Russia’s recent footprint in Africa

Axolotl Global Intelligence

February 2023




One of the key consequences of the Second World War, was the shrinking of Western Europe as a political and economic power, and the rise of the USA and Russia as the new world powers. Between mid-to-late 1950s and 1975, at the heart of the Cold War, Africa broke its ties with European colonialism. During the process, dozens of countries were created based on European colonies borders, and both the USA and Russia tried to tip the scale in their favour. At that time, Russia positioned itself as the anti-colonialism ‘friend’, providing armament and funding to those countries in need of support. 


Almost six decades later Africa, a region five times the size of the USA, full of natural resources but with an impossible geography, is still seen by Moscow as a region where it can favour an international balance power, while profiting from abundant natural resources at a very low price. 


As Russia cannot compete with the USA in terms of foreign aid to Africa, the country has established a more strategic presence, providing military support. The Russian help to Africa is opaque, with media reporting Russian activities in between 16 to 23 African countries, under vague legal status, modus operandi, objectives, and targets. Africa depends deeply on Russia for wheat and fertilizers and sees the country as a trustful ally in the fight against terrorism, with low respect for human rights and the rule of law.


Russia’s aggressions in Ukraine: impact on its relationship with Africa


In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. At the UN voting process to condemn Crimea’s annexation, 2 African countries (Sudan and Zimbabwe) voted against the resolution, 28 African countries (Algeria, Angola, Botswana, Brunei, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Comoros, Djiboti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Kenya, Lesotho, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, South Africa, South Sudan, Swaziland now Eswatini, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia) abstained while 6 African countries (Rep. of Congo, Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Morocco) were absent during the voting process. 


In February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine again. In September 2022, during the UN voting process to condemn Russia’s intention to annex Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia, only 17 African countries (Algeria, Burundi, CAR, Congo, Eritrea, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Guinea, Lesotho, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, South Sudan, Sudan, Togo, Uganda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe) abstained while 4 African countries (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea and Sao Tome and Principe) were absent during the voting process.

No African country voted against the resolution.


Russian Diplomacy


Since the latest invasion to Ukraine, Russia has deployed its diplomacy in order to prevent world isolation and maintain its place as a trustful partner for Africa. Since the beginning of the war in February 2022, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has visited Africa on three occasions.


In July 2022, Lavrov wrote an Opinion that was published in several African countries ahead of his first visit to the continent after the invasion, cheering African countries’ increasing role in global politics and economy. He remembered Russia’s advocacy supporting Africa’s position in the multipolar architecture and celebrated Africa’s efforts to work together as a united continent. He also said that Russia has not ‘stained itself with the bloody crimes of colonialism’, and reiterated Russia’s commitment to the ‘African solutions to African problems’ principle. Finally, he promised that Russia would ‘continue to fulfill in good faith its obligations under international contracts with regard to exports of food, fertilizers, energy, and other goods vital for Africa’, closing his opinion with a catchy sentence: ‘Together we are stronger’.  


Since then, Lavrov has visited Egypt, Congo-Brazzaville, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eswatini, Botswana, Angola, South Africa, Mali, Mauritania, Sudan and Algeria. He also intended to visit Morocco and Tunisia, but both visits were cancelled until further notice. 


Meanwhile, President Putin received African Union leader Macky Sall in June, to address the food security crisis boosted because of the war and has received a few African heads of state. 


Wagner Group


Founded by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a multimillionaire ex-convict transformed into Putin’s loyal partner, the Wagner Group has been a key ally for Russia’s geopolitical agenda.  The Group was created during the Crimea’s invasion, and it was a crucial player supporting the dictator Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian war. Since then, it has turned its eyes towards Africa. 


The Wagner Group offers a multitool package to its clients: it provides an armed military component offering training and/or security as well as a digital information capacity in order to conduct effective operations. 


The modus operandi for the Wagner Group has been the same along all of its deployment in Africa: the group identifies fragile states with political instability and rich natural resources, it then works providing military intelligence/security to those leaders and militia commanders who can pay in cash or who can give them access to lucrative mining concessions through a locally registered company. In some cases, the Wagner Group has gotten involved with a country after an agreement between Russia and the local government. 


The strategy of the Wagner Group also includes disinformation campaigns that are deployed in order to hide their activities, blaming other countries or rival actors for the level of violence, while exalting Wagner’s contribution to the levels of stability or terrorist attacks’ reduction. 


Finally, all Wagner’s campaigns deliver the same results. A reduction of terrorist attacks at a very high human toll, without any track record of leaving sustainable peace in their areas of operations, and a lucrative business for the group. In all countries where the Group has been deployed, there have been accusations of human rights violations, and, in some cases, UN Human Rights envoys have been expelled. 


Because if its own characteristics, the Wagner Group is now the most influential form of Russian engagement in the continent today, as it helps Russia to operate in Africa despite all the Western sanctions.


For nine months, Wagner Group recruited between 40,000 and 50,000 prisoners from Russian jails to fight in Ukraine, under the promise of giving them freedom and their criminal records expunged if they could survive six months in the war. This seems to have backfired against the group’s popularity inside the Russian government and with the Russian population. On February 9th, Prigozhin himself announced they have completely discontinued the recruitment of prisoners. It is still to be seen if Wagner Group popularity inside Russia will affect their role and presence in Africa. 


Timeline of the Russia – Africa relations since Russia’s first Ukraine invasion




  • Crimea Invasion: Wagner Group is involved, and it is for the first time identified as a group, backing pro-Russian separatists. International sanctions are imposed on Russia, and the country gets suspended from the G8. Russia will only recognize the Wagner Group as an organization linked to the government in 2023.




  • Russia and Eswatini (previously Swaziland) sign a military cooperation agreement focusing on training and intelligence sharing. The country has experience unrest since 2020, and it is believed that Moscow has offered security assistance to the Kingdom. 




  • Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meets with Central African Republic (CAR) President Faustin. From there, Russia offers to provide armament, despite the embargo imposed to CAR, as well as to provide 175 instructors to train CAR soldiers.


  • Wagner group’s subsidiary “Meroe Gold” and “M Invest” conduct searches for mine sites in Sudan.


  • Russia signs military cooperation agreements with Nigeria and Niger


  • Sudan’s president Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir visits Russia and asks for protection. 


  • Wagner Group starts working with warlord Khalifa Haftar in Libya, who has been challenging Libya’s legitimate government. 




  • Russian journalists Kirill Radchenko, Alexander Rastorguyev and Orkhan Dzhemal. are killed in CAR, while investigating the activities of the Wagner Group in CAR.


  • Lobaye Invest, a CAR local company linked to Wagner Group, funds a local radio station.


  • Wagner mercenaries start operating in Mozambique, under the pretext of fighting against Daesh. Wagner is said to have invested $60 billion in the country’s natural gas resources but the hasn’t managed to penetrate the geography neither the Islamists strength.


  • Foreign Minister Lavrov visits Rwanda and holds talks with President Kagame and Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo.


  • Burundi and Rwanda purchase Russian air defense systems.


  • Wagner Group helps the Sudan regimen under Omar al Bashir to suppress large-scale protests. The strategy includes deployment of armed Wagner troops together with disinformation campaigns to influence votes. The strategy was drawn by M-Invest which in return was granted concession for a gold mine in Sudan.




  • Sudan’s President Omar al Bashir is overthrown. Wagner sides with the Sudanese government. 


  • President of Congo Republic Denis Sassou-Nguesso visits Vladimir Putin, and sign agreements on cooperation, as well as oil and metal agreements. Russia agrees as well to send military specialists to Congo Republic to service Russian-made military hardware and equipment there.


  • Mozambique and Russia sign agreements on mineral resources, energy, and defense.


  • Facebook removes three networks associated to Prigozhin and originated in Russia which were engaged in disinformation campaigns targeting eight different African countries including CAR, Libya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Sudan, and Libya.


  • First Russia-Africa Summit and economic forum, celebrated in Russia and co-hosted by President Putin and Egyptian President el-Sisi, with 43 heads of state or government attending. Russia becomes a member of the African Export-Import Bank.




  • US Africa Command (AFRICOM) says the Wagner Group is responsible for landmines and explosive devices in Libya’s capital in violation of a UN arms embargo. 




  • General Mahamat Deby becomes transitional president of Chad.


  • A coup d’etat in Mali sets the path for Assimi Goita to become Mali’s interim president. 


  • Russia and Ethiopia sign an agreement on Military Cooperation, focused on transforming capacity of the Ethiopian national defense force in knowledge, skills and technology spheres.


  • Nigeria and Russia sign an agreement on Military-Technical Cooperation for Moscow to supply military equipment and training to Nigeria. 


  • Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirms reports that Mali will hire contractors with the Wagner Group, and insists the Group is not operating under Moscow’s control. Wagner Group arrives in Mali with the support of the Russian armed forces, in order to replace French troops in the country. According to US authorities and a report from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, its arrival came amid a barrage of targeted disinformation to hide its arrival and activities.




  • Mali confirms Russian fighter presence near Timbuktu.


  • A coup d’etat in Burkina Faso bring Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba as ahead of the government.


  • France and military allies announce they will leave Mali after almost a decade fighting Islamist insurgents. 


  • Chad’s ruling military junta accuses Timan Erdimi, a Union of Resistance Forces (UFR) rebel leader based in Qatar, of seeking the help of Wagner Group to derail a reconciliation process and topple those in power.


  • Cameroon and Russia sign a military agreement in Moscow.


  • Lavrov makes unannounced visit to Algeria to mark 60 years of diplomatic relations.


  • Russian mercenaries are accused of deadly attacks on mines on the Sudan-CAR border, in an effort to plunder the region’s valuable gold trade.


  • Senegal’s Macky Sall, African Union chief, held talks with Vladimir Putin, to discuss the food security crisis.


  • Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov visits Congo Republic, Egypt, Uganda, and Ethiopia.


  • A second coup d’etat sets the path to Captain Ibrahim Traore to become President of Burkina Faso.


  • In mid-December, Ghana accused Burkina Faso of hiring Wagner mercenaries. After Burkina Faso denial and France’s intervention, Ghana backtracked its accusations. Several sources have indicated the imminent arrival of the Wagner Group into Burkina Faso. 




  • Jan 23: Russia and South Africa vow to strengthen bilateral ties and will embark on a joint military exercise in February, coinciding with the anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine.


  • Jan 24: Russia’s top diplomate pledges security training to Eswatini, as the country’s repression hits its highest. 


  • Jan 25: Minister Lavrov visits Angola, and discusses agriculture, manufacturing, and agro-industry with his counterpart. In December 2022, Angola had announced it would replace Russian arms with imports from the USA. 


  • Feb 7: Sergey Lavrov visits Mali where he pledged assistance to West African states battling armed groups. Less than 48 hours before his visit, the military government had announced the expulsion of the UN’s human rights envoy to the country. 


  • Feb 7: Lavrov offers support for Mauritania in the fight against jihadism in the Sahel.


  • Feb 20: South Africa engages in military drills with Russia and China, in Cape Town.


  • April: Will be the second bilateral summit ever between Angola and Russia. 


  • July 26-29, it is scheduled the second Russia-Africa summit and economic forum.