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It has been described—in some mainstream media—as “… the biggest concentration of firepower in Europe since the cold war.” This weekend, The Economist estimated that there were about 190,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border, ready to invade. By Monday, it has tapered off, though some claim Putin may still invade. In the end, this will mostly be about a power play between Russia and the West, especially the United States, with the Ukrainian people as their proxies.

But what does all this mean for Africans?

Apart from the fact that there’s a large African diaspora in Ukraine, including Ukraine’s most popular evangelical Christian preacher, there are geopolitical questions at stake. Will African states side with the US or their European allies or with Russia? The assessment of last week’s EU/AU summit is that the relationship between Africa and Europe is largely smoke and mirrors these days. The writer Tsitsi Dangarembga summarized it: “For those who long to be welcomed and nothing more, standing on a platform for a photoshoot is a success.”

One key reason for the cool Africa-EU relationship is that Russia and China are bigger players on the continent now. So are the Gulf States, Iran and Turkey. All of these states have deep pockets and soft power ambitions. While the AU hasn’t officially taken a stance, we know that the AU and Russia just signed a massive business-focused partnership. As VOA reports today:

Trade between Russia and African countries has doubled since 2015, to about $20 billion a year, African Export-Import Bank President Benedict Oramah said in an interview last fall with Russia’s state-owned Tass news agency, cited by the Russia Briefing investment news site. He said Russia exported $14 billion worth of goods and services and imported roughly $5 billion in African products.

Voice of America cites historian Maxim Matusevich, who has written on Africa Is a Country’s about Russia’s increasing African focus, that Russians today “are not offering any ideological vision” to Africans. This is not your parents communism.

What they’re essentially doing is they’re contracting with African elites on a one-on-one basis. … They insist on the importance of sovereignty and contrast that with the West, which is trying to impose its values, such as transparency, honest governance, anti-corruption legislation. Again, I’m not saying the West is always sincere doing that, but that’s the official message – and they [Russians] are not doing any of that.

Russia’s presence on the continent is growing, especially militarily. Yes, that means mercenaries. AP recently published a map showing Russian mercenaries in nearly 20 countries on the continent where Russian mercenaries are operating. Those include Libya, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Conakry, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Central African Republic, DR Congo, Zimbabwe and Botswana. And the Russians are bullish about this—mercenaries in Africa are the new thing for Russian cinema, in Russian Rambo-style movies.

Recently, the Financial Times ran a long feature on a film titled “Tourisme,” filmed in the Central African Republic:

Touriste portrays Russian mercenaries as selfless heroes saving a poor African country. Its plot at times hews closely to reality (Russian fighters agree to train the CAR army and then battle alongside them against brutal rebel groups) while at others conveniently distorting it (the rebels alone are depicted doing things — indiscriminate killing, torture, bullying the UN — that the mercenaries themselves are accused of by the EU and human rights groups) …

It is essentially a 1980s-style action flick. The plot is typical of the patriotic fare churned out by parts of Russia’s film industry during Putin’s rule. A young Russian police officer signs up to fly to the CAR to train soldiers amid a bloody civil war. (The movie’s title derives from his call sign, Tourist). This much is based in reality. In 2018, Russia signed an agreement with the CAR to send unarmed instructors to train the local army, which has been fighting a rebellion since 2013. Officially, the governments say that 1,135 military instructors are now in the country.

More recently, Russia has been implicated in the return of military dictatorships in West Africa. Case study: Mali.

We hope to take a closer look at these entanglements soonest, but in the meantime, Africa is a country archive offers an overview of the long-short history of this relationship.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.