Vladimir Putin does not develop his networks of influence in Africa by chance. It draws on the rich history of relations that the Soviet Union has forged with African countries since the 1960s and the efforts that Russian spies deployed against the backdrop of the Cold War.
The summer of 1960 was very hot in the future Democratic Republic of Congo. The country wrests independence from Belgium in June, the first democratically elected government is installed, then power struggles culminate in the first coup d’etat of Joseph-Desire Mobutu in September and a few months later in the assassination of the Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. A rapid succession of events that will mark the spirits in this pivotal year for the struggles for emancipation.
And not just in Africa. Some 11,000 kilometers from Kinshasa, Russia, the Kremlin’s foreign policy is taking a new turn in light of the crisis in the Belgian Congo. Alexandre Chelepine, then head of the KGB, realizes that he has almost no spies south of the Sahara. The secret agents had a strong presence in Egypt, also a little in the Maghreb and had strong friendships with the Communist Party in South Africa.
A handful of spies to save Lumumba
An insufficient mesh for the boss of Soviet spies. Especially since for Nikita Khrushchev, in power in Moscow, opening up to Third World countries, particularly in Africa, is a priority in order to mark a break with his predecessor, Joseph Stalin. Indeed, the “little father of peoples” cared little for his “children” on the African continent.
This is how the Congo crisis became “the first proven case of KGB intervention in the affairs of a sub-Saharan African country”, notes Natalia Telepneva, specialist in the history of Soviet intelligence services in Africa at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.
This interference marks the beginning of a race for Russian influence in black Africa. And despite a lack of interest in the region between the beginning of the 1990s and the end of the 2000s, the Kremlin left its mark. Thus, “to bring Russia back to Africa, Vladimir Putin was able to take advantage of the relatively good image of the USSR on the continent and of a network of old contacts”, summarizes Marcel Plichta, specialist in Russian influence in Africa at the University of St Andrews.
But at the time of the crisis in the Congo, this heritage does not yet exist. “The chief Africanist in the USSR at that time, Ivan Potekhine, had only visited Africa for the first time in the course of the 1950s”, underlines Natalia Telepneva.
The operation to save Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who appeared to be an ideal fellow traveler for the USSR, had then benefited from few means. “Moscow was only able to send a handful of agents on the spot”, specifies Natalia Telepneva. Joseph-Desire Mobutu’s coup in 1960, actively supported by the CIA, was therefore an all the more painful failure for the KGB.
Cold War “low cost” in Africa
The Soviets therefore had some catching up to do in the area of influence strategy. They could count on the enthusiasm of the beginnings to try to achieve this. “For the first agents to join the Africa Division [du KGB, NDLR]the continent offered interesting prospects in terms of espionage and the aims pursued – to support liberation movements while dissecting the activity on the spot of the United States – appeared as noble”, writes Natalia Telepneva in her book “Cold War Liberation (ed. The University of North Carolina Press, 2022) based on the memoirs of Vadim Kirpitchenko, who served as the first Director of the KGB’s Africa Section.
From 1960, Russia multiplied the openings of embassies in African countries. Each of his delegations “included one agent from the KGB and another from the GRU [le renseignement militaire, NDLR]”says Natalia Telepneva.
The crisis in the Congo served as a lesson. “Moscow understood that the USSR did not have the same resources as the Western powers present in Africa. Intelligence and clandestine operations appeared to be the best means of waging a ‘low cost’ Cold War. [l’investissement etant essentiellement humain, NDLR]“, summarizes Natalia Telepneva.
Despite everything, the Russian failure will have had a beneficial effect for Moscow. Russia appeared there as the ally of a man – Patrice Lumumba – who would become a myth for the liberation movements on the continent. The Americans were perceived as the partners of the colonial countries. This image of a Soviet Union on the “good side” of history in Africa was reinforced by its support – sometimes exaggerated by Russian propaganda – for Nelson Mandela’s ANC in the face of the racist apartheid regime.
Russian spies will go to great lengths to cultivate this impression. It was the start of a major campaign of “active measures” – encompassing what today would be called disinformation and propaganda operations – to portray the USSR as a selfless supporter of a decolonized Africa, while that Washington would represent the puppeteer who plots in the shadows to safeguard his interests.
The KGB will deploy all its arsenal: manipulation of the local media, fabrication of false documents to make the CIA the enemy to be defeated. Moscow will notably feed the paranoia of Kwame Nkrumah, the first leader of independent Ghana, who saw himself as the “African Lenin”. Eventually he would see American spies everywhere: “In 1964, a forged letter fabricated by Department A describing a CIA plot so enraged him that he wrote a letter directly to US President Lyndon Johnson, accusing the CIA of mobilize all its resources for the sole purpose of overthrowing it,” reads the Mitrokhin Archives, named after Vasily Mitrokhin, the KGB’s chief archivist who defected in 1992, taking with him 30 years of notes.
From Soviet dream to disappointment
It is difficult not to see in these “active measures” the ancestor of the online disinformation activities of the “troll factories” of Yevgeny Prigojine, the boss of the Wagner mercenary group. Putin’s Russia uses a version 2.0 of the Soviet narrative in Africa: at the time, the USSR presented itself as the champion of decolonization, while today “Russia claims to be the ally of Pan-Africanism against the old colonial powers”, explains Marcel Plichta. The Russian campaign to fuel anti-French sentiment in the Central African Republic (and Mali) is just one example.
But all these efforts of the KGB, which so inspired present-day Russia, were not crowned with success at the time. At least not up to Moscow’s hopes. The USSR “thought that these countries were going to naturally approach communist ideology and therefore the Soviet bloc. But it was more complicated than expected,” says Natalia Telepneva.
The first “friend” of the USSR in sub-Saharan Africa, Kwame Nkrumah, at the head of Ghana for six years, was overthrown in 1966 after his authoritarian drift. The two other countries to have most openly sided with Moscow – Mali under Modibo Keïta and Guinea under Ahmed Sekou Toure – have not left the memory of communist paradises. The Malian was ousted from power in 1968, after eight years in power, while the Guinean remained for more than 25 years, until 1984, at the head of a most brutal regime.
It was not until the second wave of decolonization and the dismantling of the former Portuguese empire in Africa – Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Angola – in the 1970s that Soviet influence operations resumed. beast. But this time, leader Leonid Brezhnev is encouraging the intelligence services “to redeploy their efforts to strengthen military and security cooperation with the armies of ‘friendly’ countries”, says Natalia Telepneva. The Kremlin is becoming aware of having, until now, underestimated the role of the military in the power struggles in Africa.
The USSR and “soft power”
The USSR then became one of the most important arms suppliers to African countries. Thus, during the winter of 1977, Ethiopia, supported by the USSR against Somalia, saw “a Soviet plane filled with military equipment and instructors land every 20 minutes”, one can read in the Mitrokhine archives. .
Here again, it is an approach reminiscent of those of Vladimir Putin and the Wagner group. “Moscow’s main strategy to expand its influence in Africa, besides sending Wagner’s mercenaries, is the multiplication of military cooperation agreements [21 signes entre 2014 et 2019, NDLR]“, emphasizes Marcel Plichta.
During the Cold War, military support was not limited to the delivery of arms. The USSR also trained thousands of “freedom fighters” at home. Educational Center-165 at Perevalnoe in Crimea, now the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Russia, became the most famous example.
The handling of weapons was one lesson among others: “There was also political training, made of excursions to tourist sites, visits to collective farms or film screenings. The courses also included an introduction to Leninism -Marxism and discussions on the history of colonization”, specifies Natalia Telepneva.
In addition, Moscow very early on measured the role of education in deepening ties with Africa. This was the objective of the Patrice-Lumumba University, inaugurated in Moscow by Khrushchev in 1961. It has trained more than 7,000 students from 48 African countries in fifty years in fields as varied as physics, economics or public administration. But African students were also admitted to other establishments in the USSR.
For Russian spies, it was a great breeding ground for finding potential recruits. The vice-director of Lumumba University was also a member of the KGB. But “it was not the most important for Moscow”, judge Konstantinos Katsakioris, specialist in education issues in Africa and the former USSR at the University of Bayreuth. It was a question of improving the brand image of the USSR among Africans. All these students were supposed to preach the good Soviet word when they returned to their country.
It is also an asset for Vladimir Putin. After the fall of the USSR, Moscow, too busy with its internal problems, gradually withdrew from Africa. But all these former students trained in the former USSR stayed put. When in 2014, Vladimir Putin decided to reinvest the African continent in search of new allies to overcome the diplomatic isolation caused by his annexation of Crimea, he knew that his agents could find friends there. “The fighters and students were young when they went to the USSR. Today, some of them have become influential members in their country of origin”, underlines Marcel Plichta. So many potentially accommodating ears into which Putin’s and Prigozhin’s men can whisper.
Source: France 24