Information warfare: EU struggles to counter Russian propaganda in Africa

Information warfare: EU struggles to counter Russian propaganda in Africa

Willingness to discredit European action

The Russian Federation’s interest in Africa is not new, but its current role is quite different from that played by the former Soviet Union. Despite a growing presence, Russia remains a minor player. However, it has managed to make its presence particularly visible, notably through the intense use of propaganda and disinformation, based on a constellation of state media such as Russia Today or Sputnik, social networks (Facebook, Telegram, Twitter, etc.) and local media.

The Russian Federation’s will to expand its presence in Africa has been tangible for a decade but has accelerated since 2019. The organization of the first Russia-Africa summit in Solchi in October 2019, with the largest delegation of African leaders ever gathered, is a remarkable step.

Vladimir Putin made the absence of a colonial past a central element of Russian engagement on the continent, distinguishing himself from former colonies that « threaten African sovereign countries ».  The objectives are varied, but it is openly about « reversing the positions of European countries in Africa, namely France, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Germany » analyzes the researcher Sergey Sukhantin in 2020.

At the same time, it is about embellishing Russian support, talking about donations when it comes to loans or even presenting itself as the main support in the fight against Ebola or Covid-19 while the European Union is the main donor in these areas. 

According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, Russian disinformation campaigns are present on almost the entire continent.





Military operations under fire

Security is one area where Russia is particularly active. As early as 2015, an internal document of the German Ministry of Defence pointed out the multiplication of military agreements between Russia and African states. Since then, Russia has accelerated its arms deliveries and the deployment of trainers (via the paramilitary group Wagner), taking advantage of every free space left by the West.

Before this implementation, and even more intensively as the Russian presence strengthens, Russian propaganda has targeted the military peace and security missions led by the UN or the European Union, notably in Mali and the Central African Republic, as detailed by NATO’s strategic communication centre.

In its communication, Russia presents these missions as ineffective, as interfering in national politics, or as responsible for attacks against civilians. This certainly fuels and exacerbates the rejection of these forces. On the contrary, Russian propaganda praises Wagner’s mercenaries’ actions.


France, the main target

France is particularly targeted by Russian propaganda in the Central African Republic and Mali. Experts speak of influence campaigns orchestrated for several years by the “russosphere” or “Prigojine galaxy”, named after the boss of the paramilitary group Wagner. The French president denounces a « predation project ». « It is enough to go and see what is happening at the moment in the Central African Republic or elsewhere to see very clearly the Russian project that is at work when France is pushed around », adds Emmanuel Macron. « Russian disinformation has been a contributing factor in driving French forces out of the Sahel countries », analyzes Ulf Laessing of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation more openly. 

The latest example is a video clip broadcast on January 14th 2023 in which the French army is made up of emaciated skeletons, followed by a tricoloured snake announcing that it wants to conquer Africa. To face this “threat”, and in support of soldiers wearing Malian, Burkinabe or Ivorian flags, the members of the Russian militia Wagner appear as saviours. The graphics are simple, the message caricatural, but it works. The investigative collective All Eyes on Wagner points out the “timing” of the publication, which appeared online during the “Day of Regained Sovereignty” in Mali, a holiday recently established by the Junta that came to power in a coup.


A modest European reaction…

This phenomenon, which encourages anti-European sentiment and leads to the political destabilization of African countries, is a reason for concern to all 27 countries. But the Europeans are struggling to find a response. They have, for now, sanctioned several Wagner Group officials for their actions in the region. The EUTM Mali and EUTM CAR missions have also stopped training Malian and Central African soldiers. 

On the communication side, the Europeans have understood the need to act, to actively counter Russian propaganda. But they do so with some delay. Several options are being explored, including through the internal service of the European diplomatic service and its EU VS Desinfo cell. But the bulk of the effort is focused on campaigns in Europe, as shown by the report published on February 7 and the creation of a European centre for information sharing and analysis to track disinformation campaigns in the Union.


… in spite of the increasing phenomenon

It is more urgent than ever for Europeans to find a way to counter Russian communication campaigns since this phenomenon is only growing. With the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the Kremlin has been working hard to rally African opinion to its cause. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is himself on a diplomatic tour of the continent, from Cairo to Bamako, via Pretoria. This is the third such tour in six months. 

Now banned from broadcasting in Europe, the Russia Today channel could redeploy to Africa to seek new allies, find relays to promote its worldview and defend its foreign policy.

After the Central African Republic and Mali, it is now Burkina Faso that French troops will leave. Niger and Chad are also in the sights. If other elements are to be taken into account (such as jihadist attacks or coups d’état), the rapprochement of local governments with Moscow and the demonstrations against France are key in Paris’ decisions. And on EU action on the ground also.