia, and that the results will either support or limit Russian expansion in Africa.
The Bild.de newspaper quoted a report of the German Foreign Ministry, that since 2015 Russia had concluded military cooperation agreements with 21 African countries, while prior to that date, it had cooperation agreements with only four countries in Africa. According to those agreements, Moscow obtained guarantees to establish military bases in Egypt, the Central African Republic, Eritrea, Madagascar, Mozambique and Sudan.
Observers say that Russia is expanding its influence in Africa as part of a broader strategy based on moving in more than one theatre, not satisfied with a direct military role, which include economic competition at a time when Africa has become a vital playground for different countries such as China, Turkey, Iran, the United States and France.
According to the German newspaper, Russia is sometimes secretly, sometimes formally, training the forces of these countries, and it has, in this context 180 soldiers in the Central African Republic. Moscow trains about twenty soldiers from Mali in Russia annually. Russia is not only sending official soldiers to African countries, but is also active there through security companies such as “Wagner”, despite Moscow’s denial of its management of these forces. According to German experts, Moscow aims to achieve political, economic and military gains in Africa through Russian security companies.
Russia is seeking to break a traditional image of it being a country of direct military interests, and therefore its wager on Africa has taken various forms, including the seventy million dollars spent to host the Russian-African summit on 23 and 24 of October 2019 in Sochi where 34 African leaders participated.
According to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, between 2015 and 2017, Russia supplied African countries with military equipment, including military and transport helicopters, aircraft, and anti-aircraft missile systems.
On the sidelines of that summit in Sochi, Nigeria signed an agreement with Russia to purchase 12 military helicopters. Cameroon, South Africa and Eritrea were among the countries that indicated their desire to purchase aircraft, tanks and heavy weapons from Russia.
Not long ago, the Central African Republic, which has been plagued by years of civil war, signed a military cooperation agreement with Russia, according to which Russian military advisers will be officially present in the capital, Bangui, to train their security units confronting threats from armed extremist groups.