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Russia's Inroads In Africa


Russia has been making new inroads into Africa - mostly through arms deals. And some say Washington needs to stay vigilant. Russia is second only to the United States in the arms trade worldwide. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: A U.N. sanctions committee recently allowed Russia to sell weapons to the government in Central African Republic, which is struggling to contain an ethnic and religious conflict. With that arms sale came a small group of Russian military trainers now in the capital Bangui. The U.S. has taken notice. C.A.R.'s president is quoted as saying he wants more cooperation with Russia now, including in infrastructure and education. But so far, this is mostly about business, says a former U.N. sanctions inspector Alex Vines, who's now with the British-based think tank Chatham House.

ALEX VINES: Vulnerable fragile states, like the Central African Republic, that have intense security demands and requirements are the sorts of places that the Russians are looking to improve their market share.

KELEMEN: Russian military equipment is well-suited for countries in the region, Vines says - inexpensive and easy to maintain. Russian and Ukrainian helicopters are also often used in U.N. peacekeeping missions.

VINES: The Russians have even opened up maintenance locations in Africa. There are three of them where you can take your helicopters and equipment to be maintained. So there is a long-term vision. Russia isn't that present in Africa, but it is trying to become a major security partner.

KELEMEN: In Moscow this past week, Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu played host to his counterparts from South Africa, Guinea, Ethiopia and Mozambique, among others.



KELEMEN: "In this hall, we have some colleagues from Africa," he told an international security conference - adding that the region is going through a dramatic situation. He pointed to the near collapse of Libya and the threat of terrorism in the north and the center of the continent. Vines says there's also a bit of geopolitics at play here, as Russia looks to open a military base in Sudan.

VINES: They've also been looking to see whether they could share a military facility with the Chinese in Djibouti of all things, which is of anxiety to the U.S. because the biggest U.S. military footprint in Africa is in Camp Lemonnier in the country of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.

KELEMEN: Vines is advising the U.S. to stay vigilant about all of this. But Paul Stronski fears the Trump administration isn't paying attention. He's a former State Department official - now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

PAUL STRONSKI: Part of the problem is we don't have a clear vision of what U.S. policy towards Africa is right now - just as we don't have a clear vision of what U.S. policy towards Russia is right now.

KELEMEN: In some ways, Russia is just playing catch-up, says Stronski, who points out that Russia had far more influence on the continent in Soviet times.

STRONSKI: It had, you know, entire training programs where African elites would go to Moscow, study, become Russian, you know, speakers - that they had active military and KGB advisers throughout Africa. But the economic chaos in the post-Soviet era really caused them to draw down. I think they closed eight or nine embassies in Africa in the 1990s.

KELEMEN: Russia has a weaker hand than in Soviet times - less money and no ideology. But Stronski says Russia can and does use its position on the U.N. Security Council to limit sanctions and arms embargoes in Africa and keep the arms trade going. And that has meant more support from African countries in U.N. votes that interest Russia. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.