Vladimir Putin is not developing 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 made by Russian spies against the background of the Cold War.
The summer of 1960 was very hot in the future Democratic Republic of the Congo. The country wrests independence from Belgium in June, the first democratically elected government is installed, then power struggles culminate in Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s first coup d’état in September and a few months later with the assassination of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. A rapid series of events that will mark the spirits of this crucial year of the struggles for liberation.
And not just in Africa. About 11,000 kilometers from Kinshasa in Russia, the Kremlin’s foreign policy is taking a new turn in light of the crisis in the Belgian Congo. Alexandre Chélépine, 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 somewhat in the Maghreb and had strong friendships with the Communist Party in South Africa.
A handful of spies to save Lumumba
An inadequate net for the chief of Soviet spies. Especially since for Nikita Khrushchev, in power in Moscow, opening up to Third World countries, especially in Africa, is a priority to mark a break with his predecessor, Joseph Stalin. The “little father of the people” actually did not care much 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, a 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 early 1990s and late 2000s, the Kremlin made 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.
However, at the time of the Congo crisis, this legacy does not yet exist. “The chief Africanist in the USSR at the time, Ivan Potekhine, had only visited Africa for the first time during the 1950s”, underlines Natalia Telepneva.
The operation to rescue Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who appeared to be an ideal fellow traveler for the USSR, had at the time benefited from few funds. “Moscow was only able to send a handful of agents to the site,” explains Natalia Telepneva. Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s 1960 coup, 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 from the beginning to try to achieve this. “For the first agents who joined the Africa division (of the KGB, ed. note), the continent offered interesting perspectives in terms of espionage, and the goals they pursued – to support liberation movements while dissecting the activity on the ground in 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 was the first director of the Africa section of the KGB.
From 1960, Russia multiplied the openings of embassies in African countries. Each of its delegations “included one KGB agent and another from the GRU (military intelligence, ed. note),” Natalia Telepneva specifies.
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 covert operations appeared to be the best means of waging a ‘low-cost’ Cold War (the investment is essentially human, Ed)”, sums up Natalia Telepneva.
After all, the Russian failure will have had a beneficial effect for Moscow. Russia appeared there as an ally for a man – Patrice Lumumba – who would become a myth for the liberation movements on the continent. The Americans were perceived as 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”—comprising what today would be called disinformation and propaganda operations—to portray the USSR as a selfless supporter of a decolonized Africa, while Washington would represent the puppet master scheming in the shadows . to protect his interests.
The KGB will deploy its entire arsenal: manipulation of the local media, production of false documents to make the CIA the enemy to be defeated. Moscow will especially 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 produced by Section A describing a CIA plot so enraged him that he wrote a letter directly to US President Lyndon Johnson, accusing the CIA of to mobilize all its resources for the one purpose. to overthrow it,” reads the Mitrokhin archive, named after Vasily Mitrokhin, the KGB’s chief archivist who defected in 1992, taking 30 years of notes with him.
From Soviet dream to disappointment
It is hard not to see in these “active measures” the progenitor of the online disinformation activities of the “troll factories” of Yevgeny Prigojine, the head 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 “Russia claims to be the ally of Pan-Africanism against the old colonial powers”, explains Marcel Plichta. . The Russian campaign to promote anti-French sentiment in the Central African Republic (and Mali) is just one example.
But all these efforts of the KGB, which so inspired today’s Russia, were not crowned with success at that time. At least not up to Moscow’s hopes. The USSR “believed that these countries would 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 authoritarianism. The two other countries that have most openly sided with Moscow – Mali under Modibo Keïta and Guinea under Ahmed Sékou Touré – have not abandoned the memory of communist paradises. The painter 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 very 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. But this time, leader Leonid Brezhnev is urging 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 power struggles in Africa.
USSR and “soft power”
The USSR then became one of the main arms suppliers to African countries. During the winter of 1977, Ethiopia, backed by the USSR against Somalia, saw “a Soviet plane loaded with military equipment and instructors land every 20 minutes,” read the Mitrokhine archives. .
Here again, it is an approach reminiscent of that 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 signed between 2014 and 2019, editor’s note)”, emphasizes Marcel Plichta.
During the Cold War, military aid was not limited to the supply of weapons. The USSR also trained thousands of “freedom fighters” at home. Training 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 aim of the Patrice-Lumumba University, which was 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 diverse as physics, economics or public administration. But African students were also admitted to other institutions in the USSR.
For Russian spies, it was a good breeding ground for finding potential recruits. The deputy director of Lumumba University was also a member of the KGB. But “it was not the most important thing for Moscow”, judge Konstantinos Katsakioris, a specialist in education issues in Africa and the former USSR at the University of Bayreuth. It was a matter of improving the USSR’s brand image among Africans. All these students were 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 who were educated in the former USSR stayed put. When Vladimir Putin decided in 2014 to reinvest in the African continent in search of new allies to overcome the diplomatic isolation caused by his annexation of Crimea, he knew his agents could find friends there. “The warriors and students were young when they left for the USSR. Today, some of them have become influential members in their country of origin,” emphasizes Marcel Plichta. So many potentially receptive ears that Putin’s and Prigozhin’s men can whisper into.