March 21, 2022

IntelBrief: African Reactions to Russia’s Unprovoked Invasion of Ukraine

AP Photo/Felipe Dana

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Russia has used its support to certain African militaries and coup leaders as leverage for receiving support for the invasion of Ukraine.
  • The indifference of Russia to democratization in African countries has also meant that Russia can seek to exert its influence in African countries that the West shuns due to the governments’ lack of democratic reforms.
  • Few foreign fighters from Africa have joined the fighting in Ukraine, in some cases because their home governments have restricted travel to join the Ukrainian side.
  • Russia leverages its military power to secure support from some African countries; yet, other African governments appear wary of becoming embroiled in fierce foreign conflict by allowing citizens to engage, even if sympathetic to Ukraine.

As Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine nears one month, it has increasingly affected parts of the world beyond eastern Europe and Russia’s near abroad. African countries, for example, have seen their nationals attempt to join both sides of the conflict, while the continent’s governments have been divided over their support for Russia or Ukraine. Russia’s pre-existing influence throughout Africa has kept much of the overt political support for Ukraine at bay. Russia has been backing the Central African Republic (CAR) government against mostly Muslim rebels in the country’s northeast but Russian mercenaries have also been accused of committing multiple human rights abuses. Still, a recently released video shows a unit of soldiers from CAR with a commander flanked by a dozen soldiers stating that they were prepared to fight with Russia against “Ukrainian nationalists.” Although the video seemed highly manufactured, it was used by Moscow as propaganda and further “proof” of Russia’s global support in the war.

Russia denies allegations of its abuses in CAR and rejects any investigation of the abused, while its ambassador to CAR points to NATO support for Ukraine as a comparable violation and demands NATO ban Ukraine from joining it. This is the context in which CAR soldiers wanted to show Russia that they support the war on Ukraine in return for continued Russian supplies of weaponry and training. However, it remains unlikely Russia will deploy CAR soldiers to Ukraine when they are still needed to fight rebels at home and would be unfamiliar with the language, terrain, weather, and style of combat in Ukraine. Thus far, any foreign fighters supporting Russia in Ukraine have appeared to come from the former Soviet Union or Russia’s nearby sphere of influence in the Caucasus and potentially the Middle East, if Putin makes good on his promise to import Syrian mercenaries linked to the Assad regime.

More generally, in the absence of international support for the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has been courting governments in Africa, including not only CAR but also Sudan, to support its invasion. One day before the invasion, a Sudanese delegation visited Russia to discuss, among other items, both countries’ “national security,” which meant Sudan’s support for Russia. CAR and Sudan both also have resource-rich mining sites, which Russia seeks to exploit in return for Russian military support. Both countries accordingly are improving relations with Moscow, despite the Kremlin’s ostracization elsewhere around the world.

Russia’s relations with Sudan resemble its relations with Mali. Sudan’s coup last October resulted in General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan remaining in power and a halt to the country’s transition to an electoral democracy. Mali’s military conducted its coup last May, even before Sudan’s, and has not held democratic elections, as initially promised. The Malian military’s failure to implement democratic reforms further resulted in France most prominently, but also other European countries, including Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Estonia, withdrawing their troops from the country as their ties with the military junta have deteriorated significantly. Russia nevertheless has exploited the European countries’ distancing themselves from Mali’s military junta by becoming closer to it. Russia has provided military instructors and Wagner Group mercenaries to train and operate with Malian forces. However, Russia’s forces number only several hundred in Mali and are therefore too few compared to France’s former 5,000 troop deployment to make an impact on the counterinsurgency against the al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates in Mali. If anything, the Russian “support” is a political statement to the West that Moscow seeks to replace French influence in Mali, while at the same time the Malian military junta is signaling to Paris that it does not need French support if it comes with strings attached.

Russia has also benefited from the fact that several African countries witnessed dozens of nationals travel to fight with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and are now hesitant to allow any nationals to travel to support Ukraine. Several dozen Senegalese and Algerian citizens, for example, both accepted Ukraine’s call for them to join the international legion in Ukraine, but both governments demanded Ukraine halt recruitment in their countries. Thus, in many cases, Russia can leverage its military power to secure support from African leaders for its war, while in other cases, African countries appear wary of becoming embroiled in fierce foreign conflict, even if their sympathies lie with Ukraine.