Experts Weigh In: The Kremlin’s “Umbrella For Dictators” In Africa

A meeting of Russian and African leaders. The Kremlin’s agenda in Russia is to protect dictatorships in exchange for resources, says Chouet with Lansing Institute. 

Interview by Rachel Brooks

With special guest Armand Chouet,

Director General Robert Lansing Institute for Global Threats and Democracies Studies

June 30, 2021 

Recently, Republic Underground began its initial discourse on PMCs in Africa. We reviewed various perspectives on the Wagner PMC, a militia group connected to the Kremlin, and what advances and stresses it makes in African politics. Earlier in this subject, we heard a counter-western argument by Tom Ogwe a SubSaharan political analyst. Republic Underground follows up with Armand Chouet Director General of Robert Lansing Institute for Global Threats and Democracies Studies to build upon the pro-western argument and analysis of these issues.

See Wagner Vs. West for the full discourse opening.

Brooks: First off, I would like to ask you if you could expound a bit upon the Lansing Institutes report on Wagner group’s activities and Russian vs. Western clashes in the African continent. Walk us through the reasons why Russia blames the French for CAR war crimes. What is the Kremlin’s agenda for doing this?

Chouet: As you can see in Mali, Russians are trying to push France out of Africa, from former French colonies. Look, how in Bamako Russian intel tried to blame French peacekeepers (operation using “Yerewolo Debouts sur Les Remparts” group). 

The aim is to form a negative mood among locals to the French as people of the country that has the major influence in the region. I know about similar cases in Cameroon where the same accusations are directed at British people. I think the French are the target only because CAR was previously a French colony.

Look, how the Russian disinformation network in social media works in the United States, manipulating with history of slavery and segregation to destabilize homeland security. In Africa, Russia wants to increase its political and military presence by deploying paramilitary forces, like Wagner, SEWA, Patriot. They must secure local regimes and make a ground for further deployment (mil bases of official Russian Army, as Moscow planned in Sudan). As you know, Russian PMSs are used as SOF with the opportunity of denied responsibility.

Brooks: To build a bit more on that subject, I would like to ask you if you could expound upon recent evidence that may suggest a proxy conflict between western powers and Russia/China interests in Africa. From the African perspective, I have been told that the general mistrust in western people and perceptions of western privilege has made the defense contracts provided by Wagner and Chinese operatives more favorable. For this, perhaps we see African nations allowing Russian actors more leeway in their territories than western operations.

Chouet: It is natural, that, for example, Russia trend to establish communication and cooperation with the Western rivals (Hezbollah, Taliban, other groups) and encourages them to active operations against the U.S. and Allies. However, China also cooperates with them but chooses to secure China’s interest in a region with their firepower. So they have different strategies.

To contract with Wagner is a choice of authoritarian regimes, who ignore human rights and international law. To make a deal with the Wagner group you should turn to the Russian authorities on the highest level. 

It’s not a commercial deal, but political. Russians guarantee the security of the regime, the support in the UN and UNSC, as it was in Syria, CAR, and Venezuela. 

I don’t think that the reason for such a choice is mistrust or conflict between the West and the East (Russia/China). The reason is the point of view on the world order and common values. For Russia, it is ok to cooperate with a totalitarian, non-democratic regime, if it publicly supports Moscow, to get a share of its natural resources. As a non-democratic state, Russia doesn’t fear being accused of working with authoritarian governments. 

For the Western PMCs, such deals are risky, because they could affect their work on their government contracts and reflect negatively on their image.

Brooks: Let’s stay with this for a moment. Do you believe this will intensify the operations between these two dueling agendas, and if so, what scenarios can we expect to see?

Chouet: I’m afraid Russians have learned how to use our values as our weaknesses. They use the freedom of speech to spread disinformation, establishing their propaganda media in the West. They use crises to corrupt foreign governments and societies. They use the freedom to elect and to be elected to influence elections abroad. 

After African states declared independence, they took a political model of a former dominion. Despite a long history of coups, they try to follow democratic principles and values publicly. However, we understand that if Russia will infiltrate the region, Africa will never be a democratic space. 

 

Brooks: I would like to shift our focus a bit by looking at aspects of the western influence in the region. My next question is with regards to the United States and Europe and whether, based on the involvement of individual nations such as France, we see a western coalition potential in dealing with a possible proxy conflict on African soil.

We have seen signals from the government of Tunisia that suggest some African nations will be unwilling to cooperate with the presence of foreign western national military bases/operatives. Yet, we also see signals of international security priority from the west as Africa’s continental status reaches the inflection point.

For examples of western regional prioritization, I will refer specifically to recent French AU investment, as well as the United States’ recent defensive airstrikes on Iran regime-backed proxies in Syria. Such elements as these suggest to us that the western powers’ regional goals may necessitate a reach around the non-cooperation of some African states. Suppose that they may also come to rely on one another in terms of western defense agendas and “penetrating” the chaotic pressure wall of African politics to gain regional access. What is your opinion of this assessment?

 

Chouet: If we talk about France, we can see an internal conflict: Paris wants to develop relations with Russians in Europe, but Paris’s unwillingness to confront Russia leads to a decrease in French influence and presence in Africa. 

If we talk about unwillingness to cooperate, I think that African states expected more cooperation from the West during the recent pandemic crises. So, they think, if they agree to cooperate, the Western contribution will be more valuable than they could get from such cooperation. However, their level of financial and tech development makes it impossible to rely on one another. Inter-African conflicts of interests, conflicts between tribes and ethnic groups complicate cooperation between African states. 

Brooks: Regarding the West’s approach at present, is there any potential for the United States-France, and/or the “western powers” to form a contracting coalition against Russian/Chinese military influence? Are we already seeing such formations, or will we not see them?

Chouet: I do not believe in the US-France coalition against Russian/Chinese mil influence. France is losing influence in the world. The French power was based on ideology, colonial influence, and economy. But today Paris seems to be not a very reliable partner. 

In Europe, it shows readiness to cooperate with Moscow despite the position of Poland and Baltic states, despite the Russian aggression in Czech Rep., Bulgaria, Germany, Netherland, and Britain. Washington can’t rely on Paris in the policy of pressure on Russia, so as European states who were Russian recent targets. African states also see France’s interest decreasing in cooperation and investments. China demonstrates readiness to invest in the African economy and this is an advantage of the Chinese approach to Africa. 

Russia is not ready to invest in Africa, but it is ready to provide an “umbrella” for African dictatorships in exchange for money, resources, and public support of the Kremlin.

 

Brooks: Let’s focus more on the interests of Russia and China for a moment. Assume Russia and China have a growing interest in protecting the “umbrella” goals you’ve explained.

What are the expected strategic responses from the Kremlin/Beijing and other regional groups if there should be a western retaliation against the methods used to achieve these dictatorship-cooperative goals?

 

Chouet: I think there are different approaches toward the Kremlin and Beijing because there are different goals of these nations. 

If China wants an economic hegemony and resource access, Russia tries to establish its control over other nations by affecting their ideology, culture, and lifestyle. Thus, Russians are more radical in responses. They can use terrorist groups in their ops, giving support to groups such as Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad.

So, I think Russia is more dangerous. Look at Operation Code of Politburo (work from 1953) and you will find findings that point to no limits in response, based on violence and breaking integrities, orders, and morale. 

Russia sees Africa only as a field of confrontation with the US and NATO. Russia is not as interested in Africa as it is. So, Russia’s response will be targeted on American or European representatives in the region or undermining operations in the USA or other NATO member-states, including PSYops, cyber-attacks, the act of terrorism, diversion, and encouraging separatist movements.

 

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