Russia Takes its Syrian Model of Counterinsurgency to Africa

Rebels in the north of the Central African Republic. Courtesy of hdptcar/CC-BY-2.0

Russia’s involvement in Africa is growing, and it is multifaceted.

When in early August elements of the Malian Armed Forces mounted a coup which resulted in the resignation of Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov immediately expressed concern about the events and claimed that Moscow had received information about Keita’s arrest. In the days that followed, speculation grew that Russia had helped to instigate the coup, as two military personnel who played an instrumental role in the mutiny had spent most of the previous year training in Moscow. Oleg Morozov, a long-standing member of the Russian Duma, swiftly condemned this speculation and stated that ‘any talk that Russia was somehow involved in the August military coup looks ridiculous’.

Russia’s Counterinsurgency Model

Although it remains unclear whether Moscow assisted Mali’s coup plotters, supporting an extra-legal turnover of power would severely undercut Russia’s aspirations to become a counterinsurgency leader in Africa. Since Russia embarked on its military intervention in support of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in September 2015, the Kremlin has advertised its ‘Syrian model’ of counterinsurgency to African countries struggling with political violence. This model emphasises state-to-state cooperation between Russia and African governments and presents authoritarian stability as the most effective antidote to extremism. As the unilateralism that underpins US counterterrorism efforts in Somalia and Washington’s frequent attachment of human rights conditions for military assistance have frustrated African leaders, Russia’s alternative counterinsurgency model has become increasingly attractive in Africa.

In April 2016, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that Somalia desired Russian equipment to aid its counterterrorism operations and Somalia subsequently requested Moscow’s assistance in upgrading its military preparedness. Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir praised Russia’s Syrian model of counterinsurgency more explicitly in November 2017 by stating that ‘if it were not for the Russian intervention in the situation in Syria, then this country would be lost’. More recently, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s wavering commitment to African security and France’s counterinsurgency struggles in the Sahel have increased the appeal of Russia’s counterterrorism model in West Africa. Nigeria’s Ambassador to Russia Steve Ugbah argued in  in October 2019 that ‘We’re sure that with Russian help we’ll manage to crush Boko Haram’ and cited Russia’s defeat of the Islamic State in Syria as proof for this statement. In November 2019, large-scale anti-French and anti-UN protests erupted in Mali’s capital Bamako calling for Russia to vanquish Islamists in Mali like it did in Syria.

Mercenaries and Minerals

Although Russia has touted its supposed attractiveness as a counterinsurgency partner as proof of its rising status in Africa and emphasised counterterrorism at the landmark October 2019 Russia–Africa Summit in Sochi, Moscow has been selective in its embrace of binding military commitments in Africa. Russia has deployed Wagner Group private military contractors (PMCs) to Libya and Mozambique for ambiguously defined ‘counterterrorism purposes.’ However, Russian PMCs have struggled to turn the tide of Libya National Army chieftain Khalifa Haftar’s ill-fated offensive against Tripoli and succumbed to a calamitous Islamic State ambush in Mozambique in October 2019, which resulted in the deaths of 7 Russian personnel. Russia also signed 19 military cooperation agreements with African countries between 2014–18. In the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, these agreements are strictly confined to counterterrorism training. Russia has notably refrained from deploying PMCs or active duty forces to the two African regions that are most severely impacted by transnational terrorism. 

In spite of its military setbacks and cautious counterterrorism policy, Russia has capitalised on anti-Western sentiments and effective branding of its Syrian model of counterinsurgency to secure arms deals and economic contracts. Russia is the leading arms vendor to Africa, as it supplied 49% of North Africa’s weapons and 28% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s weapons between 2014–18, and numerous African states struggling with insurgencies have requested Russian weaponry. After human rights concerns prevented the US from selling advanced aircraft to Nigeria in 2014, Abuja struck a deal with Moscow to purchase Mi-35 and Mi-17 fighter jets. Nigeria’s reliance on Russian aircraft in its struggle against Boko Haram resulted in its agreement to purchase another 12 Mi-35 fighter jets from Russia in October 2019. Russia has also supplied light weaponry to Mali, the Central African Republic, and Sudan, as all three countries grapple with varying degrees of isolation from international arms markets.

Russia has also presented itself as a counterinsurgency partner in order to expand its access to the continent’s mineral deposits. Russia’s PMC deployments in support of Central African Republic’s President Faustin-Archange Touadera against Seleka rebels are closely intertwined with its desire to profit from the country’s vast diamond reserves. Russia has spearheaded efforts to lift export restrictions on diamond sales from the Central African Republic and leveraged its counterinsurgency campaign to profit Lobaye Invest, a mining company with close ties to Yevgeny Prigozhin. Russian media outlets and think tanks often assert that US and French counterterrorism campaigns in the Sahel are aimed at securing hegemony over the region’s vast uranium stockpiles. However, Russia’s civilian nuclear energy giant Rosatom’s forays into Nigeria and aspirations to enter Niger’s uranium market are undoubtedly strengthened by the positive impact of counterinsurgency cooperation on Moscow’s bilateral relationships with West African countries.

The Long-Term Perspective

Looking beyond economic factors, Russia’s rising profile in the counterinsurgency arena in Africa has strengthened its relationship with France but engendered potential tensions with China. In spite of its opposition to French proposals for tighter sanctions against Mali and competition with Paris for leverage in the Central African Republic, France and Russia have bonded over their shared belief that authoritarian stability can rein in armed insurgencies. This common perspective has inspired Franco–Russian cooperation in support of Haftar in Libya and motivated Russia to secure military cooperation agreements with France’s authoritarian partners in the Sahel, such as Chad’s President Idriss Deby. Therefore, cooperation on West African security adds a marginal layer of depth to broader France–Russia outreach efforts.

Although Russia’s counterinsurgency campaigns ostensibly support China’s desire for stability near its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in Africa, Moscow’s military interventions and PMC deployments to Africa could sharpen frictions with Beijing. In his testimony in May to the US Congress, former US Ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso David Shinn argued that Wagner Group activities in Sudan and the Central African Republic could undermine Chinese interests. This conclusion is plausible as Russia’s resolute support for fragile authoritarian governments in Sub-Saharan Africa contrasts with China’s greater adaptability to regime changes on the continent. In Libya, Russia’s support for the LNA’s purported counterterrorism efforts clashes with China’s desire to integrate the UN-recognised Government of National Accord into the BRI. These disagreements have not caused a major rift in Russia–China relations but could impede Moscow and Beijing’s prospective transition from tactical cooperation to strategic alignment in Africa.

Although speculation of Kremlin involvement in the Mali coup persists, Russia’s counterinsurgency strategy in Africa hinges on supporting fragile authoritarian regimes and selling its Syrian model to countries struggling with political violence. In spite of Russia’s ambiguous commitment to African security and poor track record of military success in Africa, Moscow will likely continue highlighting its counterinsurgency credentials to secure economic contracts, bolster its cooperation with France, and assert its great power status.

Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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