The Russian assault on Ukraine marks the informal end to the so-called post-Cold War international order. In truth, Russia and China have been working to undermine extant global political architecture for years. The U.S. government must recognize that the challenge it faces extends far beyond Europe or even the Indo-Pacific region. As part of its grand geostrategic plan, Russia has been investing significant capital—economic, political, and military—in African countries. U.S. AFRICOM must prepare for a new reality in which it plays a significant role in the new strategic competition with Russia and prepare to counter its growing influence.
For some 20 years, Russia has been steadily making inroads on the Continent, which plays a significant role in the Kremlin’s strategic plan. Geographically, bases and forces in Africa allow Russia to enfilade NATO. Politically, the Continent’s 54 countries constitute a powerful bloc that Moscow would like to have on its side in international fora. Economically, these countries are predicted to have a booming economy over the next several decades. In addition, many of them boast concentrations of critical minerals on which the modern world increasingly relies.
Stephen Blank, a well-respected U.S. analyst of Russian foreign and defense policies, described Russia’s strategic aims in Africa thusly:
“Russia ultimately aims in Africa to create a bloc of pro-Russian states over which it has lasting political-economic, and even military leverage, e.g., a sphere of influence. In turn, this regional transformation will then effectuate a lasting change in the global strategic order. Therefore, Russia’s motives are primarily strategic, even if they encompass economic gains. Economic gains, despite their importance, function ultimately to enhance Russia’s strategic profile in Africa and the creation of this sphere of influence. Consequently, Russian policies employ all the instruments of power in Moscow’s portfolio, including military, to attain lasting strategic and political gains.”
Unlike China, which has the economic and technological resources to pursue its Belt and Road strategy in Africa, Russia must rely on more traditional tools. These include the use of mercenaries, military sales, information operations, extra-legal manipulation of local political environments, and bribery. It is no wonder that Moscow has had remarkable success in propping up unstable authoritarian regimes in Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Mali. The day after a January 2022 military coup in Burkina Faso, demonstrators went into the streets waving Russian flags. Experts have warned that Russia may target a dozen or more other African countries using similar techniques.
To extend its political and military influence in Africa, Moscow is increasingly relying on private military contractors, essentially Russia’s Foreign Legion. A major tool in Moscow’s campaign influence overseas is the private military contractor known as the Wagner Group. The Wagner Group has been deployed in both Syria, where a number of its personnel were killed in an engagement with U.S. forces, and the Ukrainian Donbas region. It has acted with some success in Libya, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, and Sudan. Most recently, some 1,000 Wagner Group mercenaries have begun operating in Mali at the invitation of that country’s new military junta.
As a result of its efforts to influence, destabilize, and compromise African regimes, the Russian military has had significant successes in the region. Russia has signed contracts to supply military equipment to some 30 African countries and has deployed military advisors to a number of these. The Kremlin is reported to have agreements allowing Russia to establish military bases in six African countries—the Central African Republic, Egypt, Eritrea, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Sudan. The last of these included an agreement to allow construction of a Russian naval base on the Red Sea.
AFRICOM faces the enormous challenge of an increasingly contested theater but without the resources available to those theater commands that would directly confront Russia or China. In an era of escalating great power tensions, AFRICOM must do more without having more resources. It must be able to respond quickly, without relying on large forces or complex, expensive infrastructure.
There are three major challenges to American and allied operations in Africa. The first is the sheer size of the Continent. The second is the unpredictability of where and when security crises or humanitarian problems will emerge. The third is a lack of infrastructure, particularly for logistics and sustainment.
Fortunately, AFRICOM has a unique advantage over Russian mercenaries when it comes to moving swiftly in response to crises. The command has the ability to use the network of private logistics contractors spread across the Continent, including companies such as Agility and APL, which have a network of superb facilities throughout Africa. These companies are familiar with the ways the Department of Defense and AFRICOM operate and the logistics requirements of U.S. forces operating on the Continent.
It is common for military planners to struggle with finding or establishing first-class warehousing and logistics capabilities and providers in Africa. The challenge is for these planners to establish both the necessary databases regarding available logistics infrastructure and the relationships with private sector entities prior to conducting missions.
AFRICOM should consider working with private logistics companies to identify locations where additional infrastructure could be critical to future U.S. operations. These companies have demonstrated a remarkable capability to rapidly build world-class infrastructure to meet local demands. If warehouses and sustainment facilities are needed in underserved locales, they can build them.
For AFRICOM to be sufficiently prepared to support U.S. national security and humanitarian missions on the Continent and counter threats posed by Russian operations, it must do a better job of preparing the battlefield. This is particularly the case with respect to logistics and sustainment. AFRICOM needs to bring private logistics contractors into the planning process in order to understand their capabilities. It would also be wise to involve these companies in wargames and exercises for the Command to better understand their capabilities and for private companies to improve their knowledge of AFRICOM’s potential logistics requirements.
Dr. Daniel Goure, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program. Dr. Goure has held senior positions in both the private sector and the U.S. Government. Most recently, he was a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. Dr. Goure spent two years in the U.S. Government as the director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also served as a senior analyst on national security and defense issues with the Center for Naval Analyses, Science Applications International Corporation, SRS Technologies, R&D Associates, and System Planning Corporation.