The plan did not work. Last November the incumbent president failed to make it into a run-off vote. Other Russian-supported candidates did badly. Late in the day Moscow threw its support behind the eventual winner, Andry Rajoelina, who has denied receiving any Russian assistance or money. But after six months on the ground the operatives who arrived on tourist visas went home with little to show for their efforts.
In spring 2018 a group of foreigners flew to Madagascar. They had not come to see the island’s lemurs or wildlife. The visitors were undercover Russian political consultants. Their mission was to help Madagascar’s ruling president Hery Rajaonarimampianina – or “piano”, as they named him for reasons of brevity – to win re-election.
The trip was part of a wider effort by the Kremlin to expand its influence in Africa. Moscow is seeking to build alliances with incumbent leaders, and more broadly with political, military and business figures. The goal is to shore up existing power – and to snuff out pro-western uprisings or revolutions – using a tested playbook of Kremlin dirty tricks.
Typically, Moscow offers a “package” to African rulers. This might include political and media advisers to help with elections, together with long-term military assistance and training. In return, Russia seeks concessions in mining for gold and other precious minerals, and oil and gas contracts, as well as transnational railway and road-building deals.
The man leading these initiatives is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a St Petersburg businessman. Entities linked to Prigozhin have undertaken various tasks on the Kremlin’s behalf – from sabotaging the US election in 2016 using trolls, to sending mercenaries to fight in Ukraine and Syria.
Prigozhin’s latest assignment is to make Africa a zone of Russian influence, as it was in Soviet times. During the cold war, the USSR supported liberation movements in the developing world and backed insurgent communist guerrillas fighting in Angola, Algeria and what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). When the Soviet Union collapsed Moscow’s influence faded.
Vladimir Putin’s recent interest in Africa is in large part pragmatic. Western sanctions on Russia’s economy mean that Moscow is keen to find new markets and to strike new partnerships. Its interests – according to leaked documents – range from gold in Sudan, to phosphates and mineral resources in Mauritania, to diamonds in DRC.
There is an ideological dimension too. Putin sees Russia as a great power – with interests across the globe, stretching from the former Soviet “near abroad”, to the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. It is – or should be – an indispensable player in world affairs. Its views have to be taken into account, on Iran’s nuclear programme, a peace settlement in Ukraine, and much else.
In their bid for influence in Africa, operatives linked to Prigozhin have dusted down Soviet rhetoric. Their support for existing rulers is portrayed as an anti-colonial struggle. In Madagascar, the Russians organised a demonstration outside the embassy of the former colonial power, France. They even laid on a tame orator, who reportedly shouted: “Africans trust Russia more than America or France!”, the BBC and others reported.
The sprawling operations in Africa have an important advantage for the Kremlin: they are deniable. Last year at a press conference with Donald Trump in Helsinki, Putin said Prigozhin’s catering company Concord – accused of running the notorious troll factory – had nothing to do with the state. Few think this is true. Prigozhin has “extensive business dealings” with the Russian defence ministry, the US Treasury said in December 2016.
Under Trump, the US appears to have given up on its global leadership role. As America pulls back, Russia seeks to fill the vacuum, casting itself as a crusader for African identity and self-determination.