Since a few years ago, Russia has been launching a great effort to bolster its standing in Africa and it seems that Moscow has had some achievements in this regard, especially in the northern and central parts of that continent and the Horn of Africa. The Russian Federation is apparently trying to make a comeback to Africa in order not to lose the rivalry there to the United States, France and China, and regain the position that the former Soviet Union held in Africa. According to studies carried out by historians, the background of relations between Russia and African countries dates back to three centuries ago. However, under the former Soviet Union and during the period in which African countries became independent of Western colonialists, Moscow established relations with them on the basis of its ideological tenets and offered great economic and military assistance to those African countries, which were in line with the Kremlin’s socialist views.
At the present time, it seems that Russians’ are dreaming of gaining new footholds in strategic parts of Africa in order to guarantee themselves a more suitable position to bolster their power base and ensure their economic interests. In line with this plan, the leaders in Moscow, like other big and small powers at international level, have put on their agenda the establishment of new military bases and deployment of forces and equipment to strategic parts of Africa.
The Soviet military bases in Africa
During the Cold War period, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics manned temporary military bases in Africa, which were usually divided into naval bases and stations meant for monitoring communications and collection of electronic data. At that time, Russians’ naval bases were located at Alexandria and Mersa Matruh ports (in Egypt), Dahlak archipelago (in Ethiopia), and the port cities of Tripoli and Tobruk (in Libya). Their monitoring stations were situated in Ethiopia as well as in several locations in Egypt and Libya.
During the Cold War period, the military presence of the Soviet Union in the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa was of utmost importance to Moscow. According to available information, Socotra Island (which belonged to then South Yemen, also known as the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen) and Berbera port in northern Somalia were the most important military bases for Russians in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden. After relations were cut between Moscow and Mogadishu and Russians left Berbera in 1977, the Soviet Union lost a major logistical port and communications center in the region and was forced to transfer its base and monitoring equipment along with major arms and fuel storage facilities and 1,050 of its personnel to Aden port in South Yemen.
In addition, the military port of Tripoli, the capital city of Libya, was a major base for the Soviets, where they ran military installations in which their navy vessels were overhauled. The Soviet navy started to use these installations in 1977. Of course, these installations were not officially considered as a permanent base for the Soviet Union, but Russians used them for years and, in return, provided Colonel Qaddafi’s army with weapons. The Soviets also maintained extensive military presence in Egypt and Angola and played an important part in defending these countries against attacks from the Zionist regime of Israel and the South African regime during the period of apartheid.
The Russian military base in Eritrea
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Eritrean counterpart, Osman Saleh Mohammed, held a meeting in southern Russian port city of Sochi on August 31. Following the meeting, Lavrov announced that his country was planning to build a logistical hub in one of the East African ports. The Russian foreign minister did not mention the name of the port or the schedule of the project, but added that it aimed to boost bilateral trade and infrastructural investment between the two countries. The investment, as he said, included construction of regional transport routes and pipelines as well as the opening of a Russian language department at the University of Asmara.
It seems that Russia is willing to use Eritrea as a gateway for access to Ethiopia, which is the second most populous country in Africa and enjoying a prosperous economy. The decision by Moscow to establish a military base in Eritrea was a calculated measure based on this country’s position in the Horn of Africa. The port cities of Assab and Massawa in Eritrea are at the core of regional dynamism and developments, and stand the best chance to host Russian military installations.
Assab port can be considered as the first potential naval base for the Russian Federation along the Red Sea. Last December, a high-ranking Russian delegation, visited this region and went back to Moscow with recommendations for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Establishment of naval logistical facilities in Eritrea can be considered as an effort to ease berthing of ocean-going vessels. According to available information, a Russian force of about 1,500 personnel will be deployed to this base to provide Russian destroyers, escort ships, and submarines with logistical services.
During the past ten years, the Russian navy has increased its presence in the Atlantic and Indian oceans as well as the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. As put by Andrew Foxall, director of the Russia and Eurasia Studies Centre, the Horn of Africa is strategically important and would allow any foreign power to use it for the purpose of power projection in the Middle East, the Red Sea, the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aden. In this way, Russia is to join countries with a military base in the Horn of Africa. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have military bases in Assab port and use it as a strategic position in the fight against Houthis in Yemen. The United States and China also run military bases in Djibouti. Even Turkey has a military base in Somalia and it was only Russia, which had no military base in the Horn of Africa following the fall of the Soviet Union.
The presence of Russian military contractors in the Central African Republic
Russia is also trying to find new allies south of the Sahara. About four decades after the fall of the self-proclaimed empire of Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the Central African Republic’s dictator who was supported by France, Russians have entered this country. In doing so, they have stirred concerns in the West about true intentions of Moscow after Russia's presence caused changes in the power dynamics in that country. Russia has dispatched at least 175 security contractors with the private company, the Wagner Group, to the Central African Republic, to trains security forces of Faustin-Archange Touadéra, the incumbent president of the country.
Last July, Dmitry Shugayev, the director of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, took part in a meeting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, known as BRICS. On the sidelines of the meeting, Shugayev announced that he had signed an agreement with countries in central and South Africa for the export of military equipment and cooperation, including for training of their forces.
Most analysts believe that the Kremlin is trying through diplomatic, economic and military means to boost its political influence and find new markets in Africa. These means consist of concluding multi-billion-dollar weapons contracts, implementing major construction projects, bolstering the infrastructure needed for satellite communications, discovery of hydrocarbon resources, and making Russia's military and security presence in African known in parallel with conducting secret military operations in Africa.
Deployment of Russian forces and weapons to Libya
According to the information published by British media, last October, the British intelligence forces informed Prime Minister Theresa May about deployment of Russian forces and weapons to the eastern parts of Libya, which were controlled by forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar. Based on media reports, during past months, Russia has deployed a number of missile systems of anti-ship Kalibr type, in addition to S-300 missile defense systems, groups of Spetsnaz Special Forces, and officers from the main military intelligence service, GRU, to this part of Libya. Part of these forces was tasked with training Haftar’s forces. However, based on the available information, Russians are planning to establish military bases in two important Libyan ports, Tobruk and Benghazi. From a strategic viewpoint, Libya is of high importance to the developing Russian navy.
Russian navy ships and submarines, which enter the Mediterranean through the Atlantic Ocean, can use facilities in these two ports en route to the Syrian port of Tartus. When Russia's sole aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, was on its way from the Barents Sea to the Syrian coast in 2016, there were no friendly ports to allow this ship to berth. Apart from such NATO member states as Spain, even countries like Malta and Cyprus did not allow Kuznetsov to call at their ports. Having logistical ports in Libya can solve this problem for Russians.
Of course, the Russian embassy in London has denied the report by the British media, emphasizing that Moscow has not interfered in the Libyan conflict in favor of any party. However, a military source at Russian Defense Ministry had told a Russian economic newspaper that Russian forces, including the elite Spetsnaz Special Forces, had left their base near Moscow and were heading to eastern Libya. A local source within the Tripoli government also told Russian media that Russia had started military activities in the eastern part of Libya.
Such reports about Russia's activities in Africa indicate that Moscow is trying to renew its ties with African countries and bolster its cultural, political, economic, and, of course, military influence in this continent. Russia is taking such steps at a time that the U.S. presence in Africa is waning, while China is strengthening its presence there. Last March, Lavrov took a long tour of Africa in which he visited such countries as Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.
During these visits, Lavrov signed a number of agreements for the establishment of economic zones in those countries, discovery of underground resources, extraction of certain minerals such as diamond, platinum, and oil, as well as military and technological cooperation. Moscow is also trying to get diplomatic support of African countries. At the present time, Russia is faced with the threat of becoming isolated by the United States and Europe over policies that Moscow has adopted in Ukraine. Therefore, the Kremlin is looking for allies in Africa, which would be able to help Russians at the United Nations through their votes. Russia also has historical footholds in Africa from the time of the former Soviet Union when Moscow supported liberation movements in Africa. However, to regain their historical position in Africa, Russians have to compete with the Chinese.
As in the past, providing weapons can be Moscow’s main tool in dealing with the African countries in return for which, it can obtain the right to exploration and extraction of hydrocarbon resources and other minerals. Moscow, for its part, is willing to acquire new naval and air bases along the African coasts, especially on the shores of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. These bases will enable Russia to create a network of naval and aerial contact points outside its borders. Let’s not forget that more powerful military and economic presence of Russians in Africa can help Moscow create an alliance in line with its policies in that continent.
Ramin Nadimi is reserarch fellow at TISRI and Russia analyst.
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