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AFRICA: Moscow’s Risky Bid for Influence

6 minute read

“Unless the Soviet Union shows restraint in its foreign policy actions, the situation in our relationship is bound to become more tense.”

Thus, at a Washington press conference, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger last week once again warned Moscow to stop its massive support of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (M.P.L.A.) faction in Angola’s civil war. Soviet “actions in Angola [are] incompatible with a relaxation of tensions,” added Kissinger. Moscow quickly indicated that it was not heeding Kissinger’s threat. Declared the government newspaper Izvestia: “Support for the national liberation struggles is an important principle of Soviet foreign policy.”

Although the Russians have backed the M.P.L.A. for more than a decade, Africa has rarely been a top priority of Soviet foreign policy. In recent years though, the continent has become more important to Moscow, for two reasons: 1) as an arena in which to challenge the Chinese for the ideological allegiance of the underdeveloped countries; and 2) as the source of potential air and naval bases from which Soviet influence could be extended into the Indian and Atlantic oceans. Even if Russia’s client rebels lose the civil war in Angola, Moscow still has several toeholds on the continent (see map).

On Africa’s west coast, for example, Guinea has been a faithful ally of Russia since 1959. Soviet naval units call regularly at Conakry’s fine harbor, where they stock up on fuel and supplies for mid-Atlantic patrols. The Red fleet also regularly puts into ports in the Congo (Brazzaville) and Equatorial Guinea. On the east coast of the continent, Soviet planes and warships use bases in Somalia from which they patrol the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Hormuz, which leads to the oil-rich Persian Gulf. At Berbera the Soviets are completing a sophisticated installation capable of maintaining and arming lethal ship-to-ship missiles.

The victory of a pro-Soviet regime in Angola would enable Moscow to complete its network of African bases. The small, sleepy fishing village of Baia dos Tigres (Tiger Bay), for instance, has a superb deepwater anchorage; it could readily be developed into a base that would make it easy for Soviet ships to patrol the South Atlantic and, in the event of a confrontation with the West, intercept oil tankers from the Persian Gulf.

Selective Grants. Since 1959 Moscow has pumped $788 million in aid into sub-Saharan Africa. Compared with other donors, the Russians have not been generous; in the same period, the West has given Black Africa $2.5 billion, China has given $1.8 billion, and the World Bank has provided $1 billion. But the Soviets have been highly selective in their grants to ensure maximum impact. Somalia, for example, has received only $60 million from Moscow in the past year, but it came at a crucial moment. When drought and famine hit the country in late 1974, the Soviets stepped in quickly and efficiently; within a few weeks they had airlifted 120,000 starving nomads from the parched interior to camps near the coast and provided experts to retrain them as fishermen and farmers. In other states, such as Uganda and Angola, the U.S.S.R. has gained friends by providing military equipment and advisers.

The recent successes of the Soviets are a far cry from Moscow’s experiences in Africa during the early 1960s. “In those years, the Russians were a bunch of boobs,” recalls TIME Nairobi Bureau Chief Lee Griggs, who also reported from Africa in 1959-62. “The sight of Soviets in ill-fitting suits, sweating profusely, turned off Africans who were used to seeing the immaculately tailored British and French. The Soviets also committed horrible gaffes. They sent snowplows to tropical Guinea (they have since been converted to bulldozers) and modern toilets to its capital, even though Conakry had no sewage system to which they could be connected. But all that is past history. Soviet officials today are shrewder; they also keep a much lower profile. Having learned that too many white faces alienate African aid recipients, Moscow now uses swarthy Algerians and Cubans as stand-ins whenever possible.”

There are at least seven states potentially ripe for increased Soviet influence. One is Ethiopia, even though the radical regime that toppled the late Emperor Haile Selassie has so far looked primarily to the Chinese for help rather than to the Russians. Nonetheless, the Soviets have built an oil refinery and a 1,000-student polytechnical institute, and Nigeria, despite its strong ties to the West, has turned to the U.S.S.R. for warplanes and has sent 700 students to study in Soviet universities. Zambia too has gone to the Soviets for arms, as has Sierra Leone. Moscow is arming Rhodesian black insurgents based in Tanzania and Mozambique and members of the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), which is fighting against South Africa’s control of South West Africa (Namibia).

Despite these seemingly impressive gains, it is far from certain whether Moscow’s African strategy will succeed. In the past decade the Soviets have suffered setbacks almost as dramatic as their gains. After the 1966 coup d’état in Ghana ousted Kwame Nkrumah, Moscow lost nearly all of the influence it had carefully cultivated with that country. The Soviets were also badly burned by changes of regime or mood in the Congo (now Zaïre) and, most notably, Egypt. In Mozambique, Moscow has lost out to the Chinese: Peking has been more generous with its aid, and, unlike the Soviets, can claim to be part of the developing world. The Mozambicans, for instance, have denied port facilities to the Soviet navy and have criticized the Russians for “pushing us too hard.”

In light of Africa’s chronic political instability (there have been a dozen coups in the past five years), the Soviets are taking a chance with a strategy that depends on present regimes remaining in power. Such a strategy could be costly if—as Washington warned last week—continued Soviet backing of the M.P.L.A. in Angola undermines U.S.-U.S.S.R. relations.

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