World Defense Review


Published 21 August 08

J. Peter Pham

Strategic Interests

by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist

The Russian Bear Returns to Africa

As the Russian forces rumbling over the borders of Georgia brusquely reminded the international community that, as Senator John McCain noted, a lot of what was thought to have been left behind at the end of the twentieth century is now "rearing its ugly head in the twenty-first," including an aggressively expansive foreign policy, not only in Moscow's self-declared "Near Abroad," but wherever the Kremlin can find a opening to exploit. While considerable attention has been paid to the strategic implications of the recent Africa engagements by the United States, China, India, and Japan, very little attention has been paid to important moves being made by a resurgent Russia on an African continent whose geopolitical significance is increasingly acknowledged.

During the Cold War, Africa was a significant theater in the global rivalry between the superpowers with the Soviet Union's search for geostrategic advantage and diplomatic support leading the Kremlin (and its Eastern European and Cuban proxies) to pour massive resources into African anti-colonial movements and, ultimately, the regimes which emerged. For example, from its establishment in 1921, the South African Communist Party was a member of the Communist International (Comintern), with one of the former's founding members, David Ivon Jones, being appointed by Joseph Stalin to the Comintern Executive Committee in 1928. After African National Congress (ANC) deputy president Oliver Tambo visited Moscow in 1963, the Soviet Union undertook to train the leadership cadres of the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Zizwe, and the ANC itself became the first African liberation movement to establish direct ties with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, rather than through one of the Kremlin's "solidarity committees." After the Soweto uprising of 1976, Soviet assistance was critical to the ANC's establishment of training camps in the "frontline" states for the youth who fled South Africa. The legacy of these connections still influences contemporary politics, as Irina Filatova, professor emeritus at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and former head of the Department of African Studies at Moscow State University, noted in a recent scholarly paper:

President [Thabo] Mbeki's support for [Robert] Mugabe's government as a fellow liberation movement, despite the detrimental effect of this solidarity on both South Africa and Zimbabwe; the attempts of the government to control too many spheres of public life; the attempts to micro-manage and control the economy; its attitude to the media and to criticism both within and outside the ANC: all this and much more is traceable to the way the movement operated during the cold war and the era of its attachment to the Soviet Union. While the ANC might have survived without the Soviet Union, it would have been a very different ANC. And the last decades of the history of South Africa would have been very different too.

By the time the Soviet Union formally dissolved on Christmas Day 1991, more than 50,000 Africans had been trained in Soviet universities and military and technical institutes, including the incumbent heads of state of Angola (José Eduardo dos Santos, an engineering graduate of the Azerbaijan Oil and Chemistry Institute), Mali (Amadou Toumani Touré, who trained as a parachute commando in the Soviet Union), and South Africa (Thabo Mbeki, who received military and political training in the Soviet Union). In the heyday of Moscow's activism in the Third World, Soviet clients like President Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea and President Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia imposed Marxist dictatorships on their countries which aped the Stalinist prototype down to the minutest details of oppression.

In contrast, the 1990s saw a massive disengagement from Africa by Russian foreign policy, with the mantras of "socialist solidarity" replaced by the spectacle of politicians ranging from President Boris Yeltsin to ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the ironically-named Liberal Democratic Party blaming Russia's economic ills to the cost of aid which the Soviet Union had bestowed on Africa and other developing regions. In fact, aside from a reception accorded to then South African President F.W. de Klerk in mid-1992, not one African head of state was welcomed to the Kremlin during Yeltsin's entire first term as president of the Russian Federation. And it was not until more than halfway through his second term that Yeltsin receive another African leader, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. During this period, more than a dozen Russian embassies, consulates, and other diplomatic and commercial stations in Africa were shut down.

After Vladimir Putin succeeded Yeltsin as president on New Year's Eve 1999, however, there has been a slow, but steady, renewal of Russian interest in Africa. The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation which Putin approved in June 2000 pledged that "Russia will expand interaction with African states" and "develop a political dialogue with the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and with sub-regional organizations and to use their capabilities for enabling Russia to join multilateral economic projects in the continent." The driving force behind the new engagement was no longer global revolution, but, as the updated version of the document signed last month by Putin's handpicked successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, forthrightly admitted, more material concerns:

Priority attention will be paid to developing mutually beneficial economic cooperation, in particular in the energy sector, with countries of this region, which is of strategic importance to Russia's national interests ... We will develop political dialogue with the African Union and subregional organizations taking advantage of their capabilities to involve Russia in economic projects implemented on the continent.

Putin's September 2006 foray to South Africa and Morocco, during which he was accompanied by more than one hundred business leaders, had a decidedly economic emphasis. A number of South African companies including South African Breweries, the chemical firm Sasol, and the DeBeers Central Selling Organisation diamond marketing cartel have substantial investments in Russia, while Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg's Renova Group owns a 49-percent stake in United Manganese of Kalahari (the rest of the firm is held by a business front for the ruling ANC). The joint venture was, reportedly through Putin's intervention, granted prospecting rights in the North Cape region where some 80 percent of the world's known commercially exploitable reserves of manganese, a metal with important industrial alloy uses including steelmaking, are located. Two years earlier, another Russian firm, Norilsk Nickel, owned billionaire partners Mikhail Prokhorov and Vladimir Potanin, had made what was to date the largest foreign direct investment by a Russian company when it acquired a 20 percent stake in Gold Fields, a South African mining corporation, for $1.16 billion cash. At the time of the purchase from Anglo-American, Norilsk was already the world's largest producer of nickel and palladium and a leading producer of platinum, copper, and cobalt, as well as the largest gold miner in Russia. (In a somewhat apposite development, just last week Prokhorov paid 496 million euros to acquire the Villa Léopolda near Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera. The Belle Époque mansion was built in 1902 by King Leopold II of the Belgians, using the proceeds from his private African colonial enterprise, the Congo Free State.)

Morocco is Russia's largest trading partner in Africa, with more bilateral trade valued at more than $1.5 billion annually. With some 88.5 billion tons of proven reserves, the North African kingdom is the world's third-largest producer of phosphate rock behind the United States and the People's Republic of China. Raw phosphates and fertilizer are the country's leading export commodities and Russia is a key client of Morocco's state-owned Office Chérifien des Phosphates. By agreement Morocco's territorial waters are open to Russian pelagic trawlers, which also work the coastal waters off Western Sahara.

The push for access to strategic natural resources has continued in recent years. In 2007, Norilsk Nickel's $5.2 billion acquisition of Canada's LionOre Mining gave the Russian firm an 85 percent stake in Botswana's Tati Nickel, which had recently announced the commissioning of a new plant with the capacity of 12 million tons of ore per annum for the Phoenix Mine in the northeastern part of the country and an expansion of the nearby Selkirk Mine (which has at least 230 million tons of ore deposit), as well as a 50 percent stake in South Africa's Nkomati Nickel, where it has quadrupled the nickel production as well expanded output of copper and platinum-group metal by-products (mainly palladium). The same year, an overseas holding company for Russia's largest petroleum producer, Lukoil, acquired for an undisclosed sum a 63 percent interest in a 2,600-square kilometer deepwater block 100 kilometers offshore from Côte d'Ivoire in the Gulf of Guinea. At the same time, another Russian firm, Sintezneftegaz, has acquired oil exploration rights off Namibia. Meanwhile, another Russian conglomerate, Oleg Deripaska's United Company RUSAL aluminium firm, spent $250 million to acquire a majority stake in Aluminium Smelter Company (ALSCON) of Nigeria. RUSAL already controlled the $350 million Fria aluminium complex in Guinea as well as that West African country's Dian-Dian bauxite field, one of the world's largest deposits of the ore. The two latter properties have, respectively, an annual production of 640,000 tons of alumina and 1.9 million tones of bauxite. (It should be noted that, in recent years, the price of aluminium has shot through the roof, closing last Friday at $2,716 a ton on the London Metals Exchange; however, if futures prices are any indication, the heady predictions of some analysts that it could rise to $4,500 a ton by next year are not to be rule out.)

In May of this year, Severstal, Russia's second-largest steelmaker, spent $40 million to acquire control of a deposit in the Putu Range area of Liberia containing some 500 million tons of iron ore. In June, industry media fluttered with rumors that a Russian consortium, purportedly led by Norilsk, was preparing a $2 billion acquisition of mining assets in Zambia.

Furthermore, as a report earlier this year on Russia's Outward Investment by Deutsche Bank noted, "apart from resource-based companies, Russian financial companies are also pushing into Africa and leading Russian telecommunications firms are also expected to expand in the African continent." For example, in Libya, which Putin visited in April, Russian Railways has been given a $2 billion contract to build a 516-kilometer branch line. The contract is one of several that Russian companies have captured following the write-off of $4.5 billion in Libyan debt. Libyan Prime Minister al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmudi, visiting Moscow at the beginning of August, was quoted by the Russian business newspaper Kommersant as gushing that "we have a special attitude towards Gazprom" referring to the Russian natural gas monopoly which has openly floated the idea of buying all of Libya's future oil, natural gas and liquefied natural gas designated for export and inviting now-Prime Minister Putin to come back to visit Benghazi. The diplomatic duet being played by the Russian leader and the Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution had a strategic edge to it. During the April visit, Putin, after being shown by Muammar al-Qadhafi around the Tripoli residence bombed by the United States in 1986 following a Libyan terrorist attack against American military personnel in Berlin, denounced "the U.S. attack" and wrote in the visitor's book: "In memory of the martyr victims, we share your sadness. Please accept our condolences." Libya, in turn, has welcomed Russia's reemergence on the world stage. Last week, Qadhafi's influential son Saif al-Islam was quoted by the Russia news service RIA Novosti as saying that Libya had an optimistic view of the current conflict in the Caucasus: "What happened in Georgia is a good sign, which means America is no longer the sole world power setting the rules of the game. There is a balance in the world now. Russia is resurging, which is good for us." Tripoli has also been supportive of a proposal from Moscow to turn the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF), founded in Tehran in 2001 as an informal club of major natural gas exporting nations, into an Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries-type cartel. The United States and the European Union have both repeatedly warned that turning the GECF into an OPEC-style organization would pose a serious danger to global energy security, opening the way to price manipulation.

More ominously, Russia is also using arms facilitate its access to natural resources. In 2006, following a visit by President Putin to Algiers, Russia agreed to write off some $4.7 billion in Col War-era debt owed by Algeria in exchange for a new $7.5 billion arms deal that will include MiG-29SMT fourth-generation fighters, Su-30MKA multi-role strike fighters, Yak-30 military jet trainers, two Varshavyanka-class diesel-electric submarines, and two Nanuchka-class corvettes, as well as eight S-300PMU-2 "Favorit" surface-to-air (SAM) batteries and the Tunguska-MI air defense missile and cannon systems. At the same time, Gazprom entered into an agreement with the Algerian state gas company, Sonatrach, to cooperate in exploration, extraction, and production of liquefied natural gas. While the gas deal was subsequently put on hold, it was apparently revived earlier this year when the Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika visited Putin in Moscow.

Combined, a Gazprom-Sonatrach partnership would control nearly 40 percent of Europe's gas consumption a datum which points to what may be the underlying strategy which Russia has embraced under Putin. As Senator Richard Lugar noted in prepared remarks at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing earlier this summer, "Gazprom's monopoly-seeking activities cannot be explained by economic motives alone. It is difficult to distinguish where the Russian Government ends and where Gazprom begins. Clearly Gazprom has sacrificed profits and needed domestic infrastructure investments to achieve Russian foreign policy goals." The Indiana Republican also correctly observed that "energy may seem to be a less lethal weapon than military force, but a sustained natural gas shutdown to a European country in the middle of winter could cause death and economic loss on the scale of a military attack."

Moreover, albeit to what up to now has been a more modest extent than similar programs in other countries, Russia has also been shoring up its "soft power." Under Putin, the Kremlin resumed granting scholarships for African students to study in Russian universities and other institutions of higher education. Currently several hundred African students benefit from the program, which covers tuition and room and board, to study at the Peoples' Friendship University of Russia (PFUR) in Moscow, formerly the Patrice Lumumba University. In addition to the students receiving Russian government scholarships, several hundred other Africans are also currently enrolled at PFUR on fee-paying basis. According to PFUR's Russian-language website, the school still has its mission "the formation of individuals who are patriots of their own countries as well as friends of Russia." Several hundred secondary school students from Africa also graduate each year from Russian institutions.

In another initiative aimed at increasing its influence in Africa, some of the activities of the old Soviet Association of Friendship with African Peoples, originally founded in 1959 with the mission of "arrang[ing] meetings, social events, talks, and exhibitions devoted to the national holidays of the African peoples, to anniversaries of people outstanding in the cultural field in Africa, and to other important events in the life of African nations," have been revived by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-run Russian Center for International Scientific and Cultural Cooperation (Roszarubeszhtsentr). Roszarubeszhtsentr branches are currently operating in Congo (Brazzaville), Egypt (Alexandria and Cairo), Ethiopia (Addis Ababa), Madagascar (Antananarivo), Morocco (Rabat), Namibia (Windhoek), Nigeria (Lagos), Tanzania (Dar es Salaam), Tunisia (Tunis), and Uganda (Kampala). The Institute for African Studies within the Russian Academy of Sciences, also founded in 1959, was reorganized last year and now embraces thirteen research units, a working group, and an information center, employing a total of more than one hundred academic staff members a substantial commitment of public resources that is unmatched anywhere else. The Institute is currently directed by Alexei Vasiliev, a scholar of the Middle East and Africa who has authored nearly thirty books and over 800 articles over the course of a career spanning four decades. In addition to his academic and policy research, since 2006 Professor Vasiliev has also doubled as Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation for Relations with African Leaders. (In the United States, Professor Vasiliev would undoubtedly run afoul of leftist-dominated ivory tower groups like the African Studies Association and the Middle East Studies Association which regularly pass resolutions opposing members' application for or acceptance of military and intelligence funding of area and language programs, projects, and research in African studies. While, both as a U.S. citizen and an Africanist, I am uneasy with the Kremlin's policy objectives in Africa, I can nonetheless respect the Russian academician's service to his country's interests which, far from diminishing his scholarship, has arguably enhanced its relevance.)

In his Washington Post column last week, Robert Kagan somewhat dramatically, but nonetheless correctly, argued:

Historians will come to view August 8, 2008, as a turning point no less significant than November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Russia's attack on sovereign Georgian territory marked the official return of history, indeed to an almost 19th-century style of great-power competition, complete with virulent nationalisms, battles for resources, struggles over spheres of influence and territory, and even though it shocks our 21st-century sensibilities the use of military power to obtain geopolitical objectives. Yes, we will continue to have globalization, economic interdependence, the European Union and other efforts to build a more perfect international order. But these will compete with and at times be overwhelmed by the harsh realities of international life that have endured since time immemorial.

While the web of strategic access and other ties that Russia has been reconstituting and expanding in Africa does not necessarily presage a return to a zero-sum Cold War competition across the continent, the long-term implications of these engagements should nonetheless be of concern to Africans and non-Africans alike, especially when, as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted last week, "Russia's behavior over the past week has called into question the entire premise of that dialogue and has profound implications for our security relationship going forward." Given Africa's increasingly recognized geopolitical significance as well as the strategic importance of its natural resources to the security of the United States, American policymakers and analysts would do well to be wary of the Russian bear's return to the Dark Continent.

J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.

Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).

In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.

© 2008 J. Peter Pham

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