Since the invasion of Ukraine, an extraordinary coalition of allies is working together to isolate Russia economically, imposing sanctions and cutting off access to the global financial system. This campaign has shown success in degrading Russia’s economy. The Kremlin, however, may find a financial lifeline in an unlikely place—Africa. The more successful the economic war on Russia is, the more the Kremlin will rely on plundered African resources as a means of evading sanctions and keeping the Russian war machine going. To understand this danger, it is important to grasp the manner in which Moscow has planned for a moment like this.
Over the last few years, Vladimir Putin and his cronies have sought to project Russian power in corrupt but resource-rich African countries, exerting their influence through a shadowy mercenary force known as the Wagner Group. While this murderous outfit has itself been sanctioned by the U.S., the E.U., and the U.K., its membership and tactics remains shrouded in secrecy. What we do know is that Russia has used Wagner operatives to provide a security shield for African despots in exchange for access to precious natural resources.
Financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, sometimes called “Putin’s Chef” because he rose to power after running a catering company favored by the Kremlin, the Wagner Group first appeared on the scene in 2014 in Ukraine. “Putin’s shadow army” is estimated to have as many as 5,000 members and has acted as a mercenary force fighting on behalf of Russia, but in a way that allows Moscow a measure of deniability. The group has deployed to other hot spots around the world, including Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Madagascar, Mozambique, Mali, and Syria (where Wagner mercenaries fought a bloody battle with U.S. special forces in 2018).
In Sudan, where the fall of Omar al-Bashir in 2019 could have left Russia without a corrupt partner, the Wagner Group found a friend in Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemedti)—Sudan’s second in command and leader of the genocidal militia the Rapid Support Forces, previously known as the Janjaweed. Hemedti had made his own fortune running a shadow economy dominated by gold exports. He also helped Russia secure access to gold mines.
In fact, even as Russia was initiating its bombing of Ukraine, Hemedti’s Twitter account posted pictures of his meeting with Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. Hemedti had been in Moscow to discuss ways of deepening economic ties between Sudan and Russia. More notable than Hemedti’s public show of allegiance to Russia during this moment of international opprobrium was that Lavrov actually made time for Hemedti at such a critical juncture. Russia hopes to set up a Red Sea naval base in the country, projecting its naval power into a strategic transport corridor.
In the Central African Republic, where the Wagner Group has an outsized role and a Wagner operative serves as the president’s security advisor, a joint investigation by The Sentry and CNN established that mercenaries from the group have engaged in atrocities including murder, rape, and torture to capture areas that are rich in gold, diamonds, and other minerals. Wagner has also initiated a process to change the mining code to create a monopoly for itself in the country’s gold and diamond mining sector.
By using the Wagner Group to burrow into these resource-rich countries and secure lucrative mining concessions, Russia has been trying to future-proof itself against the kinds of sanctions now being imposed by the U.S. and its allies. Russia’s Africa strategy is clear: through the private military proxy, it sets up shop in countries with unstable political and security environments and high levels of corruption; it forges opportunistic relationships with powerbrokers in the government or security services; it provides training to state security forces and non-state armed groups alike; it carries out missions marked by atrocities; and it maintains strong, if quiet, links to the Kremlin, conducting operations that directly support Putin’s geopolitical objectives.
To be sure, the robust steps taken in recent weeks by the U.S. and allies to sever Russia’s connections to the international economy are critical. But however surprised Putin may be by the swift and multilateral imposition of sanctions in response to the invasion, Russia’s Africa strategy suggests that the Kremlin has been doing some quiet contingency planning for this sort of scenario. Denying Russia long-term access to resources in Africa is therefore essential to ensuring that these sanctions are truly effective. Gold and diamonds are attractive assets for international pariahs because they can be sold and exchanged while avoiding the regulated banking sector, and this playbook has been used in the past by both Iran and Venezuela. Steps must be taken to ensure that Russia doesn’t continue to have access to new sources of gold, diamonds, and other natural resources.
But how does one go about that? The impulse might be to force African leaders to choose between Russia and the West. But rather than imposing this outdated Cold War choice, Washington and its allies should instead focus on expanding their efforts to counter the creeping spread of kleptocracy on the continent.
Africa might seem remote from the current war in Ukraine; worse yet, some may disregard Africa as a strategic priority for the U.S. But make no mistake: Putin and his allies favor kleptocracy. They thrive on corruption. In the end, their only real ideology is graft, and when they are able to spread it, they create new zones in which they can exert their influence. Corrupt leaders in places like Sudan, CAR, and Mali welcome Moscow’s mercenaries under the guise of law and order, but in reality they use the hired guns to maintain their own power. In exchange, they barter away precious national resources to Russia.
Last year, President Joe Biden wisely deemed the fight against corruption a core national security interest. As Russia is further isolated and looks for allies and resources in Africa, it’s time to earnestly take up that fight by focusing on dismantling the key networks that enable kleptocracy deploying smarter financial pressure, renewed diplomacy, and robust private sector engagement. The choice for African countries should not be between the West and Russia. Rather, it should be good governance, development, democracy, responsible investment, and human rights versus cycles of corruption and atrocities that only benefit authoritarian regimes and their enablers.
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