Africa–Soviet Union relations

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Soviet military instructors with Namibian guerrillas during the South African Border War, late 1970s.

Soviet Union-Africa relations covers the diplomatic, political, military and cultural relationships between the Soviet Union and Africa, from the 1945 to 1992. Joseph Stalin made Africa a very low priority, and discouraged relationships or studies of the continent. However the decolonization process of the 1950s and early 1960s opened new opportunities, which Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was eager to exploit. The Kremlin developed four major long-term policy goals: 1) To gain a lasting presence on the continent. 2) To gain a voice in African affairs. 3) To undermine Western/NATO influence, especially by identifying capitalism with Western imperialism. 4) After 1962, it fought hard to prevent communist China from developing its own countervailing presence. At no time was Moscow willing to engage in combat in Africa, although its ally Cuba did so. Indeed the Kremlin at first assumed that the Russian model of socialized development would prove attractive to Africans eager to modernize. That did not happen, and instead the Soviets emphasized identifying likely analyze and giving them financial aid and munitions, as well as credits to purchase from the Soviet bloc. Although some countries, such as Angola and Ethiopia, became allies for a while, the connections proved temporary. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian influence greatly diminished.


Until the death of Stalin in 1953, the Soviet Union showed very little interest in Africa. It did not appear right for revolution because it was almost entirely controlled by European imperial powers, with the peasantry under the political control of tribal leaders, and low levels of proletarian consciousness in the small working-class. He had a fleeting interest in establishing Soviet port facilities in Libya, but the NATO containment policy blocked those efforts. In the Comintern, the chief spokesmen for Africa were whites from the Communist Party of South Africa.[1]

After 1953, the continent underwent a rapid process of decolonization, whereby nearly all the colonies became independent nations. However, The nationalist movement was led by the better educated young middle-class that had little exposure to communism or socialism.[2] Soviet leaders, beginning with Nikita Khrushchev, were excited by the enthusiastic young black Africans who first came to Moscow for a major youth festival in 1957. Patrice Lumumba Peoples' Friendship University was established in Moscow in 1960 to provide higher education to Third World students. It became an integral part of the Soviet cultural offensive in nonaligned countries.[3]

The Kremlin saw an opportunity, and established four foreign policy goals regarding Africa. First it wanted a lasting presence on the continent, including port facilities in the Indian Ocean. Second it wanted to gain a voice in African affairs, primarily by supporting local communist parties, and providing economic and military aid to the governments. Third it wanted to undermine Western/NATO influence. However the Kremlin was reluctant to send Soviet troops because of its fear of a major escalation with NATO powers. Fidel Castro sent 300,000 Cuban troops to Africa to support fellow revolutionaries against Western imperialism. The Kremlin thought Castro's adventurism was dangerous but it was unable to stop him.[4] And finally, after 1962, it was engaged in a bitter controversy with China for influence and control of local radical movements.[5]

Stalin thought in terms of a black and white world of class conflict, capitalists versus the proletariat. Khrushchev said it was a three-way contest, the third pole being bourgeois nationalist movements that were inherently anti-imperialist and were demanding decolonization across the globe. The favorite technique therefore was to identify the Soviet Union with the rising tide of nationalism – to demonstrate that they in Moscow were engaged in a common struggle against Western imperialism.[6] Moscow also expected that the Soviet model of industrialization and nationalization would prove attractive, but that approach did not resonate with the nationalistic forces, which were black based on the small middle class and were socializing the means of production.[7] The passive reliance on the Soviet model of development failed because of the unreliability of local leaders, and by the Congo crisis. The Kremlin learned that it was essential to find and promote ideologically reliable leaders, who needed Soviet help to build enough military strength to control their country.[8]


As early as the 1930s, the Communists made up an important faction of the Algerian nationalist movement; however it supported France in the growing unrest, and was forced to dissolve in 1956. Its activist joined the militant National Liberation Front (FLN). Throughout the ferocious Algerian War of Independence in the 1950s, Moscow provided military, technical and material assistance to the FLN, and trained hundreds of its military leaders in the USSR. The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to recognize the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic in 1962 by establishing diplomatic relations a few months before the official proclamation of its independence. Algeria became a leader the nonalignment movement, and targeted its angry rhetoric more on the United States, then on France. However it was an oil exporting country, and the United States was a principal customer for oil, and a major supplier of machinery and engineering and technical engineering expertise.[9]

By the 1960s both the Soviets and the Chinese were angling for Algerian attention. Moscow extended $100 million and credits to buy Russian exports, while China provided $50 million in credits. Ahmed Ben Bella, in power 1963 to 1965, leaned toward China. He was overthrown by his defense minister Houari Boumédiène, who was in charge 1965-1976. Algeria strongly supported the Palestinian cause, and when Moscow was lukewarm in support of the Six-Day War in 1967, Algeria refused to let the Soviets build a naval base at Mers El Kébir. Paris sold Algeria French warplanes in 1968, looking to counterbalance the Soviet influence.[10] Operating independently from the Kremlin, Fidel Castro turned Algeria into Cuba's first and closest ally in Africa between 1961 and 1965. Havana provided military and civilian assistance. Cuban soldiers, however did not engage in combat, and after the overthrow of Castro's friend Ben Bella, Cuba cut back its involvement.[11]

Algeria supported the Polisario Front a left-wing movement supported by Moscow that battled for 10 years for control of the Western Sahara from Morocco. The United States, Egypt, Belgium, and France supported Morocco, and Algeria was increasingly identified with the Soviet side of the Cold War.[12]


In a complex civil war with outside interventions, Soviet military aid went to the Movimento Popular de Libertacao de Angola (MPLA). By 1976, the military sphere was the pivot of Angolan-Soviet relations. The Soviet Navy benefited from its use of Angolan ports to stage exercises.[13] During 1956-1986, as part of the long South African Border War (1966-1990), the Soviets supplied and trained combat units from Namibia (SWAPO) and Angola (MPLA) at the African National Congress (ANC) military training camps in Tanzania. In 1986 Mikhail Gorbachev rejected the idea of a revolutionary takeover of the South African government, and advocated a negotiated settlement.[14]


Facing enormous turmoil in the newly independent Congo, Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, the charismatic leader of the largest nationalist faction, reacted by calling for assistance from the Soviet Union. The Kremlin promptly sent military advisors and munitions.[15] The involvement of the Soviets split the Congolese government and led to an impasse between Lumumba, who supported, and conservative President Joseph Kasa-Vubu who was anti-communist. The President used his command of the army to launch a coup d'état, expel the Soviet advisors and establish a new government under his own control. Lumumba was taken captive and subsequently executed in 1961. A rival government of the "Free Republic of the Congo" was founded in the eastern city of Stanleyville by Lumumba supporters led by Antoine Gizenga. The Kremlin supported Gizenga but did not want to take the international risks involved in delivering material aid to the blockaded Orientale Province. instead it provided with financial aid and urged its allies to run the blockade and assist Gizenga while avoiding a direct conflict with the West on the issue. The Gizenga regime was crushed in early 1962.[16]


In 1954-70, the 1950s, Gamal Abdel Nasser followed an anti-imperialist policy that earned him enthusiastic support from the Communist government of the USSR.[17] During the Nasser years, many young Egyptians studied in Soviet universities and military schools. Among them was the future president, Hosni Mubarak, who went for training in a military pilot school in Kyrgyzstan.[18]

The relationship went sour within years after the death of Nasser, when the new president Anwar Sadat started re-orienting the country toward the West. On May 27, 1971, a friendship treaty was signed between the two countries, but relations were nevertheless declining. the Nixon administration was working behind the scenes with Sadat to bolster his plans to send the Russians home, which they did in July 1972. In March 1976 Egypt abrogated the friendship treaty. In September 1981, the last relations were severed by the Egyptian government accusing Soviet leadership of trying to undermine Sadat's leadership in retaliation to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.[19][20] Relations were reestablished under president Hosni Mubarak in 1984, and Alexander Belonogov became the Ambassador. In February 1989, Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Eduard Shevardnadze visited Egypt.[21]


Cuban artillerymen manning a Soviet-supplied howitzer during the Ogaden War of 1977

Soviet foreign policy in Somalia and Ethiopia is based on the Horn's strategic location for international trade and shipping as well as its military importance. Neither country has followed the Kremlin's directives unquestioningly.[22]

The 1974 coup installed new military leaders under General Mengistu.[23] It proclaimed Marxism-Leninism as its official ideology and became a close ally of Moscow. The Soviets hailed Ethiopia for its supposed similar cultural and historical parallels to the USSR. Moscow said it proved that a backward society could become revolutionary by adopting a Leninist system. It was hailed as a model junior ally that Moscow was eager to support. In the 1980s Ethiopia plunged into greater turmoil and the Soviet system itself was collapsing by 1990. Russian commentators turned scornful of the Ethiopian regime.[24]

Moscow’s public embrace of Mengistu troubled Siad Barre's pro-Communist regime in Somalia. After rejecting a Soviet proposal for a four-nation Marxist-Leninist confederation, the Somali government launched an offensive in July 1977 with the intent of capturing Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, starting the Ogaden War. Somalia appeared to be on the brink of victory after gaining control of 90% of the area. Mengistu urgently needed help. The USSR used its fleet of An-12 and An-22 air transports, as well as cargo vessels, to ship a billion dollars in fighter-bombers, tanks, artillery, and ammunition in a very short time.[25] Suddenly, the Ethiopians launched a counter offensive with the help of newly arrived Soviet arms and a South Yemeni brigade. Infuriated by Soviet support for the Ethiopians, Somalia annulled its treaty with the Soviet Union and expelled all Soviet advisors in the country.[26]


President John Kennedy eagerly sought to establish good relations with newly independent African nations in the wake of Krushchev's 1961 speech that proclaimed the USSR's intention to intervene in anticolonial struggles around the world. Since most nations in Europe, Latin America, and Asia had already chosen sides, Kennedy and Krushchev both looked to Africa as the next Cold War battleground. Under the leadership of Sékou Touré, the former French colony of Guinea in West Africa proclaimed its independence in 1958 and immediately sought foreign aid. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was hostile to Touré, so the African nation quickly turned to the Soviet Union--making it the Kremlin's first success story in Africa. However President John F. Kennedy and his Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver tried even harder than Khrushchev. By 1963 Guinea had shifted away from Moscow into a closer friendship with Washington.[27]


In the 15-year Western Sahara War, the Soviet Union supported the Polisario Front and sent arms via Algeria.[28] In this context, King Hassan II of Morocco said in 1980 that Morocco and the Soviet Union are "at war".[29]

South Africa[edit]

Apartheid-era propaganda leaflet issued to South African military personnel in the 1980s. The pamphlet decries "Russian colonialism and oppression".

The South African Communist Party (SAPC), operating under the direction of the Comintern, was a strong supporter of the African National Congress. South African white politicians routinely denounced the ANC as a devious communist plot to overthrow the government. The Soviet Union withdrew its Ambassador after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. After South Africa became a republic in 1961, relations were very cold. in 1961 and see and is a CP created a joint military wing, known as the "Spear of the Nation." South Africa considered the Soviet Union an enemy because it financially and militarily supported communism on the African continent. Pretoria severed diplomatic ties with Moscow in 1956, because of its support for the SAPC. During 1956-1986, as part of the long South African Border War (1966-1990), the Soviets supplied and trained combat units from Namibia (SWAPO) and Angola (MPLA) at the ANC military training camps in Tanzania. In 1986 Gorbachev rejected the idea of a revolutionary takeover of the South African government, and advocated a negotiated settlement. Diplomatic ties were reestablished with Russia in February 1992, after the Soviet Union was dissolved.[30]

The South African government evoked the term rooi gevaar to refer the political and military threat posed by the Soviet Union's support for the guerrilla wings of anti-apartheid movements such as SWAPO and the ANC.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Maxim Matusevich, "Revisiting the Soviet Moment in Sub-Saharan Africa" History Compass. (2009) 7#5 pp 1259-1268.
  2. ^ James Mulira, "The role of the Soviet Union in the decolonization process of Africa: from Lenin to Brezhnev." Mawazo 4.4 (1976): 26-35.
  3. ^ Alvin Z. Rubinstein, "Lumumba University-Assessment." Problems of Communism 20.6 (1971): 64-69.
  4. ^ Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976 (2002).
  5. ^ Robert A. Scalapino, "Sino-Soviet Competition in Africa", Foreign Affairs (1964) 42#4, pp. 640–654. online
  6. ^ Rudolf Von Albertini, Decolonization the Administration and Future of the Colonies, 1919-1960 (1971), pp 26-29.
  7. ^ Robert H. Donaldson, The Soviet Union in the Third World (1981), p 212.
  8. ^ Alessandro Iandolo, "The rise and fall of the ‘Soviet Model of Development’ in West Africa, 1957–64." Cold War History 12.4 (2012): 683-704. online
  9. ^ John Ruedy, Modern Algeria: the origins and development of a nation (2nd ed. 2005), 140-41, 165, 212-13.
  10. ^ Guy de Carmoy, "France, Algeria, and the Soviet Penetration in the Mediterranean." Military Review (1970) 50#3 pp 83-90.
  11. ^ Piero Gleijeses, "Cuba's first venture in Africa: Algeria, 1961–1965." Journal of Latin American Studies 28.1 (1996): 159-195.
  12. ^ Yahia Zoubir, "Soviet policy toward the Western Sahara conflict." Africa Today 34.3 (1987): 17-32. online
  13. ^ Arthur J. Klinghoffer, "The Soviet Union and Angola," (Army War College, 1980) online
  14. ^ Rita M. Byrnes, ed. (1997). South Africa: A Country Study, 3rd addition. Federal Research Division, Library of Congress. pp. 272, 322.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  15. ^ Omajuwa Igho Natufe, "The cold war and the Congo crisis, 1960-1961." Africa (1984): 353-374.
  16. ^ Sergei Mazov, "Soviet Aid to the Gizenga Government in the Former Belgian Congo (1960–61) as Reflected in Russian Archives." Cold War History 7.3 (2007): 425-437.
  17. ^ Dawisha, Karen. Soviet Foreign Policy Towards Egypt (1979)
  18. ^ "Mubarak set for talks at Kremlin on nuclear and arms trade". Archived from the original on 2016-03-03. Retrieved 2019-03-17.
  19. ^ Craig A. Daigle, "The Russians are going: Sadat, Nixon and the Soviet presence in Egypt." Middle East 8.1 (2004): 1+ online
  20. ^ William E. Farrell, "Envoy of Moscow Expelled by Egypt" The New York Times, Sept. 16, 1981
  21. ^ Larry C. Napper, "The Arab Autumn of 1984: A Case Study of Soviet Middle East Diplomacy." The Middle East Journal 39#4 (1985): 733-744. online
  22. ^ Harry Brind, "Soviet policy in the Horn of Africa." International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs) 60.1 (1983): 75-95. online
  23. ^ Aryeh Y. Yodfat, "The Soviet Union and the Horn of Africa," Northeast African Studies (1980) 2#2 pp. 65-81 online
  24. ^ Diana L. Ohlbaum, "Ethiopia and the Construction of Soviet Identity, 1974-1991." Northeast African Studies 1.1 (1994): 63-89. online
  25. ^ Gary D. Payton, "The Soviet-Ethiopian Liaison: Airlift and Beyond." Air University Review 31.1 (1979): 66-73.
  26. ^ Gebru Tareke, "The Ethiopia-Somalia war of 1977 revisited." International Journal of African Historical Studies 33.3 (2000): 635-667. online
  27. ^ Philip E. Muehlenbeck, "Kennedy and Toure: A success in personal diplomacy." Diplomacy and Statecraft 19.1 (2008): 69-95. online
  28. ^ James N. Sater (2016). Morocco: Challenges to tradition and modernity. Routledge. pp. 135, 188–83.
  29. ^ L. Roberts Sheldon, "Morocco says it's 'at war' with Soviet Union", Christian Science Monitor 6 May 1980.
  30. ^ Rita M. Byrnes, ed. (1997). South Africa: A Country Study, 3rd addition. Federal Research Division, Library of Congress. pp. 272, 322.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  31. ^ Taylor, Ian (2001). Stuck in Middle GEAR: South Africa's Post-apartheid Foreign Relations. Westport: Praeger Publications. pp. 38–39. ISBN 978-0275972752.

Further reading[edit]

  • Albright, David E. , ed. Communism in Africa (Indiana UP, 1980).
  • Botha, Pierre du T. Soviet Perspectives on National Liberation Revolutions in Africa: Theoretical Aspects, 1960–1990 (Pretoria: Africa Institute of South Africa, 1999).
  • Breslauer, George W. Soviet Policy in Africa: From the Old to the New Thinking (1992)
  • Byrne, Jeffrey James. “Our Own Special Brand of Socialism: Algeria and the Contest of Modernities in the 1960s.” Diplomatic History 33.3 (2009): 427–47. online
  • Donaldson, Robert H., ed. The Soviet Union in the Third World (1981)
  • Desai, Ram. "The explosion of African studies in the Soviet Union." African Studies Review 11.3 (1968): 248-258.
  • Ermarth, Fritz. "The Soviet Union in the Third World: Purpose in Search of Power." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 386.1 (1969): 31-40. online
  • Feuchtwanger, Edgar, and Peter Nailor, eds. Soviet Union and the Third World (Springer, 1981).
  • Filatova, Irina. The Hidden Thread: Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era (2013)
  • Ginor, Isabella, and Gideon Remez. “The Origins of a Misnomer: The ‘Expulsion of Soviet Advisers’ from Egypt in 1972.” in The Cold War in the Middle East, edited by Nigel J. Ashton, (2007) 136–63.
  • Gleijeses, Piero. Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959–1976 (2002). online
  • Gleijeses, Piero. Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991 (2013) online
  • Goodman, Melvin A. Gorbachev and Soviet Policy in the Third World" (1990) . online
  • Guimarães, Fernando Andresen. The Origins of the Angolan Civil War: Foreign Intervention and Domestic Political Conflict (2001).
  • Heldman, Dan C. (1981). The USSR and Africa: foreign policy under Khrushchev.
  • James, W. Martin, III. A Political History of the Civil War in Angola, 1974–1990 (1992).
  • Kanet, Roger E., ed. The Soviet Union and the developing nations (1974). online
  • Keller, Edmond J., and Donald Rothschild, eds. Afro-Marxist Regimes (1987).
  • Kempton, Daniel R. Soviet Strategy toward Southern Africa: The National Liberation Movement Connection (1989).
  • Klinghoffer, Arthur Jay. The Angolan War: A Study in Soviet Policy in the Third World (1980).
  • Klinghoffer, David. Soviet Perspectives on African Socialism (1969).
  • Legvold, Robert. Soviet Policy in West Africa (1970).
  • Matusevich, Maxim. "Revisiting the Soviet Moment in Sub-Saharan Africa" History Compass. (2009) 7#5 pp 1259-1268.
  • Mazov, Sergey. A Distant Front in the Cold War: The USSR in West Africa and the Congo, 1956–1964 (2010).
  • Meredith, Martin. The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence (2006).
  • Natufe, O. Igho (2011). Soviet Policy in Africa: From Lenin to Brezhnev.
  • Patman, Robert G. The Soviet Union in the Horn of Africa: The diplomacy of intervention and disengagement (2009).
  • Radu, Michael, and Arthur Jay Klinghoffer. The Dynamics of Soviet Policy in Sub-Saharan Africa (1991).
  • Rubinstein, Alvin Z. (1990). Moscow's Third World Strategy.
  • Saivetz, Carol R., and Sylvia Woodby, eds. Soviet-Third World Relations (1985).
  • Shubin, Vladimir. The Hot 'Cold War': The USSR in Southern Africa (London: Pluto Press, 2008).
  • Stevens, Christopher. "The Soviet Union and Angola." African Affairs 75.299 (1976): 137-151. online
  • Weaver, Harold. "Soviet training and research programs for Africa." (1985). online
  • Weinstein, Warren, ed. Chinese and Soviet Aid to Africa (1975).

External links[edit]