American security officials have been expressing alarm at Russia’s growing influence in Africa. Most recently, 200 Russian mercenaries of the Wagner Group were deployed to northern Mozambique to counter a rising Islamist insurgency. Russia has also been pushing for the construction of a military port in the Horn of Africa, which would be the first permanent Russian base on the continent. Military advisers have been heading into the Central African Republic (CAR), and arms and military personnel have been sent to Libya to support Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army in their fight against the UN-recognized Tripoli-based government.
These developments come at a time when defense secretary Mark Esper continues to weigh his options on global troop redeployment, which could see the US pull troops out of Africa, leaving the continent open for stronger influence by Russia and China. It speaks to a broader foreign policy view of the United States using its economic and military power as a check against superpower competitors, but one that is hamstrung by democratic bureaucracy. Russian and Chinese executives, facing less stringent oversight from their respective legislatures, can more readily send troops, material, and funding to African governments, while also ignoring objections over human rights abuses by certain African leaders.
Russia sending military forces to Mozambique is but the latest effort by President Vladimir Putin to get a foothold in an African country with vast natural resources. A Russian national was named as the national security advisor to CAR president Faustin-Archange Touadéra. CAR has been selling gold- and diamond-mining rights to Russian firms at a fraction of their value, and buying arms from Moscow. The Sahel countries of Mauritania, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger—which have natural resources like gold and uranium—recently requested military support from Russia in their ongoing fight against jihadist militias.
American Defense Department officials have said that Russia has plans to set up a military base in the port city of Berbera in Somaliland, the self-declared autonomous zone in Somalia’s north. Were this to go through, the Russian base would share a coastline with Chinese and American military bases in neighboring Djibouti. Russia also has plans to establish a naval logistics center in Eritrea.