While many have been obsessing about Russia’s alleged involvement in American politics and its growing power in the Middle East, Moscow has been quietly making significant inroads across Africa. Acting as a counterbalance to China’s outsized influence and America’s retreating presence on the continent, Russia has been forging new military partnerships aided by private mercenaries to re-establish itself as a major power in Africa. Not since the Cold War has Moscow exerted so much influence from Angola to Zanzibar.
As with Syria, Russia’s maneuvering would not have been possible had the United States not created a vacuum for someone to fill. Starting with former president Barack Obama and his “pivot to Asia” and continuing under President Donald Trump’s refusal to “over-extend” American power and influence across the world, the US has visibly downgraded its economic, cultural and military positions on the African continent. Many US embassies have been left with no ambassador or core staff. The US ambassador to South Africa, one of the most important diplomatic positions on the continent, only arrived in October, more than three years late.
Trump barely conceals his contempt for Africa. After referring to some African nations as “shithole countries,” the president struggled to name even some of the major African states. During a speech at the United Nations in 2017, Trump referred to the non-existent African country of “Nambia” .
With the US on the back foot, Russia has taken advantage of the chance to challenge China’s power in Africa. Under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious project designed to reorient trade flows from the West to China, Beijing has extended credit and influence across the continent. By financing public infrastructure projects in poorer nations, China has brought several African countries into its economic orbit through debt. This debt-trap diplomacy is compounded by China’s technological dominance. By flooding the continent with cheap smartphones and Chinese applications such as WeChat, Beijing has established itself as a superpower there.