President Trump and his administration remain deeply divided on several foreign policy issues. Take Russia, for example. While the president continues to pursue a broad rapprochement with Vladimir Putin, the diplomats, soldiers and Treasury officials who work for him have maintained a tough line on the Kremlin.
Trump has had far more success at creating a consensus within his administration on what we call the “Withdrawal Doctrine.” Rather than lead the free world and engage with the international community, Trump has pulled back from U.S. commitments. He has withdrawn the United States from the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) Treaty, and reduced or neglected the United States’ presence in several regions of the world.
With time, however, the Withdrawal Doctrine is undermining the administration’s commitment to deter and contain Russia. Nowhere is this contradiction more clearly on display than in Africa. The Trump administration’s reduced engagement on the African continent has created new opportunities for Russia to move in. As the United States withdraws some troops from Africa, and signals indifference to African affairs more generally, the Kremlin has dramatically and dangerously stepped up its military and commercial dealings across the continent.
The contrast between Washington and Moscow’s focus on Africa is stark. Trump’s assault on diplomacy and development programs has left U.S. embassies short-staffed and in policy limbo. This is true globally, but Africa-related work has been especially hard-hit and appointments extremely slow in coming. Amazingly, South Africa — a regional leader with the second-largest economy on the continent — has been without a U.S. ambassador since Trump took office. Trump has had little interaction with African leaders and little to say about the region (with the notable exception of his reference to African states as “shithole countries,” a comment that continues to reverberate across the continent).
While Trump loses partners and influence in Africa with amazing speed and indifference, Putin is aggressively seeking deals and security relationships across the region. Next month, Russia will host more than 50 African leaders at a summit in Sochi. Since hit with Western sanctions, Russia has sealed 20 different military cooperation agreements with sub-Saharan African countries. Moscow is the largest arms supplier to the continent by far, and is even using proxies and military contractors to embed itself within certain African governments. Leaked documents revealed a concerted Russian strategy to expand its influence and military presence. The same is true for Moscow’s broadening economic reach, as state-sponsored companies fan out across the continent in search of energy and minerals deals, as well as export markets for agricultural and other products.
Washington’s policy toward Africa is lamentable in its own right, but Russia’s ascendance on the continent poses a much broader threat. Over time, U.S. neglect of the region will weaken our ability to counter Moscow globally. Russia’s growing economic ties in Africa soften the bite of Western sanctions — the primary tool being used to try to isolate and constrain Moscow. New deals in Africa help Moscow hedge against Western pressure by accessing commodities, gaining valuable mineral extraction rights and putting more money in state coffers.
In some cases, Russia’s relationships circumvent the sanctions themselves. For instance, Wagner, an infamous mercenary group with close ties to the Kremlin, is designated for sanctions yet deeply entrenched in the government of the Central African Republic. Deeper ties with African states also give Putin greater influence on the world stage (African states make up more than a quarter of the membership of the United Nations), helping Moscow to advance its agenda globally and mitigate Western attempts to isolate the country. Putin’s penchant for supporting and arming autocrats in Africa exacerbates regional instability and runs counter to U.S. interests.
Trump’s neglect of relationships across the continent has delighted Moscow (and Beijing). Ironically, the administration’s Africa strategy actually sets countering Russian influence in Africa as one of its aims; the contrast to actual policy could not be more glaring. The administration’s approach is heavy on criticism of Moscow and Beijing, and light on supporting the democratic and economic growth that would actually reduce Russian influence. Rhetoric will never be as compelling to African leaders as infrastructure investment or security cooperation. While the administration is increasing its efforts to support investment — a welcome start — reducing troops and counterterrorism cooperation will give all the more room for Moscow to step in and fill the void.
The United States cannot deter the revisionist power Russia while at the same time disengaging from the world. Across Africa, many leaders still eagerly seek deeper engagement with the United States. Doubling down on these relationships would serve U.S. national security broadly, as well as help effectively counter Russia. A smarter U.S. strategy in Africa would bolster a more successful policy in containing Russia.