Russia’s engagements in Africa are widespread and often don’t look like a war – but maybe they are…
General Valery Gerasimov, a senior commander and strategic thinker in the Russian military, recently wrote:
“The very ‘rules of war’ have changed. The role of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.”
What is hybrid warfare?
The article expounds what many call ‘the Gerasimov Doctrine’, a kind of ‘hybrid’ version of warfare that places equal emphasis on economic measures, communications (often mis-and disinformation), diplomacy, subterfuge, even cultural exchange as well as the open use of force using conventional military, naval and air power.
This is a misreading of Gerasimov’s article: his point was that this approach was not what Russia does but what its adversaries do against it. But since the article’s publication in 2016, Russia certainly seems to have adopted hybrid warfare, regardless of who actually invented it.
Russia in Mali
Take, for example, recent events in Mali, where a series of military coups were followed by the rejection of the old colonial power in the region, France, as well as the sidelining of the UN mission in Mali, MINUSMA, and a crackdown on human rights observers. It was no coincidence that these three things happened at the same time as a sudden influx of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group and increased Russian diplomatic efforts, including a visit by Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov. As French forces withdrew the tricolore flag was burned in the streets of Bamako, as were effigies of President Macron. But at the same time Russian flags were waved and some people sported Vladimir Putin masks.
The conduct of a counter-terrorism campaign, never mind a war, is often at odds with human rights and, specifically, human rights activists. But the evidence there is in Mali is that, while the tempo of operations against the Da’esh and al-Qa’ida factions in Mali has increased markedly and the numbers of those killed by Wagner fighters exceeds previous efforts, many of those killed are not actually terrorists or insurgents. In fact, ACLED, a human rights monitoring agency, has stated that, of 761 people killed in Wagner’s operations, only 36 have been confirmed to be members of the terrorist groups. The rest are allegedly innocent civilians, young men killed in mass executions. Wagner’s operations may suit those in power in Mali at this time, but not necessarily the rest of the population and probably not Mali in the long run
Russia in South Africa
In South Africa, meanwhile, Russian has tapped into the historic links between the ruling ANC party there and its historic supporters in the then Soviet Union. Only last week joint military operations involving South African, Chinese and Russian naval vessels were conducted off the coast of South Africa. The South African Foreign Minister, Naledi Pandor, made it clear that South Africa has decided to reject its former supporters in the west and also to set aside its commitment to human rights as the guiding principle of its foreign policy, choosing instead to pursue South Africa’s own interests.
Fair enough, you might say. Except that South Africa appears to have chosen Russia and China as the replacements for the former colonial and Cold War western powers. There are also allegations that the choice has been influenced at the individual level by ‘donations’ to the ANC and its individual leaders. There are also murky reports of Russian military ships offloading ‘secret cargos’ which one can only speculate as to the nature of.
South Africa can, of course, do what it wants to in terms of its foreign policy: it is a sovereign country. Any country in Africa can do that. But does setting aside the prioritization of human rights that made South Africa a beacon for decades and also falling in with global powers that can at times seem like even less pleasant forms of the former colonial powers really do South Africa (and South Africans) any real favours in the long term? South Africa was a pariah state under apartheid, and quite rightly. Does it want to be one again?
If South Africa’s position as one of, if not the major democracy on the African continent wanes, then which countries could replace it? You might well be sitting in one of those countries while you are reading this.