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Will the Ukraine conflict hamper Russia’s arms supply to Africa?

Several African nations will have to quickly seek out new markets for critically-needed weapons and components for their armed forces. Their main source is Russia, cut off by Western sanctions over the Ukraine conflict.

Russia accounts for about 20 percent of Africa’s defence market share, second only to the US at 37 percent.

The squeezing of the supply line from Russia will severely limit the ability of African players not only to defend themselves but also to conduct offensive operations against non-state elements and terrorist groups.

Russian state-owned arms manufacturer, Rosoboronexport, accounts for almost half of Africa’s arms imports. Algeria, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Ethiopia, Morocco, and Uganda are the largest regular buyers of its products. Moscow recently expanded its sub-Saharan coverage by starting trade with Nigeria, Tanzania, Cameroon, Angola, and the Central African Republic. 

Moscow is believed to have maintained close political ties with many African countries through exports. The foundation for these relationships was laid during the Soviet era, and this historical background is thought to have allowed it to negotiate arms deals with relative ease. And the pricing structure and lack of conditions typical of a value-oriented policy made arms sales even more attractive and affordable.

Means of persuasion

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s role in Africa substantially decreased, but by the early 2000s, it was beginning to win back its position. According to Carnegie Endowment geopolitics and security expert Paul Stransky, the continent’s officials “inevitably look at Moscow in terms of the Soviet background.”

But with countries such as Algeria, Russia has resorted to other means of persuasion, such as debt forgiveness and promises to build manufacturing or maintenance facilities, Stransky adds. 

Last year Rosoboronexport reported that it was able to add $1.7 billion to its Sub-Saharan portfolio, and the Russian side has also been able to increase the number of Central, West, and Southern African countries in its portfolio to 17, according to the company’s general director, Alexander Mikheyev.

According to the official data, the main articles of the Russian offer are helicopters and naval combat vehicles, air defence equipment, armoured vehicles, ammunition for local law enforcement bodies, and means of the airport and critical infrastructure protection. Of course, small arms are also for sale.

But the thesis that all this brought visible profit to the Russian economy looks debatable, given the attempts to charm partners by writing off debts. In addition, Moscow has often tended to act against its interests, making emotional decisions to support hate figures from whom it would be difficult to demand real dividends. A striking example is some assistance to the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), led by warlord Khalifa Haftar.

Impact on contracts

The current sanctions for the hostilities in Ukraine have several practical consequences for the defence industry of African countries, experts say. Firstly, Moscow will simply be unable to fulfil its obligations under current contracts involving the supply of military equipment. Secondly, spare parts and certification problems will make repairing, maintaining, or overhauling existing Russian-made equipment much more difficult.

The situation is also complicated because specialists of manufacturing plants, which are the original manufacturers and developers, simply cannot fly out of Russia for obvious reasons. The third point is that the Kremlin cannot offer new contracts to local players any longer so as not to expose them to extraterritorial sanctions pressure.

Defence expert Darren Olivier is convinced that countries on the continent will be forced to turn to China, which is likely to become a kind of “substitute” for Russian products. “Support for Soviet or later Russian equipment came mostly from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Two countries are already under sanctions and probably cannot provide supply or support,” the analyst notes.

Long-term sanctions

It goes without saying that the void left by the closure of the continent for the Russian defence industry will have to be filled by alternative suppliers. But there is one more unpleasant scenario. The disruption of the supply chain to the continent may contribute to the emergence of a huge black market. Experts remind us that after the withdrawal of Americans from Afghanistan, a massive illegal sale of large quantities of small arms and light weapons began in the country.

This situation will be difficult to reverse even after the end of hostilities in Ukraine. This would probably undermine the efforts of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs on the continent.

One way or another, the comprehensive sanctions imposed on Russia are likely to remain in place even after a ceasefire in Ukraine. This means temporary measures won’t be enough to cope with the problem. The continent needs a long-term solution, which should probably include an idea to develop its production capabilities. But even on this issue, local players will need the hand of more experienced outside players who have gained serious experience fighting for their defence industry’s independence.

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