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Research Questions

  1. Where are Russian commercial, diplomatic, military, and paramilitary actors involved in Africa?
  2. Where are these actors likely to become involved in the near future?
  3. How might Russia's evolving pattern of activity in Africa affect AFAFRICA's regional strategy, and what can the command do to mitigate those effects?

Moscow is expanding the scope and scale of its involvement in Africa. However, the future direction of that involvement has been difficult to predict because Moscow's strategic approach is essentially opportunistic. Although there is ample reporting on certain aspects of this expansion, U.S. Air Forces Africa (AFAFRICA) has lacked an integrated geostrategic picture of the phenomenon and what it means for the command's objectives in the region.

Traditional deductive assessments of Russian behavior, based on national interest and bureaucratic politics, offer limited insight into opportunistic Russian behavior in such tertiary theaters as Africa. Therefore, a different assessment approach was required. Employing innovative geospatial visualization techniques, RAND researchers assembled an empirically rigorous description of where Russia is involved on the continent, where it is most likely to become engaged in the future, and what implications this might have for AFAFRICA's regional strategy. This geostrategic assessment of Russian activity in Africa will help AFAFRICA make sense of the growing mass of often contradictory micro-level reporting on Russian involvement on the continent.

Key Findings

Russia's presence in Africa is very limited

  • Because Moscow strategically withdrew from the region from 1990 to 2015, recent growth in Russian activity started from a very low baseline and remains modest compared with that of the United States and China.

There is little evidence that the Kremlin has a grand plan for Africa

  • Because the continent remains peripheral to Russian grand strategy, Moscow's approach in Africa is essentially opportunistic. The key players in Russian policymaking on Africa seek opportunities to (1) advance Kremlin-endorsed policy objectives, (2) reap low-risk status gains, and (3) capitalize on opportunities for extraordinary profits in Africa's rentier economies..
  • Russia's future activity pattern could be predicted by identifying where conditions are most likely to create opportunities attractive to these Russian power brokers: preexisting government and commercial relationships, lucrative opportunities in extractive industries, local elites seeking external sponsorship, and opportunities to burnish Russia's great power credentials..
  • Moscow will continue to find such opportunities across a wide swath of the continent, but conditions will be especially ripe in North Africa, particularly in Libya, Algeria, and Egypt. This is where powerful geopolitical and commercial opportunities overlap with the most-robust preexisting bilateral and commercial relationships.
  • Conditions in Central and West Africa also might be conducive to greater Russian involvement. For the most part, Russian activity in these locations will be problematic for AFAFRICA primarily because of the potential for operational entanglement, in which the operations of U.S. and Russian forces overlap in time and space.


  • AFAFRICA should adopt a Compete and Disentangle approach to Russian activity in Africa. Compete where Russian activity jeopardizes key strategic objectives, primarily in North Africa, but eschew competition with Moscow for its own sake elsewhere. Focus on disentanglement where Russian activity could interfere with U.S. Air Force operations, primarily in Central and West Africa.
  • AFAFRICA should position itself to compete in North Africa. As its top priority, AFAFRICA should begin anticipatory planning to enable the U.S. Air Force to establish itself quickly as the primary partner of a post-war Libyan Air Force.
  • AFAFRICA should elevate the Algerian Air Force as a priority for security cooperation resources.
  • AFAFRICA should collaborate more closely with U.S. Department of Defense partners to monitor key Russian entities in Africa, especially private military companies (PMCs) engaged in mercenary activities.
  • AFAFRICA should mitigate the risk of entanglement by incorporating Russian presence as a factor in operational planning, security cooperation planning, and posture planning.
  • AFAFRICA should explore the establishment of a formal mechanism for notifying the Russian General Staff of concerns about potential entanglement with Russian forces and PMCs in Africa.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by U.S. Air Force in Europe — AFAFRICA and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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