Putin mounts charm offensive in Africa

Ukraine war triggers a wider battle for influence in African capitals as Russia competes with Europe and US to win over continent’s leaders

As the war in Ukraine rages into its second year, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has been shuttling across Africa, where he claims to be knitting together a counterweight to what he calls “the anti-Russian orgy orchestrated by Washington”. Since the beginning of 2023, Lavrov has toured seven African countries in two trips to the continent, the second of which took place earlier this month. These follow a high-profile visit Lavrov made to Africa last summer as Russia faced opprobrium and censure elsewhere following its February invasion of Ukraine.

The charm offensive is set to continue with a Russia-Africa summit scheduled to take place in St Petersburg in July. Putin hosted a similar gathering in 2019, but Africa was not very high at that time on Russia’s list of foreign policy priorities. This time around, Moscow sees opportunity in African ambivalence towards its invasion of Ukraine.

While some African states have condemned Moscow’s aggression, others have sought to avoid taking a side in the war. When the UN voted last March to condemn the Russian assault, only 28 of Africa’s 54 nations supported the motion, while 17 abstained. Lavrov’s African trip last month included a stop in authoritarian Eritrea, the only African country among the five states that voted against that UN resolution – the others being Russia, Belarus, Syria and North Korea.

Russian engagement with Africa is not new. The Soviet Union helped fund liberation movements in countries including South Africa, Angola and Mozambique, and a certain nostalgia for these Cold War links remains, particularly among the older generation. But in recent years, Moscow has been building a new type of influence across the continent. Its toolbox for this has included deploying mercenaries – particularly the Wagner Group, recently designed a transnational criminal organisation by the US – increasing arms sales and rolling out disinformation campaigns anchored in anti-imperialist and anti-colonial messaging, often targeting France. In Central African Republic, Mali and Sudan, Russian support has propped up leaders with shaky legitimacy, often with the help of Wagner. France’s recent withdrawal from Mali, where it had spent almost a decade backing government forces against jihadists, allowed Wagner to consolidate its presence there.


In Libya, Wagner has provided military assistance to warlord Khalifa Haftar since at least early 2019, when he unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the UN-recognised government in Tripoli. Wagner is believed to use airbases in Haftar-controlled territory to support its operations in Mali and elsewhere in the Sahel. Russia courted Muammar Gadafy’s son Saif al-Islam when he planned to run in aborted presidential elections in late 2021. Moscow has also tried to meddle in votes in a number of other African countries.

Russia lacks the economic heft to challenge the EU – which remains Africa’s most important trading partner – the US or China in terms of trade and investment on the continent. Its trade with Africa in 2021 was worth the equivalent of €14.6 billion, compared with the EU’s €288 billion euro. Russia remains, however, the biggest exporter of weapons to the continent. Arms-for-resources deals with Moscow have proved irresistible for some African leaders. As one of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC), Russia can also offer veto deployment and other diplomatic favours. On his recent trip to Sudan, for example, Lavrov said Moscow would press for the easing of the UN arms embargo in place there since 2005.

But Russian rhetoric claiming solidarity with Africa in the face of European or American hypocrisies past and present is being tested as momentum gathers towards greater African representation at the Security Council. African leaders have long demanded a permanent seat or seats for the continent on the UNSC. Last September, US president Joe Biden endorsed those requests and also backed calls for the African Union to become a permanent member of the G20. The French and German foreign ministers also declared their support for African representation on the UNSC during a recent visit to Ethiopia. Just this past weekend, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said Africa’s absence from the Security Council was “the biggest injustice that exists” in a council he described as “no longer corresponding to the reality of today’s world”.

Expanding diplomatic and trade relationships across Africa is key to the Kremlin’s narrative that it has alternatives amid the isolation it now faces following its invasion of Ukraine. For all its talk of partnership with Africa, however, Moscow has failed to explicitly back the idea of an African seat on the Security Council. This dithering is likely to complicate Russian efforts to increase its influence across Africa as it calls into question Moscow’s true motives on the continent.

The Ukraine war has triggered a wider battle for influence in African capitals as Russia competes with Europe and the US in a bid to win over the continent’s leaders. South Africa raised eyebrows when it recently agreed to host joint naval exercises with Russia and China but, like other African states, it appears to be largely hedging its bets for now. The prospect of an African seat on the Security Council is something that is likely to give Russia-friendly states on the continent pause for thought. African representation at the UNSC table could be a very interesting by-product of the Ukraine war.

Mary Fitzgerald is a Libya specialist and non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC. She is a former foreign affairs correspondent with The Irish Times