Russia still up in arms despite Ukraine war

The poor performance of Russian hardware, especially tanks and heavy weapons in Ukraine, has hit demand for Russian equipment. But Russian imports in Africa continue to grow.

Picture: Zimbabwe Mail

IN DEMAND: Russia has completed the delivery of 18 Kazan Ansat helicopters to Zimbabwe. Picture: Zimbabwe Mail

In late March 2023, Le Monde reported that Russia had “overtaken China” as the leading arms seller in sub-Saharan Africa, and was responsible for a quarter of the arms purchased by African states south of the Sahara. The proportion rises from 26% to 40% if the Maghreb is included, where Algeria remains a major importer of Russian arms, though most Russian arms exports are accounted for by relatively low-tech, low value equipment, such as armed vehicles or light artillery. 

While a 2023 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said that Russia had overtaken China as the top weapons supplier to Sub-Saharan Africa between 2018 and 2022, this may be a temporary ‘blip’.

Russia’s market share went from 21% to 26%, while China’s market share fell from 29% to 18%, between 2013 to 2022. But despite this, even before the Ukraine war, China had increased its sales of weapons to sub-Saharan Africa, and Western sanctions are now making it harder for Moscow to sell weapons, opening the door for more Chinese-made arms.

Western sanctions against the Kremlin have already eroded Russia’s ability to restock complex parts, including microchips used in precision-guided munitions and guidance systems, while attrition of Russian equipment in Ukraine has meant that production for export has been de-prioritised.

The poor performance of Russian hardware, especially tanks and heavy weapons in Ukraine has also hit demand for Russian equipment, while the CAATSA (Countering America's adversaries through sanctions act) sanctions have further discouraged nations from buying from Moscow.

Russia has historically enjoyed warm relations with many African countries, with ties forged during Soviet times, a mutual mistrust of the West and some alignment along ideological and economic lines.

Russia has cultivated ties in unstable areas, not least by deploying the paramilitary Wagner group to support struggling regimes. Russia has also targeted those poorer nations who habitually opt for the cheapest ‘kit’ and the most financially advantageous contracts.

Thus Russia has become the most important arms supplier to Mali – where the Wagner private security group's mercenaries are also deployed – but even Mali has sought to diversify its sources of supply, buying equipment from Brazil, China, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, among others.

Russia supplied six second-hand Czech-built Aero L-39s to the Central African Republic in May 2023, and has completed the delivery of 18 Kazan Ansat helicopters to Zimbabwe. CAATSA sanctions mean that support for their US PW207K engines may be problematic, and newer examples of the type are now powered by Russian VK-650V engines.

A planned purchase of two Mil Mi-171E helicopters by Benin has reportedly been delayed, while Guinea is believed to have abandoned its plan to acquire Mi-24 attack helicopters in the face of the threat of CAATSA sanctions. But the list of potential customers for Russian arms may be declining anyway. In critical votes in the United Nations General Assembly Russia enjoyed far less support from African nations than might have been expected.

In March 2022, 28 of 54 African nations voted to condemn the invasion. Some 16 more abstained and only Eritrea voted against condemning the invasion. In October 2022, 30 nations voted to reject Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territories (none voted against rejection).

Some 25 African nations voted against Russia in both of these votes – Benin, Botswana, Cabo Verde, Chad, Comoros, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Libya, Malawi, Mauritania, Mauritius, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Tunisia and Zambia. Significantly these include most of Africa’s more advanced democracies.

The leading importers of Russian weapons on the continent are Algeria and Sudan (both of which abstained in both votes), Angola (which abstained in the first vote, but voted against Russia in the second), and Egypt (which voted against Russia in both votes). Abstention may not always represent approval of Russia’s actions, but in some cases may signify a desire to demonstrate a nation’s tradition of non-alignment by refusing to be drawn into voting.

Russia’s most consistent supporters have been the Central African Republic, Mali, and Sudan, all of whose leaders were brought to power (and kept there) by Russian arms and mercenary support. Other nations who consistently abstained or supported Russia included Algeria, Burundi, Congo Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mozambique, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. Morocco, Namibia, Senegal, and South Africa are understood to be ‘abstainers on principle’ rather than supporters.

Jon Lake

Jon Lake

Jon is defence editor for both Arabian and African Aerospace magazines.