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Putin’s global operations continue despite Ukrainian snare

Russia continues to operate aggressively around the world despite being entangled in Ukraine, something which serves a coherent geostrategic vision developed by Moscow. The roots of this vision were planted under the administration of Boris Yeltsin, especially during the tenure of Yevgeny Primakov as foreign minister. They grew under Vladimir Putin, and since at least the mid-2000s the geostrategy of Russia has essentially been travelling in the current direction.

Its purpose, which Russian rulers state openly and frequently, is to replace the global leadership of the United States (US) and its allies with a world which they call ‘multipolar’ or ‘polycentric’. In Russia’s interpretation, this is a world of several great powers competing, aligning and realigning with one another in a manner similar to the decades just before the First World War, each with a group of satellite countries in its sphere of influence.

It is in service of this strategic goal that Russia has been trying aggressively to weaken and subvert free and open countries from within and undermine their international policies, to permeate Africa, Latin America and other regions with Russian influence, and to deepen cooperation with Moscow’s colleagues in Beijing and Tehran regarding their role as the West’s chief adversaries. There is another goal which is indispensable for Moscow – to restore Russia’s empire in a new form, bringing about its third incarnation after the tsarist and Soviet ones.

The disaster that befell Russia when its attempted blitzkrieg in Ukraine failed in 2022 was a huge blow to its geostrategy. What was supposed to become the decisive leap toward Moscow’s imperial restoration failed spectacularly. Russia’s military prestige suffered immensely, and its economy has been damaged severely. Since early 2022, almost all of the Russian military apparatus has been dedicated to the war against Ukraine, limiting military options Russia might have chosen to employ for furthering its objectives on NATO’s eastern flank, in the Middle East, or elsewhere.

In the face of this dramatic setback, however, Russia as a geostrategic player which operates across the globe has shown remarkable resilience. Moscow has been able to somewhat continue the activities it had been waging aggressively prior to February 2022. In fact, some of these activities taking place during the full-scale invasion of Ukraine resulted in some important Russian successes.

In Africa, Burkina Faso has become explicitly supportive of Russia and its geostrategy after a military coup in September 2022, something which also happened in Niger following a coup in July 2023. Mali aligned with Russia geopolitically in the period prior to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The coups in Mali and Burkina Faso were followed by successful demands for removal of the French troops from these countries, with the French presence in Niger also expected to decrease.

In May 2023, Ibrahim Traoré, the leader of the military regime in Burkina Faso, said Russia had become a ‘key strategic ally’ and a ‘major supplier of military equipment’ to the country. In July, Traoré visited the Kremlin and ‘assured’ the hosts of his support for Russia regarding its invasion of Ukraine. In October, Burkina Faso also signed a deal with Russia to build a nuclear power plant in the country, and in January 2024, Russia deployed a contingent of troops there. 

In August 2023, following the military coup in Niger, Moscow issued warnings against potential foreign intervention to restore democratic rule in the country. At the same time, the Russian propaganda apparatus stepped up its anti-Western information warfare efforts in Niger. On 7th September, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service issued a statement accusing the US intelligence agencies of discussing ‘physical removal’ of the Niger coup leaders, because ‘the US is clearly dissatisfied with the development of events in Niger’. In December, Russia and Niger ‘signed documents to strengthen military cooperation’. Also in December, the presence of Russian paramilitaries was reported in Niger. Furthermore, in January 2024, the Niger military regime’s delegation visited Moscow with the two countries’ defence ministries agreeing to develop military cooperation.

The Russians appear to be working on creating some kind of geopolitical entity to institutionalise their newly gained West African sphere. In February 2023, the regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso said they were going to ‘examine’ establishing a federation of the two countries. After they were joined by Niger in the Russian camp, the three regimes agreed to create ‘a confederation as part of a long-term goal’ of establishing a federation. In February 2024, they reiterated these plans, referring to their grouping as the ‘Alliance of Sahel States’ and to their proposed joint geopolitical entity as the ‘Tri-State Confederation’.

The consequences of this Russian project go beyond Africa. With the addition of Niger, the sub-Saharan sphere of Russian influence gained a land connection with the part of Libya controlled by Khalifa Haftar, a warlord aligned with Russia. Crucially, Libya is a major route for migrants entering Europe. In March 2023, Guido Crosetto, the Italian Defence Minister, spoke of ‘the exponential increase’ in the migration from Africa that was ‘part of a clear strategy of hybrid warfare’ by Russia’s Wagner group ‘using its considerable weight in some African countries’. In November 2023, the regime in Niger repealed a law adopted in 2015 that criminalised the smuggling of migrants. And in early 2024, it was reported that Haftar was ‘forging closer ties’ with the Niger regime ‘with the approval of Moscow’.

Russian ‘hybrid warfare’ in Europe has involved other recent manifestations, such as stoking ethno-religious tensions in France, attempting to undermine European support of the Ukrainian resistance, seeking to consolidate German far-left and far-right political groups, and creating yet another point of migrants’ influx – this time through Russia into Finland. In the Western Balkans, Moscow supports secessionist tendencies of Milorad Dodik, the leader of the Serbian entity within Bosnia, and seeks to inflame Albanian-Serbian tensions in Kosovo.

Russia’s recent activities in Africa spread beyond the west of the continent. Moscow has increased its military presence in the Central African Republic and supports the rebels in Sudan’s civil war. Following Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny and the Wagner group’s subsequent fall from the Kremlin’s grace, Russia has been working to rebrand the general cover for its military activities in Africa, introducing the new label of ‘Africa Corps’. 

In the Middle East, Russia has deepened its ties with Iranian proxy militias in Iraq and with the Houthis in Yemen, while supporting the Assad regime and contesting America’s presence in Syria. In Latin America, the Russians keep up their support of the regimes in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba while waging a disinformation war in the rest of this region.

At the same time, Russia has brought to new heights its military and economic partnership with Iran, gives diplomatic support to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and conducts regular military exercises including naval ones with both these powers.

The breadth, direction and intensity of Russia’s activities demonstrate that its geostrategic purpose to end the global leadership of free and open countries is as relevant as ever. And this purpose continues to be backed up by Russian actions and resources despite the primary focus being on the fighting in Ukraine.

To be effective, a response needs to be based upon a vision as broad as Russia’s. The Russo-Ukrainian War must be understood in the context of such a vision. Russia wants to dominate the geographic space of Ukraine, and to control the Ukrainian demographic and economic levers of the country in pursuit of restoring its empire. This is dangerous, because Russia is committed, is willing to take risks, and has considerable resources to back up its activities.

Too many foreign assessments of Russia have combined overestimation of its military capabilities with underestimation of the scale and aggressiveness of its geostrategic purpose. It is long past time to recognise Russia under its present regime for what it really is – a major challenge to a world where human beings have their freedom, which must be confronted with full determination and defeated just like other such challenges were in the past.

David Batashvili is a Research Fellow at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (Rondeli Foundation) in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Embedded image credit: Wikipedia Commons (CC BY 4.0 DEED cropped and overlaid)

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