The synergy between Russia, China, and Turkey is so powerful that it could revolutionize Africa’s affairs
VoA-There was previously talk in the Western community about a so-called "African Spring”. What do you think about the prospects of this happening? Is it a reality for the continent or only a ‘foreign fantasy’?
I remember reading about this forecast back in 2015 after the Burkinabe coup, and it was mostly posited on drawing comparisons between the socio-economic and political conditions in a slew of African states and their pre-"Arab Spring” counterparts. The gist of the argument was sound, and it forecast that the upcoming election cycles over the next couple of years would present plenty of opportunities for regional or even continental-wide "Color Revolutions” to unfold. Having passed through most of those elections without barely any disturbances, it’s now proven that the forecast was premature, if not outright wrong.
The "deep state” (permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracy) differences between Sub-Saharan Africa and its North African and Mideast counterparts, as well as differing priorities of the citizens themselves, account for why this grand scenario has yet to play out. Moreover, there’s the ‘NGO’ factor as well, since we now know that the "Arab Spring” was in reality nothing less than a theater-wide Color Revolution all throughout the Mideast-North African (MENA) interconnected region, fuelled to a large degree by the role of foreign-linked ‘NGO’s. While these are certainly active in Sub-Saharan Africa, they’re less political than in MENA, thus mitigating the chances for a Color Revolution to break out.
Therefore, while a statistical-academic approach to Africa might further the argument that the continent is ripe for an "African Spring”, we see that the most likely times for that to happen (the planned election cycles between 2015-2016) have already passed and the scenario failed to materialize. That doesn’t mean that it won’t occur in some countries, even those without an electoral ‘trigger’, but just that it appears at this time that such occurrences won’t succeed, let alone catalyze a region- or continent-wide regime change domino effect. That being said, it’s unlikely that an "African Spring” would occur ‘naturally’, and it’s greatest chances lay in the facilitative multiplier effect that foreign-linked ‘NGOs’ could play in that process, making it not only a ‘foreign fantasy’, but a foreign plot.
VoA- What’s your forecast for "Color Revolutions” happening in the continent, and which countries could be affected by this?
My theory about ‘Color Revolutions’ is that they’re never ‘spontaneous’ but are instead preplanned manipulations of violent crowd control psychology for regime change purposes, all conditioned on the pursuit of geostrategic ends. I wrote about this in-depth in my 2015 book about Hybrid Wars, and also released a stand-alone article about the core mechanics of its Color Revolution component, but my summarized understanding is that a Hybrid War is the phased evolution of a failed Color Revolution into an Unconventional War, and that it relies on the external exploitation of preexisting identity conflict within a targeted state in order to disrupt, control, or influence multipolar transnational connective infrastructure projects, most of which are China’s New Silk Roads as envisioned through the One Belt One Road global strategy.
I’ve been releasing a weekly Hybrid War series over the past year at Oriental Review, and the last part of my research is devoted exclusively to Africa, which I suggest that interested readers check out at their earliest convenience. The most relevant Silk Road projects that China has either already constructed, is presently pursuing, or is now considering, pertain to the Djibouti-Addis Ababa Railroad; the Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya, Uganda, and perhaps into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as well; the Central Corridor railway in Tanzania; TAZARA railway between Tanzania and Zambia; and the potential linking of TAZARA with Angola’s Benguela Railway. There’s also the long-term potential for a Sahelian-Saharan Silk Road which would eventually connect Djibouti with the Senegalese capital of Dakar, and would also importantly link the gigantic Ethiopian and Nigerian markets, too.
China therefore has 3 transcontinental projects in mind for connecting the Indian and Atlantic Coasts of Africa: the Sahelian-Saharan Silk Road; the Northern Trans-African Route (NTAR, the multimodal expansion of the Standard Gauge Railway to the DRC and the Atlantic, possibly also transiting the Republic of the Congo); and the Southern Trans-African Route (STAR, the linkage of TAZARA and Benguela, possibly passing through the southern DRC). Mapping out the most crucial transit states for each of them and taking into account their particular socio-economic and political variables (including governing models, the potential for identity conflict, etc.), it’s clear to see that the following six countries are the most likely to experience Hybrid War in the future on the condition that the foreign actors involved have the in-country and informational resources to do so, and are successful in acting on their geostrategic imperatives: Ethiopia, DRC, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia, and Angola.
It’s no coincidence that Ethiopia had to enact a six-month state of emergency late last year in response to its own bubbling Hybrid War threats because it’s both one of China’s premier partners in Africa and also the location of the first successfully completed New Silk Road, the Djibouti-Addis Ababa Railroad. The DRC is also facing a very pronounced Hybrid War risk because of the ongoing political crisis in the country and the postponement of nationwide elections, which from a Western strategic standpoint could provide an ideal opening for the long-term disruption of NTAR and also China’s valuable cobalt and coltan resource trade there (which helps to power most modern-day electronics and communication equipment). It could also create a black hole of chaos which would suck in the surrounding states, therefore involving the STAR belt to its south.
Likewise, Zambia was at risk of a Hybrid War collapse during its latest elections but the rioters didn’t have the resources to indefinitely sustain their campaign. Energy-rich Tanzania and Angola, the latter of which is preparing for its first legislative elections in August during which the three-decade-long leader Dos Santos won’t be running, are also at risk for the dual reasons of geostrategy and natural resource control (which also means depriving China of its secure access). There doesn’t always have to be a political/electoral trigger for a Color Revolution, and it’s possible for an Unconventional War to reverse transition into a Hybrid War by provoking urban Color Revolution unrest in its later stages (such as might happen soon in conflict-beleaguered and gas-rich Mozambique), so observers need to be ready for all possible combinations of this strategy, though understanding of course that it’s mostly dependent on the political will of the foreign actors’ intelligence services and related regime change bodies.
Nevertheless, even ‘genuine’ and entirely ‘grassroots’ Color Revolution/Unconventional War/Hybrid War scenarios could easily be co-opted, controlled, and/or redirected by these said foreign elements in order to achieve their grand strategic objectives vis-à-vis China.
VoA -Moscow has been trying to deepen its diplomatic and military ties with African countries over the past 2-3 years. What do you think about the Kremlin’s "new position” in Africa? Can Russia transform into a newly strengthened partner for the black continent?
Russia is far behind many of its Great Power peers in tapping into the market benefits that Africa’s slated to provide the world in the coming future, though it can help to narrow the gap if it used itsmilitary diplomacy as a stepping stone for reaching more comprehensive and robust relationships with its partners. Most of Russia’s activity in Africa takes place in the Northern Arab parts of the continent and is focused primarily on the weapons trade and energy extraction, with Algeria presently being the most reliable of Moscow’s partners in the region. This has made Russia comfortable enough that it’s been reaching out to Morocco over the past year or so in trying to strike a pragmatic economic partnership of sorts with Algiers’ rival, likely with the grand strategic intention of one day helping to mediate a rapprochement between the two.
Ties with Egypt used to be very strong but withered away after Sadat pivoted towards the West in the years following Nasser’s death, though there appears to be a renaissance of sorts in the cards for Moscow-Cairo relations under President Sisi. Libya used to be close with Russia as well, though that relationship was dramatically interrupted during the 2011 NATO War on Libya (which began as a Hybrid War in the sense that a failed Color Revolution gave way to an Unconventional War which ultimately triggered conventional foreign military interference in order to carry out regime change). Even so, however, Moscow is trying to improve its standing in Libya by cooperating with General Haftar and being a responsible diplomatic voice in the international community when it comes to helping to resolve the country’s terrorist problems.
Taken together, one can say that Russian strategy in North Africa seems to be paying off, and that despite its recent setbacks of sorts, it’s on track to lead to some very productive dividends in the near future, assuming of course that another Hybrid War (such as in post-Bouteflika Algeria) or series thereof doesn’t throw it off course.
Russia should learn from its successes in North Africa and leverage its military relations with Soviet-era partners in such a way as to pave the groundwork for a more diversified market-based partnership with them sometime down the line. For example, Moscow and Addis Ababa used to be very close with one another, and while both the USSR and Derg governments no longer exist, Russia should still make efforts in trying to restore this relationship. The strongest argument in favor of this is that the Chinese-built Djibouti-Addis Ababa Railroad can easily facilitate access to the landlocked country, and seeing as how Russia has strengthened its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean through its anti-terrorist intervention in Syria and is also involved in an industrial free trade zone in the Sinai now, it’s only natural to stretch its maritime interests just a little bit more southward in connecting with Soviet-ally Ethiopia. I wrote about all of this and a bit more in my article from last year about how "Russia Needs To Embrace Ethiopia…Now!”
More broadly speaking, Russia’s anti-terrorist successes in Syria have drawn global attention to its technical capabilities in fighting this unconventional scourge, and seeing as how Daesh/ISIS is now reportedly present in several Sub-Saharan African countries (whether directly or through its affiliates), it’s possible for Russia to expand its military diplomacy to include them as well. What’s meant by this is that the increased export of pertinent anti-terrorist military equipment to the African Union, the countries involved in Somalia (whether permanently [Burundi, Uganda] or intermittently [Ethiopia, Kenya]), or the five-nation regional alliance against Boko Haram (Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria) could help Russia reestablish some of its lost Soviet-era influence in this part of the continent and hopefully create space for Moscow’s skilled diplomats to open up channels for expanded cooperation in the commercial, diplomatic, mineral, and energy fields.
About the last category – energy – Russia has already made progress with Angola and Nigeria, but it would do well to scope out Tanzania and Mozambique too, as long as it still has a chance to and its foreign competitors haven’t beaten it to the punch yet. Angola is probably Russia’s only Soviet-era African ally which still enjoys pretty stable and productive relations with Moscow, but there remains a lot to be desired in strengthening the bilateral partnership to a strategic level. This country should be a priority for Russia in the coming future alongside Ethiopia, and Moscow should concurrently explore ways for exporting its tried-and-tested military equipment to the anti-Boko Haram coalition. All the while, asymmetrical security experts (i.e. those specializing in counter-Color Revolution/-Hybrid Warfare techniques) should begin working with their counterparts in the Congo and elsewhere in order to provide additional value to the bilateral relationship and engage in a trust-building exercise which could allow incipient ties (such as between Kinshasa and the Kremlin, for example) to develop along the lines of a conventional military partnership (in the sense of a supplier-consumer model) en route to the ultimate long-term goal of comprehensive strategic relations.
VoA - China is recognized as the strongest foreign player in Sub-Saharan Africa, but I’d like to ask you about whether or not Russian interests in this region are complementary or contradictory to Beijing’s?
The global game-changing Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership is stronger than at any time before in history, and it’s single-handedly responsible for transforming the geopolitical situation all across the Eastern Hemisphere. Although mostly concentrated in Eurasia for obvious reasons, it’s possible for both sides to complement one another elsewhere, too, such as Russia assisting China in its Balkan Silk Road high-speed railway project (through facilitative diplomacy and the like) while China could theoretically pay back the favor by helping Russia in Africa. Granted, the latter scenario is less likely to happen in any direct manner since China is traditionally known for wanting to keep most of its opportunities to itself, though this is less for ‘selfish’ reasons as it is out of necessity. The Chinese economy needs African markets – not just resources, like is stereotypically alleged – in order to sustain stable growth rates by building consumptive outlets for its industrial overproduction/overcapacity, otherwise it would have to shutter factories, slow down its economy, and potentially have to deal with the resultant destabilizing social unrest.
Africa gives China a chance to avoid all of those negative scenarios, though conditional on it maintaining stable and unhindered access to the continent, ergo one of the reasons why the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was created in order to diversify trade away from the bottlenecked Strait of Malacca chokepoint. China’s New Silk Roads all across Africa, part of its global One Belt One Road vision of infrastructure connectivity, are part and parcel of this grand strategic project, and it’s here where Russian-Chinese cooperation in Africa stands to flourish, though only if both sides and their regional host partners seize this historical opportunity. There’s barely any chance that China would go as far as giving away certain economic opportunities to Russia, but it could intercede on its behalf in helping Moscow to develop its emerging commercial relations with the continent, particularly as it relates to utilizing the New Silk Roads. The most relevant and recently completed one is the Djibouti-Addis Ababa Railway, so let’s use that as an example and extrapolate further in forecasting how Russia and China could work together in Africa.
It’s well known that Russia is searching for non-Western partners to compensate for the loss of markets and agricultural producers that it’s suffered during the Sanctions War with Europe, but it’s also equally realized that Moscow has embarked on the larger goal of improving its non-Western presence in general. As was explained in response to a previous question, Ethiopia is the easiest Sub-Saharan partner for Russia to do business with by virtue of its advantageous proximity and the market access provided for by the Chinese-built Djibouti-Addis Ababa Railway. If the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs plays its cards right, and there’s no indication they’re not capable of doing so if they garner the political will, then Moscow’s diplomats could work together with their Chinese counterparts in clinching profitable deals with Ethiopia in utilizing its New Silk Road as a means of furthering Russian-Ethiopian cooperation. Moscow doesn’t necessarily have to go through Beijing in order to reach Addis Ababa, but the high-level and comprehensive strategic partnership between the two Eurasian Great Powers could definitely help smooth the way for Russia’s all-sector access to the country.
Elsewhere in the continent, however, there’s a possibility that Russia and China might enter into friendly competition with one another, which could actually bring the best out of both partners and play out to their African host’s immense benefit. For example, Russian mining and energy companies might compete with China for deals in certain locations, though given the trusted friendship between Moscow and Beijing, the winner of the contracted bid would probably end up selling to the other if their counterpart was interested, thereby representing a win-win outcome (or win-win-win as it relates to those two plus their African host). Moreover, this sort of dynamic could be very helpful for China in areas where nationalist sentiment might endanger Beijing’s investments or make it an unwanted partner in the future. In such cases, Russian companies could step in to bid for these contracts instead, and if they win, then they could focus on selling some of their resultant products (whether energy or industrial) to their Chinese partners. This would in effect circumvent the Sinophobia which might otherwise inhibit Beijing from benefiting from a given country’s economic opportunities, and could also prevent Western competitors from locking China out of accessing these resources as part of the New Cold War’s struggle in Africa.
VoA- Turkey has achieved a lot of soft power gains in Sub-Saharan Africa over the past decade, so what do you ascribe its success to? Is it related to any kind of religious factor or just pragmatic politics?
Turkey was extremely prudent in reaching out to Sub-Saharan Africa during this time because it shows that its leadership wasn’t blindly placing all of its hopes in reaching a deal with the EU, which has turned out to be somewhat impossible nowadays for political reasons. Had Ankara not embarked on a diplomatic offensive in Africa over the past decade, then the country would have been much more weakly positioned to deal with the death of its EU dreams than it is presently. In fact, while it appears unlikely that Turkey will ever join the EU, this isn’t as disastrous for the country or its economy as some commentators might have dramatically made it out to be. The fruits of Turkey’s African engagement are that the dozens of new embassies, consulates, and airline connectivity routes to the continent give the country a lot of opportunity for future growth and the clinching of strategic partnerships. It might not be as instantly or geographically easy for Turks to tap into like the EU would have been, but it’s nonetheless an enormous marketplace ripe with countless opportunities for collaboration.
Part of the reason behind Turkey’s diplomatic success in Africa over the past decade arguably lies in its progressively Islamic identity and the religious confidence which many of its international representatives – both diplomatic and private – exude when working abroad. Although it’s caused a lot of heated controversy within Turkey itself and has been met with suspicion by Turkey’s traditional ‘Western partners’, the country’s phased transition from a secular republic to a de-facto Islamic one has actually enjoyed a lot of support in the non-Western majority-Muslim parts of the world, specifically in this context all across Sub-Saharan Africa. Many pious believers look up to Turkey as the modern-day manifestation of the former Ottoman Empire, which they religiously view as the most successful administrative-political Caliphate across the Ummah (global Muslim community). There’s a sizeable proportion of Arabs which distrust Turkey because of the many (oftentimes contentious) events which transpired across this multi-centennial period of their shared history, but the Sub-Saharan Africans who weren’t directly ruled by the Turks during this time don’t share any of these negative experiences and therefore generally react more positively towards Turkey and its revived Islamic identity.
This is a remarkably salient point which greatly enhances the effectiveness of Turkey’s soft power, since nearly 25% of the world’s Muslims live in Africa and almost 50% of the continent’s population practices this religion. Turkey’s grand strategic policy is perceived as "Neo-Ottomanism” by its opponents in MENA but as "Pan-Islamism” by its proponents there and elsewhere across the world, and it strongly relies on the historical memory of the country as the strongest and most impressive administrative-political leader of the Ummah in order to garner its transnational support. Relatedly, Turkey also utilizes the Muslim Brotherhood in pursuing this objective, and while classified as a terrorist group by Russia, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE for its militant activities, it and its affiliated offshoots are contrarily seen as positive socio-political organizations elsewhere in the world, including parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. President Erdogan’s open ties with the Muslim Brotherhood have therefore earned him a lot of respect and even admiration among the group’s supporters, which his yet another reason why some of them are so receptive to Turkey’s diplomatic-economic outreaches in recent years despite barely having any preexisting historical foundation for their relations.
On the other hand, there are also a lot of anti-Turkish organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa, and Ankara needs to make sure that its current and future partners eradiate any Gulenist cells which have infiltrated their country and embedded itself into their society. Erdogan reiterated this call during his late-January visit to Mozambique, a country which casual observers would never have thought Gulen’s supporters would reside in, but which nonetheless constitutes part of this shadowy network’s global reach. In view of this, African countries which publicly crack down on this group could quickly earn the smiling support of the Turkish authorities, and such moves – whether symbolic or substantial – could go a long way towards building trust between both sides and furthering the basis for expanded all-inclusive relations. Additionally, if Gulenist cells in various sectors were replaced with patriotic Turkish individuals instead (such as in schools), then it would instantly generate a sincere feeling of goodwill and reversely turn a security threat into a strategic opportunity for each of them.
VoA- The Russian population is approximately 15% Sunni Muslim, so how can this community help Moscow connect with African Muslim countries, and what do you think about the prospects for the development of fraternal relations between Russian Muslims and their African co-confessionals? Could Moscow utilize its "Muslim factor” in making stronger inroads with Africa?
One of the richest elements of Russia’s inclusive culture is its inseparable Islamic identity, and Moscow would do well to cultivate this in order to use it for advantageously interfacing with the Ummah, especially those Muslims residing in Sub-Saharan Africa. While it’s not ‘politically correct’ to openly say, some Muslims feel more comfortable doing business with a fellow believer (especially one who looks ‘darker/Oriental’) than with a white Christian, so it’s in Russia’s best interests to see to it that leading political, social/civil, and economic figures from this community become emissaries for its interests in this part of the world. That being said, Russia needs to encourage the right ones to fill these positions, and a welcome suggestion would be for the leaders of the autonomous republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan to take on this role. Both individuals, especially Mr. Rustam Minnikhanov from Tatarstan, already travel abroad to different parts of the Ummah and conduct pragmatic business there, with the Tatar leader recently returning from an early-February trip to Saudi Arabia, for example.
It would be wise if Russia promotes these figures or their trusted aides to the forefront of its dealings with Sub-Saharan Africa, as this would powerfully show Muslims that Moscow is conscious of their socio-cultural sensitivities and is taking symbolic efforts to make business dealings as comfortable as possible for its prospective partners. It would also reverberate all across the Ummah and elevate Russia’s soft power across the entire community, thereby complementing the already amazing results that it’s yielded through its anti-terrorist intervention in Syria as well as counteracting some of the negative impressions that some others have had over this operation. This is why the Tatar and Bashkir leaders shouldn’t just be commissioned with being the face of Russia’s outreaches to Africa, but all of MENA and parts of South Asia (Pakistan, Bangladesh) and ASEAN (Malaysia, Indonesia), too. This isn’t meant to replace Russia’s traditional diplomacy and economic engagement which is oftentimes conducted by Orthodox Christians, but to add a different style to it which is more appealing to the intended audience and designed to assist the activities of the said traditional actors.
In that regard, Russia’s ‘religious/identity’ diplomacy could also be utilized to strengthen Moscow’s multilateral cooperation with other Muslim communities, whether on the high state-to-state level or the lower people-to-people one. Moreover, this doesn’t just have to be done by Muslims either, since Russia’s Orthodox population is similarly positioned to foster trusted relations with majority-Christian countries such as Zambia (where Christianity is the constitutionally enshrined official religion) and Nigeria, and those with a leading Christian plurality like Ethiopia. In fact, the last-mentioned two states – Nigeria and Ethiopia – provide an unparalleled opportunity for Russia to employ both its Muslim and Christian civilizational representatives in making dual progress among these countries’ two largest and most influential communities. All that needs to happen is for Russia to become aware of its soft power potential and to experiment with leveraging it in Sub-Saharan Africa, and it’s bound to eventually result in some tangible bilateral benefits with time. Until that occurs, however, then this powerful reservoir of civilizational symbolism and support will regrettably remain untapped, to all sides’ strategic detriment.
VoA- Takfiri-jihadi groups are growing in Africa, so do you think that Russia could play a chief role in combating terrorism here just like it’s doing in the Mideast and Central Asia (to differing extents)? Could we one day see Russia organizing Syrian-like counterterrorism operations in Sub-Saharan Africa?
Yes, Russia can and should use the banner of anti-terrorism as its battering ram for breaking through to Africa and catching up on the lost strategic ground that it’s surrendered over the past two and a half decades. As I explained in response to one of the previous questions, Russia’s military diplomacy in general and the astounding public success of its anti-terrorist intervention in Syria in particular have created the attractive conditions by which Sub-Saharan countries are once more eager to enhance their military cooperation with Russia. The whole world has borne witness to just how effective Russian weapons have been in fighting against the world’s most powerful terrorist organization, so it’s little wonder then that the members of the anti-Boko Haram coalition might be interested in purchasing some to help with their own campaign, too. Like I said in an earlier answer, Russia could also extend its anti-terrorist cooperation to Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Burundi, Uganda, and the African Union in general, to say nothing of its involvement in helping its partners in North Africa.
In fact, it’s in that theater where Russia will probably be the most active in Africa when it comes to counterterrorist action, specifically as it relates to Libya and possible joint Russian-Egyptian efforts to defeat Daesh/ISIS there. Most analysts don’t believe that Moscow will conventionally intervene in the war-torn North African state like it did in Syria, but it could still play a pivotal role in providing military provisions to General Haftar and the internationally recognized Libyan authorities in decisively helping to turn the tide in the country’s War on Terror. Russia could also aide Egypt and possibly even the UAE in any conventional operations that they initiate in support of either of these two actors, though taking care to stay away from the frontlines and focusing more on sharing intelligence and weapons instead. Although there’s no guarantee that this scenario will unfold, any successful move in this direction would be beneficial for Russia’s soft power and would boost the prospects that it could carry its ‘Lead From Behind’ momentum elsewhere in helping its other anti-terrorist partners on the continent in a similar manner.
Like I’ve emphasized multiple times already in this interview, the value-added differentiator that Russia has in standing apart from the rest of its Great Power peers in Africa is the fact that it can’t be accused of having any ulterior interests/motives for its anti-terrorist action there, thus making it comparatively more trusted in the objective sense than traditional actors such as the US, France, and nowadays China. What this means is that Russia’s military diplomacy has a very strong chance to develop into a flourishing full-fledged partnership with each of the countries which choose to enter into pragmatic relations with it, accounting of course for certain geographic and/or strategic limitations which might inhibit the pace of this incipient relationship. Russia urgently needs to capitalize off of its premier and globally respected anti-terrorist reputation in order to finally enter the African geostrategic space (albeit belatedly) and enhance the prospects for theemerging Multipolar World Order in Afro-Eurasia. The synergy between Russia, China, and Turkey is so powerful that it could revolutionize Africa’s affairs if properly applied and help mitigate the disruptive consequences of American-French Hybrid Wars all across the continent.
Andrew Korybko - Political analyst
DISCLAIMER: The author writes in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.
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