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-type AFRICOM capable of competing with the role the US military command in Africa (US AFRICOM) plays, which is more evident in Libya, where the United States has shown dismay at Russia’s support of the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
A German report stated that Russia secured 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 and Turkey have experienced in Syria. Turkey, which is currently at the centre of the Libyan conflict, was hoping that Russia’s presence in Libya was merely tactical and aimed at obtaining greater concessions in Syria.
US AFRICOM, in more than one statement, expressed Washington’s concern that Russia is repeating their tactics in Syria in Libya in order to tip the balance of the conflict in their favour, and said it was tracking the movements of what it describes as Russian-backed Wagner mercenaries.
Last July, US 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.” 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 German foreign ministry report stating that since 2015, Russia has concluded military cooperation agreements with 21 African countries. It previously only had cooperation agreements with four African countries.
According to those agreements, the paper added, 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 to be active in more than one theatre, including the economic sphere 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 and sometimes formally training the forces of these countries. In this context, it has 180 soldiers in the Central African Republic.
The paper also pointed out that Moscow trains about twenty soldiers from Mali in Russia annually.
According to the same source, Russia is not only sending official soldiers to African countries, but is 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 $70 million dollars spent to host the Russian-African summit October 23-24, 2019 in Sochi in which 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.