Analysis: Russia uses historical ties, military aid and anti-western sentiments as the means of building new alliances in Africa

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has isolated it from the global community, especially the West and its allies. Due to this situation, Moscow has turned its search for allies and friends towards Asia and Africa. Looking at the African continent and how Moscow attempts to make new 'friends’ and maintain the old ones, we can see that Russia uses historical ties, military aid and anti-western sentiments as the means of making ‘friends’ in Africa.

In terms of history, most African states gained independence during the Cold War. During this time, the Soviet Union offered military and financial assistance to many African freedom fighter movements in Ghana, Egypt, Guinea, Mali and Angola, surpassing support from the US and the Western world. For example, the Soviets provided heavy military exercises and weapons to African nationalist soldiers to fight their colonial masters for freedom.

In Egypt, the Soviet Union helped build the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, which is among the most enduring Russian monuments under Abdel Nasser. It also supplied the country’s freedom fighters with arms through a military deal. The Soviets also offered opportunities for many Egyptians to study in Soviet universities and military schools. Since then, relations between Egypt and Moscow have deepened, especially under president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

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From HistoryPod, the story behind the construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, which was funded by the Soviet Union

In Mali, for instance, the country remained dependent on the Soviets for economic and military assistance under its first president Modibo Keita. Moscow also improved Malian’s Air Force base in Mopti. Since then, there has been a strong Russian presence in the country up to date. Moreover, the current Malian military junta relies heavily on Russia for its military aid while its relations with the West sour.

The African liberation movements depended heavily on the outside world for their arms and equipment supply. Therefore, they saw the Soviets as their ‘saviour’ since they supported their ‘anti-imperial’ struggle against the West. Small wonder, then, that many African countries still retain positive associations with Soviet assistance.

As a result, the continent has become receptive to Russian overtures as the West isolates Moscow for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Relying on this history, Russia has incorporated it into its current quest for friendship in the continent, reminding Africans and their leaders of the evils of colonialism. For example, Moscow recently reminded South Africa of its role in the country’s fight for freedom. Many believe that Russia’s search for ‘friendship’ in Africa cannot be fruitful without this historical connection and Moscow’s reconnection with Africa has been successful thanks to its Soviet anti-imperial policy in Africa.

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From France24, report on the visit of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to four African nations in July 2022

Last month, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov travelled to Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on a five-day tour. It was the highest level Russian diplomatic visit to the continent since Russia invaded Ukraine and strengthened ties with countries that have benefited from Moscow’s economic and military generosity during the Cold War and in recent times.

Russia also uses military aid, such as weapon delivery, exercises and training, to lure governments of fragile and politically unstable African states. This includes weapon sales to Algeria, Egypt, Mali, Sudan, Nigeria and Cameroon, as well as providing military consultants to the continent. Moscow has also established military alliances and bases in African countries, especially those facing violent insurgencies, including the Central African Republic (CAR), Libya, Sudan, Mozambique and Mali (where Irish Defence Forces personnel are engaged in EU and UN missions). Russian-linked mercenaries’ presence in Africa is also seen in the countries mentioned above, with the Wagner Group leading it.

The effect of Russia-African friendship can be seen during international condemnation of Moscow’s infamous Ukraine invasion, when many African governments did not condemn Russia. Although countries like Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria openly condemned the war, most African leaders who have benefited from the so-called ‘Russia friendship’ with military and other foreign aid were reluctant to add their voice to the international community to condemn Kremlin.

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From South African Broadcasting Corporation News, why 24 African countries declined to join the resounding UN vote denouncing Russian's war on Ukraine

During the UN's vote on the suspension of Russia from the Human Rights Council, Moscow’s African friends did not betray it. Nine African states voted against the motion, 24 abstained, and only ten were in favour, while the 11 others were not in the room. Russia’s influence on the African continent affected the UN votes in its favour.

Russia has also been able to paint the country as the defender of countries against Western imperialism, which has yielded positive results in Africa. Unfortunately, the continent has become one of the main targets of Moscow's disinformation and propaganda. It has successfully created an image that portrays the West’s historical and present crimes against Africa by fueling anti-western sentiments among African populations. Due to this, most African leaders and their citizens blindly cherish and support Putin.

Moscow has not changed its playbook in Africa since the Soviet Union era. It uses the same old strategy of military aid and anti-western sentiments to woo old and new ‘friends’ in Africa. Security has been one of the major threats to most African governments, and they often look for military aid from Moscow to secure themselves in power.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ