Offering defense technology aid is a great way for big players in the international arena — such as Russia, China, and the United States — to build relations with developing countries and strengthen their base of influence. Cooperation in the defense sector is a sign of great trust between states, which, in turn, promotes cooperation in all other areas.
Russia has long been known as a leading arms producer and exporter. Russian weaponry and defense technology have been warmly received in developing countries thanks to their reliability, ability to operate in extreme climates, and reasonable cost.
During the entire second half of the 20th century, Africa was one of the Soviet Union’s primary defense export markets. It is a continent where armed conflicts arise time and again, requiring local governments to constantly think about their military readiness. The Soviet Union played an enormous role in Africa by providing arms, military advisors, and financial aid to the new governments that emerged during decolonization and aligned with the USSR as their primary ally. In those days, the African continent acted as a proxy arena for the conflict that played out between the Soviet Union and the United States. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia’s presence in Africa significantly weakened, and China began to aggressively fill the void that emerged. Its enormous investments and other forms of economic cooperation with all African countries resulted in China now being considered the most influential world power on the continent.
However, Russia has, in recent years, refocused its attention on Africa and gradually begun to reestablish its position there. This was possible, in large part, thanks to the image that the Soviet Union left of itself in the hearts and minds of Africans. Citizens of many African countries — such as Egypt, Uganda, Angola, Ethiopia, Somalia, and others — fondly recall the times when the USSR provided them with financial aid and technology. The Soviet Union also supported them in their struggles with foreign enemies by sending Soviet experts to develop local industry, energy infrastructure, and healthcare. Many leading African politicians studied at Soviet universities and speak Russian even now. On the whole, this cultural exchange serves now to significantly facilitate mutual understanding between Russia and its African partners. In addition, defense technology, an area of partnership between modern-day Russia and Africa, plays an important role in the success of their cooperation. There are few who can compete with Russia in this sector, as was the case with the Soviet Union in its time. Exports of Russian arms to African countries have continued to flow even after the fall of the Soviet Union, though this served a primarily commercial interest. Russia is now actively increasing the volume of exports in its effort to turn them into a political tool that will help the country to strengthen its presence in Africa and achieve the highest level of rapport with today’s governments. As recently as 2016, media reports indicated that up to a third of all defense exports to Africa are made in Russia.
The state-run company Rosoboronexport is the only organization in Russia that exports defense materials. Many African countries — including economically developed countries, such as South Africa and Egypt — and intergovernmental entities, such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC), are among the company’s foreign partners.
SADC is an influential large-scale trade and economic union composed of 16 southern African countries that decided to integrate their economic and legal systems towards the purposes of joint development. The organization’s members include: South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, Malawi, Madagascar, Tanzania, Zambia, Mauritius, Seychelles, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Comoros.
Rosoboronexport has long forged relations with the SADC, as the organization finds itself in need of defense technology aid due to the growing terrorist threat seen in Africa and Asia in recent years. On this background, the demand for arms and military technology has experienced steady growth in the region and it would serve Russia well to strengthen its position in this market.
In October 2018, Rosoboronexport’s press service stated that the company views SADC as a promising partner whose goals strongly align with Russia’s Africa strategy. Russia works in close tandem with the SADC’s member-states on issues such as security, fighting terrorism and organized crime, and training peacekeeping operations. Russia cooperates both with the SADC as a whole and individual member-states on a bilateral basis.
By way of example, at the beginning of October 2018, Russia signed a five-year agreement with Tanzania on defense technology cooperation. The agreement calls for Russia to export military equipment, repair it, and train staff in related institutions. The parties also intend to conduct joint defense technology research.
Russia also offers these conditions to other countries. Rosoboronexport supplies all of its SADC partners with military equipment, in addition to training local specialists in how to use, service, and repair Russian military equipment. The possibility of licensed production of Russian armaments in some southern African countries is also on the table.
As stated above, the SADC is a large organization made up of 16 out of Africa’s 54 independent countries. While that may be a sizable number, Rosoboronexport also works with other African countries, such as Uganda, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Mali, and the Central African Republic, to name a few. Russia is working to restore relations that weakened after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and to build new ones.
Russia signed defense technology cooperation agreements with Mozambique in 2015, and with Botswana and Niger in 2017. The latter countries are eager to obtain Russian air defense systems and learn from Russian armed forces’ anti-terrorism experience.
It is also worth mentioning that Russia has begun cooperating with the SADC-member Democratic Republic of Congo in defense technology matters. This country did not enjoy warm relations with the USSR, instead siding with the United States during the Cold War. In 1999, the DRC signed the convention on military cooperation with Russia, although no actual progress was made until May 2018, when the agreement gained new strength. Russia will now export arms to the DRC and train its military.
In conclusion, it is worth emphasizing that cooperation between two countries in the defense technology sector is not possible without significant trust and willingness to work on a continuing basis. The complex military equipment on which the nation’s security and government’s survival rely is in constant need of maintenance, repair, and competent use. In order to provide that, the purchasing party needs long-term assistance and training from Russian experts. As such, by obtaining arms from Russia, African governments can, to a large extent, entrust their security to it by signing on to partner with Russia, in this and other foreign policy areas, for many years.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”