America’s interests in stopping Russian destabilization must extend to Africa

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On Feb. 14, I wilted in the Equatorial heat at the Samul K. Doe stadium in Monrovia, Liberia, to commemorate the 200-year anniversary of the landing of freed American slaves on the country’s shores, eventually establishing Africa’s first Black Republic. Having worked in Liberia for over two decades — and having seen Liberians emerge from years of brutal civil war and deprivation — not being there, was not an option for me.

Days prior, the White House announced that it was sending a Cabinet-level presidential delegation to the event, led by UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, an African American who met her husband in Liberia when she was a student and who was later appointed President Obama’s ambassador to the country.

Could there be any better representation of the unique ties that bind the two countries? 

But Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield never boarded the plane. “Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield will remain in New York to engage in diplomacy related to Russia’s escalating military build-up on Ukraine’s borders,” said a spokesperson for the U.S. mission to the United Nations.

Instead, the National Security Advisor for Africa, Dana Banks, stepped in to give the keynote address before a capacity crowd. The Liberians took it all in stride — COVID-19 had made any international travel unpredictable. They celebrated Ms. Banks, another accomplished diplomat, along with others in the U.S. delegation.

But I was sorely disappointed.

I saw this diplomatic pivot as a missed opportunity to signal that America’s commitment to stopping Russia’s destabilization extends beyond Europe to Africa, where the Kremlin is deploying stealth disinformation campaigns to propagate discontent, and private mercenary armies to bolster autocratic regimes. Russia seeks to sow chaos and then position itself as the beneficiary in a governance crisis it has exacerbated and perpetuated.  

So far, the Kremlin has succeeded — spectacularly — in fixating the world’s attention on a single border flashpoint as fears of a full-scale invasion mount. Only time will tell whether this is Putin’s ultimate game of geopolitical chicken. But meanwhile, there is a danger that we lose the ability to focus on slower-burning threats to our collective security.

Here’s what’s going on with Russia in Africa, why we should care, and what can be done about it:

Last month, the landlocked Sahelian nation of Burkina Faso was the fifth African nation to fall to a military coup in the past 18 months, including Mali (twice), Chad, Guinea, and Sudan. The last time there was such a wave of military takeovers on the continent was in the late 1990s, when strongmen rode high in Africa, and before the emergence of the continent’s vibrant civil society. Today’s reversal of democratic fortunes is deeply unsettling.

Some see a ‘playbook’ being developed by the putschists, with military plotters trying to legitimize their anti-constitutional intervention by standing in apparent solidarity with an aggrieved citizenry over the failure of the elected government to protect their lives and livelihoods.

But peek behind the curtain, and you will find more than just local forces at play — including Kremlin proxies, the Wagner Group, Russian mercenaries trained in Ukraine, and the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm run out of St. Petersburg.

According to experts, while access to precious minerals is a factor for Wagner’s entry, the Kremlin is primarily motivated to thwart U.S. policy objectives and undermine the European-supported security and development architecture that exists in the Sahel in the form of the Coalition for the Sahel, the G5 Sahel, and Task Force Takuba to help combat ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

The Center for International and Strategic Studies reports that Russian mercenaries now operate in 16 African nations including in the Central Africa Republic where Wagner has been condemned for gross human rights violations.

It is a State-sponsored Russian operation conducted with plausible deniability, without commitment to the continent or its people and absent regard for the interests of Africans.

The population of the Sahel region is predicted to double from 80 million to 160 million 2040, fueling an already out-of-control wave of migration to Western Europe, energizing the rise of anti-immigrant, far-right parties ready to limit democratic freedoms to secure borders — another strategic win for the Kremlin.

No one can deny the home-grown factors that are driving instability and giving safe haven to terrorists, including weak and ineffective governance, Islamic insurgents who have migrated inwards after the collapse of Libya, economic deprivation worsened by the pandemic, and young and ambitious military leaders who find solidarity with each other and see few material deterrents from the regional and international actors.

But if we do not factor Russia into the equation, any interventions to shore up democratic governance, build civil society, alleviate the persistent poverty, and address the terrorist threat, will be undercut if not rendered futile.

Actions that should be considered include:

  1. Hold the Russian state accountable for the destabilization by its proxies in Africa. Ready the same sanctions list that is being positioned as a deterrent against the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. Hollow words from the U.S. government and our European allies requesting the Russia Federation “to revert to responsible and constructive behavior in the region,” are ineffective, and only serve to embolden the Kremlin.
  2. Use U.S. government information assets to educate African citizens on what you get when the Russians are your allies — where is the development, the support for democratic institutions, their vaccine diplomacy? What does it mean when an international stabilization force has no democratic accountability?
  3. Work with Africa’s institutions including the Economic Union of West Africa States and the African Union to help set and enforce a consistent, rules-based, approach to military and constitutional coups. There cannot be an exception for every coup, which renders the institutions’ guiding principles moot.
  4. Consider capacitating the AU and ECOWAS with a well-trained standby force that can provide short-term stability and deterrence operations. We have seen the effect of a disciplined neutral force with Rwanda’s recent intervention in Mozambique against the Jihadists.

Does anyone really believe that the waving of Russian flags after the coup in Burkina Faso was a spontaneous outpouring of the people? Is it just a coincidence that the military government of Mali demanded that French forces depart from their 9-year stabilization mission after negotiating a contract with the Wagner Group? There is nothing accidental here.

The U.S. government, and its western allies, need to respond with the same sense of collective strength and urgency to Russia’s destabilization in Africa as they are doing now to Russia’s attempt to re-define the post-Cold War rules of engagement.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct the circumstances of Linda Thomas-Greenfield meeting her husband in Liberia.

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President” (Kiwai Media, June 2016).She also serves on the international advisory board of Afrobarometer. You can follow her @rivalevinson

Tags Africa Barack Obama Burkina Faso disinformation campaigns Joe Biden Least developed countries Liberia Linda Thomas-Greenfield Mali Private military contractors Russia Russian aggression Russian interference Sahel Vladimir Putin Wagner Group

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