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Squeezed by Western sanctions — first in response to its illegal annexation of Crimea and then its subsequent invasion of Ukraine — Vladimir Putin’s regime has increasingly turned to new partnerships across Africa for greater global influence and economic lifelines. These new partnerships have yielded diplomatic support for Putin’s regime at the United Nations, advanced favorable views of the war in Ukraine in sections of African public opinion, landed new client states for Russian arms and mercenaries, and offered pathways for Moscow to evade sanctions. In 2019, Putin, following the playbook of his geopolitical rivals in the region (United States, France, Turkey, and China), launched his own summit with African leaders. The Kremlin professes to be an equal partner to the African continent, one that firmly rejects foreign meddling or imposition in the affairs of a sovereign nation — an indirect criticism of Western nations — and one without colonial baggage. 


This belies the Russian empire’s failed colonial projects of the 19th century and Soviet operations and satellite states in the region during the Cold War. But these new alliances between the Kremlin and its African partner regimes have been detrimental to the citizens of the countries concerned. Russia’s private mercenaries and hunger for natural resources has exacerbated human rights abuses, democratic erosion, corruption, and organized crime in total impunity. Simultaneously, ordinary citizens suffer the consequences of Russian disinformation campaigns and economic hardships from shortages of grain and fertilizer imports from Ukraine.

In this blog series, Russia’s Influence in Africa, we will explore three case studies — Mali, Sudan, and the Central African Republic — to understand the methods of the Kremlin and private mercenary groups to become the main international partners of these countries.

By Huda Hashi and Mohamed Keita

Illustrations by Lucian French, designer

In October 2017, the United States lifted sanctions on the regime of Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir. Within a few weeks, al-Bashir flew to Sochi to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, where he asked Moscow for “protection from the aggressive acts of the United States.” Sudan was already Africa’s third-largest importer of Russian arms, and, in exchange for more military support, Putin’s regime obtained Sudan’s agreement to host a Russian naval base in Port Sudan and critical mining concessions, particularly for gold.

Sudan is also Africa’s third-largest producer of gold, and a crucial part of the agreements signed with Moscow are gold mining concessions granted by the Sudanese Ministry of Mineral Resources to a company called M-Invest, linked to the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company owned by a businessman and, until recently, a Putin ally, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Within a month, Russian mercenaries were in the country training Sudanese security forces. As Russia signed a military cooperation deal with the neighboring Central African Republic in August 2018, it used Sudan to host talks between its government and rebel factions in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. Sudan became an increasingly strategic hub for Moscow and a waystation for Wagner supply trucks heading to the Central African Republic.

As Sudan teetered toward a grave economic crisis and growing discontent in 2018, Prigozhin’s operatives in Saint Petersburg and Khartoum advised al-Bashir’s regime with different strategies to remain in power, prevent a “color revolution,” rig the 2020 presidential election, and increase Russia’s influence in the country. The tactics they recommended included smearing protesters by accusing them of setting fires to mosques, schools, hospitals, and stealing food from grocery stores; spreading misinformation about LGBTQ+ flags at protests, and about foreign “enemy” powers inciting protests to destroy the country. Additional proposed tactics included raising the price of printing paper to hinder opposition newspapers, creating pseudo opposition parties, and separating al-Bashir’s image from the increasingly unpopular ruling party.

After the outbreak of nationwide anti-regime protests in December 2018, caused by deep economic problems and continuing human rights abuses by al-Bashir, the government responded with a deadly crackdown. Amid the protests, photos shared by witnesses on social media and analyzed by experts identified Russian mercenaries and Russian military equipment linked to Wagner aiding regime security forces in suppressing the protests in the streets of Khartoum.

The force leading the regime’s crackdown was the feared Rapid Support Forces (RSF), Sudan’s most powerful militia and the private army of Mohamed “Hemeti” Hamdan Dagalo, a former ruthless leader of the Janjaweed militia implicated in the Darfur genocide. Hemeti, whom Bashir called “my protector,” largely controls Sudan’s gold market through his family’s control of several companies involved in smuggling and selling Sudan’s gold.

On April 11, 2019, Hemeti joined the military in toppling al-Bashir and became the new regime’s No. 2. A week later, Prigozhin flew to Khartoum with a group of senior Russian military officials, ostensibly to shore up Russia’s ties with the new rulers. Several weeks later, on June 3, 2019, Hemeti’s RSF massacred scores of anti-junta protesters demanding a return to civilian rule at a sit-in protest. Russia and China blocked a UN Security Council draft resolution condemning the killings and Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov went further in justifying the atrocities, declaring “you need for order to be imposed, and you need to fight against extremists and provocateurs who don’t want the stabilization of the situation.” Two days after the massacre, Meroe Gold, a Prigozhin company, imported 13 tons of security equipment, including riot shields, helmets and batons, for a company controlled by Hemeti’s family.

Prigozhin’s operatives also deployed disinformation tactics. In October 2019, Facebook removed a coordinated network of pages and groups originating in Russia which spread positive news about Russia, anti-Western opinions, news articles from Russia Today (RT), and Russian-controlled media Sputnik. In May 2021, Facebook removed a network of pages and accounts disseminating flattering news about Russia’s humanitarian aid to Sudan.

In the background, Wagner-linked companies such as Meroe Gold ran a smuggling scheme of most of Sudan’s gold, with the complicity of the Sudanese junta and allied RSF. According to a CNN investigation, a Sudanese front company named Al-Solag was created after the US sanctioned Meroe Gold. After a meeting between Russian and Sudanese officials, gold assets were transferred from Meroe Gold to Al-Solag to avoid further US scrutiny. In September 2021, Sudan’s anti-corruption committee, which had been setup by the civilian transitional cabinet which was sharing power with the junta, identified discrepancies with the transfers in contravention of Sudanese law and blocked the transactions. The watchdog submitted detailed evidence of what it uncovered to the junta and urged military leaders to stop what it called a “crime against a state.” A month later, the Sudanese military staged a coup and the corruption committee was disbanded. 

Russian officials then blamed the West and justified the regime’s repression of anti-coup protests. During the months of March, April and May 2022, the Wagner Group was accused of being implicated in a series of deadly attacks on artisanal mines around the border region between Sudan and the Central African Republic. Yet, the Sudanese regime denies the presence of the Wagner Group and its subsidiaries in Sudan.

As Putin’s regime launched its invasion of Ukraine, and the Russian economy was hit with more sanctions, Sudan’s gold became one of the alternative, semi-legal methods of international financing for the Kremlin to patch up the holes in its budget. 

At the international level, Sudan became a valuable partner for diplomatic support to counter Russia’s isolation. It was among 17 African countries that abstained from voting on a resolution by the UN General Assembly that called for Russia to immediately cease its military operations in Ukraine. At the same time, the Sudanese junta approved a plan to set up a Russian naval base in Sudan. 

In April 2023, when a power struggle between the Sudanese military and the RSF broke into armed conflict, Sergei Lavrov called the war a “tragedy” and his deputy, Mikail Bogdanov, declared that the Kremlin was committed to resolve the conflict. However, the Kremlin has also fueled the war, a bloody and destructive power struggle which has forced more than four million people to flee and pushed millions more on the brink of famine. After another CNN investigation found evidence that Wagner was providing missiles to the RSF leader Hemeti, Lavrov defended the involvement of the mercenary group in the conflict, contradicting his own rhetoric chastising the West for interfering in the affairs of sovereign countries. 

The Kremlin casts itself as an advocate of the aspirations of the Sudanese people for peace, security, democratic transformation, and equitable socio-economic development, but its actions provide aid, cover, weapons to the oppressors of the Sudanese people. By siding with Sudan’s dictators — from al-Bashir to the current ruling unpopular military and their rival paramilitary RSF — the Kremlin and its Wagner proxy have in fact worsened the sufferings of the Sudanese people. 

Huda Hashi was a legal and policy intern at the Human Rights Foundation, and Mohamed Keita is the Africa senior policy officer at the Human Rights Foundation.


Russia’s influence and operations in Africa have significantly expanded in the last five years. In the cases of the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Mali, Moscow has exploited openings created by the failures of Western efforts to stem security crises or the imposition of Western sanctions. For Moscow and its partner authoritarian regimes, alliances offer political, economic, and diplomatic lifelines. But the alignment that the Kremlin and its African partner regimes project is an untenable contradiction: Putin’s regime is waging a brutal war against Ukraine, a sovereign nation, while railing to Africans against Western military interventionism. The authoritarian leaders of the Kremlin’s partner regimes have also pushed back against foreign meddling while inviting Russia to intervene militarily in their countries. 

As part of its soft-power package, the Kremlin offers scholarships, professional training opportunities, and humanitarian aid to citizens of Mali, CAR, and Sudan. But the detrimental costs are much higher: summary executions, extrajudicial killings, corruption and organized crime, illicit smuggling of natural resources, disinformation, and democratic erosion in a culture of total impunity. The big losers of these alliances are undoubtedly the citizens living under these authoritarian rulers.