Russia is marketing itself as the saviour of the Global South, but is it working?

Russia is marketing itself as the saviour of the Global South, but is it working?
Earlier this year, and on his second trip in eight months, Russia’s foreign minister visited Eswatini, Botswana, Angola, and South Africa. But it doesn’t stop there. Sergey Lavrov is scheduled to set foot on the continent again, this time posing for the cameras in Mali, Tunisia, Mauritania, Algeria, and Morocco.

During these visits, it is likely that we will hear the same viewpoint being disseminated by the Kremlin and its supporters: Russia is an anti-imperialist force and the saviour in a battle against “exploitative” Western colonialists.

This narrative has long been used by the Kremlin and its allies to promote support abroad in areas where the West has historically held dominance. But, coupled with the increasing physical presence in the region, for many it is becoming overly apparent that Russia is making a concerted, bilateral push on the continent.

Beyond Lavrov’s presence, one of the key protagonists embodying this growing presence in the Global South in recent years has been Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was revealed in this Financial Times investigation to be using prominent legal firms around the world to try to keep Western governments at bay. Key to Prigozhin’s activities is the paramilitary outfit, known as the Wagner Group, which has waged war in the Middle East and Africa as an unofficial foreign policy tool of the Kremlin for a number of years — even though Prigozhin spent years denying the group’s very existence.

The concerning thing, however, is that the effects of Russia and Wagner’s activities in Africa are very real. Burkina Faso ordered the eviction of French troops from the country. It came after those forces, along with their British allies, withdrew from neighbouring Mali last year. In Mali, they were soon replaced by Russia’s Wagner Group mercenaries, and there have been many reports that Burkina Faso will do the same in the coming months.

But it’s not just an uptick in hard power plays that the West needs to contend with.

Another major strand to Moscow’s increasing sphere of influence in places like Africa is the deployment of softer, but still impactful, “hybrid” warfare tools, including propaganda, deception and other non-military tactics.

This came into sharp focus earlier this month as our client Logically uncovered a large social network – Russosphere – which promotes anti-Western and pro-Kremlin ideas, with the aim of helping Russia expand its influence at the expense of France in some of its former colonies in Africa. The discovery of the network may shock some, but against the context of Wagner’s growing presence in Africa and Russia’s broader efforts to win over the Global South, the discovery of Russophere is just adding to this network of influence operations.

The question then becomes; is it working? Is Russia gaining support in these regions? With images of African citizens holding up Russian flags and banners with “Merci Wagner” on them, it’s hard not to argue the case that support is growing.

With supposed cracks starting to appear between Wagner and the Kremlin, many in the West may dismiss this progress as temporary or a flash in the pan, before a return to what they suppose is “normality”.

They’d be foolish to, however.

As the war in Ukraine rages on, there is a clear sense that Russia is making a broad pivot to increasing its sphere of influence and support in regions like Africa, building a network of allies for whenever the war comes to an end.

Time will tell if this plan delivers, but while the West rightly focuses its attention on supporting Ukrainians to defend themselves against Russian forces, they’d also do well to focus on the bigger pivot and strategic shift Russia is undergoing.

Image: Christian Jaberg/Unsplash