Spy games

From Khrushchev’s KGB to Putin: the deep roots of Russian influence in Africa

When Russian President Vladimir Putin develops his network of influence in Africa, he isn’t doing so at random. He is drawing on the rich history of Soviet relations with African countries that dates back to the 1960s and the efforts made by Russian spies during the Cold War to counter US influence on the ground.

An illustration created using a photo of documents burned by the staff of the Soviet embassy in Leopoldville before leaving the premises after Joseph-Désiré Mobutu's coup d'état.
An illustration created using a photo of documents burned by the staff of the Soviet embassy in Leopoldville before leaving the premises after Joseph-Désiré Mobutu's coup d'état. © Associated Press

1960 was a momentous year for what would soon become the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The country wrested independence from Belgium in June, installing its first democratically elected government. In September, power struggles led Joseph-Désiré Mobutu AKA Mobutu Sese Seko, secretary of state at the time, to carry out his first military coup. And a few months later, Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was assassinated.

This rapid succession of events marked a pivotal year in history, but not just for emancipation rights in Africa. Some 11,000 kilometres east of Kinshasa, in Russia, the Kremlin’s foreign policy took a new turn amid the crisis that gripped the Belgian Congo. Alexander Shelepin, head of the KGB at the time, realised there were barely any Russian spies south of the Sahara Desert. There was a solid base of secret agents in Egypt, a few scattered across the Maghreb and some with ties to the local Communist Party were stationed in South Africa.

A handful of spies to save Prime Minister Lumumba

In Shelepin’s eyes, his network of spies in the African continent was scant. Nikita Khrushchev, then first secretary of the Communist Party, had made it a priority to open up to (mostly African) low-income countries and mark a break with his predecessor Joseph Stalin. 

As a result, the crisis in the Congo became “the first known case of an intervention by the KGB in a sub-Saharan African country”, explains Natalia Telepneva, historian and specialist of Soviet intelligence in Africa at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.

And so began the start of a race for Russian influence south of the Sahara. Despite a lack of interest in the region from the early 1990s to the end of the 2000s, the Kremlin left its mark. “To restore Russian presence in Africa, Vladimir Putin took advantage of the relatively good reputation the Soviet Union had in the continent and called on a network of old contacts,” says Marcel Plichta, who researches Soviet influence in Africa at St Andrews University in Scotland.

But during the Congo crisis, Russia didn't yet have a legacy on the continent. “Ivan Potekhin, the chief Africanist of the USSR at the time, had only visited Africa for the first time in the 1950s,” Telepneva points out.

The operation by the Soviet Union to help then Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba suppress Belgian-supported secessionists was poorly resourced. “Moscow only had the means to send a handful of agents on the ground,” says Telepneva. So when Joseph-Désiré Mobutu carried out his military coup in 1960, which was actively supported by the CIA, the blow to the KGB was significant.

'Low-cost' Cold War in Africa

The Soviet Union had some catching up to do if it wanted to push its strategy of influence in the region, but it could count on the enthusiasm of the wave of independence from colonial powers in the 60s to reach that goal.

“To get agents to join the KGB in Africa, the continent offered interesting espionage prospects. And the missions they would pursue – supporting independence movements while simultaneously monitoring US activity on the ground – seemed noble,” Telepneva writes in her book “Cold War Liberation”, which is based on the memoirs of Vadim Kirpitchenko, the first director of the KGB’s Africa division.

From 1960 onwards, Russia opened a growing number of embassies in African countries. Each one of its delegations “included both a KGB and a GRU (the foreign military intelligence agency of the Soviet Army) agent”, Telepneva explains.

The Congo crisis served as a lesson. “Moscow realised that the USSR didn’t have the same resources as Western powers in Africa did. So intelligence and clandestine operations seemed to be the best way of waging a ‘low-cost’ Cold War,” Telepneva says.

Though the Soviet Union eventually lost ground in Africa, the efforts made proved to be useful to the Kremlin's foreign policy down the line. Russia emerged as an ally of the deceased former Prime Minister Lumumba, who became a key figure of inspiration for other independence movements across the continent. The US, on the other hand, was seen as an ally of the former colonial powers in Africa. The reputation of the Soviet Union being on the “right side” of history in Africa was pushed by Russia, and further reinforced by the USSR’s support for Nelson Mandela in his fight against apartheid in South Africa.

Russian spies worked hard to maintain their country’s reputation. The country began a sweeping campaign of “active measures”, what would today be referred to as disinformation and propaganda. Its aim was to portray the Soviet Union as a disinterested supporter of a decolonised Africa. Meanwhile, Washington was depicted as a puppeteer plotting in the shadows, safeguarding its own interests.  

The KGB used its entire arsenal, manipulating local media and forging false documents to make the CIA the enemy that had to be destroyed. Moscow nourished the paranoia of Ghanaian revolutionary  and the country's eventual first prime minister and president  Kwame Nkrumah, who saw himself as an “African Lenin”. He would see US spies everywhere. “In 1964, a fake letter written by Service A outlining a plot by the CIA angered him so much that he sent a letter directly to US President Lyndon Johnson, accusing the CIA of using all its resources with one goal in mind: overthrow him,” reads the Mitrokhin archives, named after Vasili Mitrokhin, the KGB chief archivist who defected to the United Kingdom in 1992 and took 30 years of notes with him.

From Soviet dream to disappointment

It’s hard not to see these “active measures” as forerunners for today’s online disinformation campaigns and “troll factories” run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group. Putin’s Russia uses a new and improved version of the Soviet narrative. Back then, the Soviet Union presented itself as a champion of decolonisation. Today, “Russia claims to be an ally of the anti-colonial Pan-Africanism movement,” says Plichta. The Russian campaign to fuel anti-French sentiment in the Central African Republic and Mali is just one example.

But not all of the KGB’s efforts were crowned as victories at the time – or at least not to the extent that Moscow had hoped. The Soviet Union “thought that these countries would naturally fall in line with communist ideologies and therefore the USSR. But it turned out to be more complicated than they expected”, explains Telepneva.

Kwame Nkrumah, who ruled Ghana for six years, was the Soviet Union’s first “friend” in sub-Saharan Africa. He was overthrown in 1966 after he drifted towards authoritarianism. The two other countries to have most openly sided with Russia, Mali and Guinea, left behind no memories of communist paradise. After eight years in power, Mali’s leader Modibo Keita was ousted, while Guinea’s Ahmed Sékou Touré stayed put at the head of a brutal regime for over 25 years, until 1984.

It wasn’t until the second wave of decolonisation and the dismantling of Portugal’s colonial stronghold in Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and Angola in the 1970s that Soviet influence operations picked up again. But this time, leader Leonid Brezhnev urged intelligence services to “redeploy their efforts to strengthen military and security cooperation with the armies of ‘friendly’ countries”, says Telepneva. The Kremlin had become aware that, until now, it had underestimated the role of the military in African power struggles.

The Soviet Union and soft power

The Soviet Union became a major arms supplier for the African continent. Backed by Soviet support against Somalia, Ethiopia received a “Soviet plane full of military equipment and instructors [on its soil] every 20 minutes” in the winter of 1977, according to the Mitrokhin archives.

Once again, this approach is reminiscent of Putin and the Wagner group’s tactics. “Moscow’s main strategy for extending its influence in Africa, in addition to sending Wagner mercenaries, is multiplying military agreements [21 of which were signed between 2014 and 2019],” says Plichta.

During the Cold War, military support went beyond supplying weapons. The Soviet Union also trained thousands of “freedom fighters” back home. The Perevalnoe Educational Centre-165 in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula now annexed by Russia, has become the most famous example.

Handling weapons was only a fraction of what was taught. “There was also political training with excursions to tourist sites, visits to collective farms and film screenings. The courses also included an introduction to Leninism-Marxism and discussions on the history of colonisation,” says Telepneva.

Moscow realised early on that education could deepen its ties with Africa, so Khrushchev opened the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow in 1961. Over the course of 50 years, it trained more than 7,000 students from 48 different African countries in physics, economics and public administration. African students were also admitted to different universities across the USSR.

For Russian spies, universities were wonderful breeding grounds for potential recruits. In fact, the vice president of Lumumba University was part of the KGB. But “that wasn’t the most important thing for Moscow”, says Konstantinos Katsakioris, a specialist on African education and the former Soviet Union at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. Moscow’s priority was to improve the Soviet Union’s reputation in Africa. All students were expected to preach the good Soviet word back home.

This also became an asset for Putin. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow gradually withdrew from Africa, but all the students taught in the former USSR stayed put. So when, in 2014, Putin decided to reinvest in the African continent in search of new allies to offset Russia’s diplomatic isolation caused by his annexation of Crimea, he knew his agents could find friends there. “The soldiers and students were young when they went to the Soviet Union. Today, some of them have become influential members in their home countries,” says Plichta. These veterans of the Soviet adventure in post-colonial Africa are today's potentially obliging ears in which Putin and Prigozhin’s men can whisper. 

This article was translated from the original version in French

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