Putin and his Oligarchs in Africa: The Scramble for Economic and Military Leverage

by Gregory Alonso Pirio and Robert Pittelli

Africa is increasingly becoming a target of Russia’s renewed international assertiveness; its economic and military forays into Africa are often overshadowed, however, by Russian aggression in the Ukraine including the annexation of Crimea and its military backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The quieter but dramatic Russian engagement in Africa is multipronged, including the acquisition of valuable energy and mineral assets, which in the case of natural gas is likely part of an effort to maintain energy leverage over Western Europe; the cultivation of relations with fellow sanctioned states, and the forging of strategic military cooperation such as with the sanctioned Eritrea, Sudan and Zimbabwe as well as Egypt.

Russia’s positioning with Eritrea and other actors in the Horn of Africa region should be regarded as geopolitical leveraging in the vital Red Sea/Suez Canal region of the Middle East reminiscent of what occurred at the height of the US-Soviet Cold War rivalry. Russia’s coziness with Eritrea may also mean bad news for neighboring Ethiopia that has suffered from destabilization efforts by Eritrea’s proxies for some time.

In cultivating relations with African states out of favor with the West, Russia appears to be promoting a bloc of sanctioned countries in defiance of the world order that Western countries have been pursuing. It was in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support of separatists in East Ukraine that the EU and the US targeted sanctions against Russian state banks and corporations, dozens of senior officials, and firms accused of undermining Ukrainian sovereignty. In turn, Russia has been cozying up with fellow sanctioned states such as Zimbabwe, Eritrea and Sudan. President Putin has reportedly vowed, for instance, to stand by Zimbabwe and shield the southern African country against any “Western aggression.”

In late 2014, Sudanese President Omer Hassan al-Bashir reportedly stressed to the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, Sudan’s solidarity with Russia in the face of unilateral sanctions imposed by some western countries over the Ukrainian crisis, which he noted that Sudan also suffers from. The UN has imposed an embargo on arms and military technical assistance to Sudan. But in apparent defiance of the UN military embargo, Foreign Minister Lavrov pledged increased military technical cooperation with Sudan. At Sudan’s urging, Russia and its one-time Cold War ally, Angola, blocked in September 2015, a US proposed a travel ban and asset freeze on South Sudanese army chief Paul Malong and rebel general Johnson Olony for continuing to fuel civil conflict in that country.

Russia is also skirting the UN arms embargo on Eritrea that was imposed largely because of Eritrea’s military support for the Somali Al-Qaeda affiliate, Al Shabaab. In November 2014, when the newly appointed Eritrean Ambassador to Russia presented his credentials, President Putin commented that both countries share similar views on regional and international issues. Additionally, Putin indicated Russia’s readiness to strengthen relations, not only in trade and economic development, but to build Eritrea’s military capability and create a Russian fleet in the Red Sea to protect its interests. Eritrea and Russia have held joint naval exercises.

Enhancing the military capabilities of Eritrean poses a threat to Ethiopia. Eritrea’s support for Al Shabaab has been part of a long history of Eritrean support to Somali irredentist and jihadist groups based in Somalia that covet the Somali region of Ethiopia and have engaged in terrorist and armed attacks inside Ethiopia. Eritrea also provides military support to the Ethiopian armed opposition movement, Ginbot 7 and allied armed movements.

In addition to Russian military cooperation with Sudan and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa region, Russia has been courting Egypt — a one time ally of the Soviet Union. Between 2014 and 2015, Egyptian President al-Sisi visited Moscow four times, most recently in August 2015, when the two countries announced cooperation in building Egypt’s first nuclear power plant. Also, in August, Russia presented Egypt with a sophisticated Molniya class missile cruiser. And more recently, in October 2015, a spokesman for Egypt’s foreign ministry commented that Egypt supports Russia’s recent decision to strike targets in Syria, saying – Egypt “fully supports besieging terrorism and fighting it wherever it is.”

Given the growing presence of Russian military forces in Syria coupled with Egyptian, Sudanese and Eritrean military cooperation, Russia is on the road to forging a formidable, if not dominant, presence in the Red Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. A serious question to ponder and ripe for further analysis, is how many more arms deals are going on behind the scenes and to what extent they have or are influencing regional politics in Africa.

Unconfirmed reports of Russian arm shipments to separatist Malian Tuareg militias, former mercenaries for the late Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, who are based once again in Libya, are worrying. It is worth watching to see of the Russian demarche to the Malian rebels is part of a strategy to repeat in energy-rich Libya, the Niger-Delta style dirty tactics that drove out the oil majors. The ongoing fighting inside Libya between Tuareg and Libyan Tebu militias — the latter who play a role guarding energy assets in Libya — is also important to watch in this regard.

Russia’s economic expansion in Africa lags far behind that of the US, Western Europe and China, but, here, size matters less because Russian investments appear to be targeted to achieving strategic political goals. It is not easy, moreover, to decipher the scope and intent of its economic geopolitical agenda, in part, because of the opaqueness of the business operations of the Russian oligarchs. Sometimes the state and allied oligarchs operate through obviously Russian companies such as Lukoil and Gazprom; other times through subsidiaries established in lax regulatory countries such as Switzerland; and still other times they appear to work through firms like the Poland-based energy trading giant Mercuria Energy or the state energy company of Azerbaijan — SOCAR.

Nigeria’s energy-rich Niger Delta stands out as a prime example of disquieting Russian business penetration in partnership with Nigerian firms linked to politically well-connected Nigerian figures. This is disquieting because industrial-scale oil theft and energy asset sabotage forced oil majors like Shell, Eni, Total, Chevron, Conoco-Phillips and Exxon-Mobile to sell off their Niger Delta exploration rights and other energy assets to Nigerian companies acting often in apparent partnership with Russian-influenced firms. Though it is impossible to identify with certainty the culprits of the economic dirty tricks that drove out the oil majors, incidents of illicit Russian arm shipments into the Niger Delta and involvement of Russian-linked firms in transporting stolen oil raise suspicion of Russian collusion with Nigerian oligarchs to takeover assets.

Some of the Nigerian energy firms involved in the Niger Delta takeovers may be providing cover to Russian interests and facilitating entry into other energy production markets. The Nigerian firm, Talaveras, for instance, purchased a Cote d’Ivoire offshore bloc, quickly selling it off to its Russian business ally, Lukoil. In 2015, Croatia rejected a bid by Gazprom for a natural gas license reportedly under pressure from the United States that had imposed sanctions on the Russian company. Interestingly, in an unprecedented move into European energy production, the Nigerian energy firm, Oando, which had signed a 2009 Memorandum of Cooperation with Gazprom, managed to obtain a natural gas concession in the same bidding where Gazprom had been rejected. Oando had also publicized in 2015 a joint venture to explore energy in Angolan waters but declined to name its partners.

Influence in the natural gas rich Niger Delta is likely part of a larger Russian strategy to corner more of the international natural gas supply to maintain political and economic leverage on Western Europe — a strategy that the European Union is actively seeking to counter by diversifying its natural gas supply to minimize dependence on Russian energy. At one point, the Russian parastatal Gazprom had sought from Nigeria the right to construct the Trans-Saharan natural gas pipeline from Nigeria’s Niger Delta to Western Europe. European Union opposition helped to thwart the Russian effort, but now Russian-influenced firms are in charge of much of the gas supplies themselves. In addition to Nigeria, Russia has been ramping up natural gas exploration and production in Libya, Egypt and especially Algeria, tightening the noose on Western Europe.

Gregory Alonso Pirio and Robert Pittelli are with the firm, EC Associates. Dr. Pirio is former director of the English-to-Africa and Portuguese-to-Africa Services of the Voice of America. His publications include The African Jihad: Bin Laden’s Quest for the Horn of Africa.

Mr. Pittelli is a retired US Air Force and Department of the Army Civilian military intelligence and information operations analyst with an emphasis on Africa.

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