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  • Writer's pictureThe Pendulum

Russia and Mozambique: A Contemporary Case Study

Matthew Ployhart

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons, under Creative Commons 4.0 usage

Russia’s presence in Africa has long-term historical precedent. Although Russian involvement in Africa was slight prior to the Second World War, by the time of the Cold War, their activity on the continent grew tremendously, including via the support of various factions of guerilla independence movements or, later, civil wars. However, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), in late 2023, noted that this influence has extended to modern political and economic matters upon the African continent, which manifests itself through trade to active military aid. Since 2019, Russia has also invited African leaders and heads of state to two Russia-Africa Summits, in an effort to increase cooperation and foster mutually beneficial goals.

Some organizations do purport that Russia holds a decreasing influence in Africa. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes that, “trade volumes between Russia and African nations have fallen since the [summit] in 2019, while the war in Ukraine and Wagner’s activities on the continent have strained political ties.” However, the CFR, as well as other groups, insist that Russia’s influence in Africa is definitely growing, even if much of this growth results from indirect (non-state-driven) activity.

In recent years, for instance, the Russian mercenary group, Wagner (which is closely linked with the Kremlin), has been extremely active on the continent, and the US Department of State’s Global Engagement Center notes that this paramilitary group – which, according to other sources, is also active in Syria and Ukraine – has contributed to the undermining of democracy “in every country where they have worked.” Additionally, official relationships between African countries and the Russian government, according to the CFR, “are modest, but growing,” and Mozambique, a country with longstanding historical ties to Russia and, earlier, the Soviet Union, is but a piece of this puzzle.

Although situated on the south-east coast of Africa, Mozambique today sits rather close to Russia diplomatically compared to many of its fellow African nations. Despite the most recent Russia-Africa Summit in 2023 garnering fewer than half the African leaders it did when compared to that of 2019, Mozambique was not only among those in attendance, but was represented by its own president, Filipe Nyusi, of the FRELIMO party. At a more indirect level, of the dozen or so countries that the aforementioned Wagner paramilitary group has been active in, one of those has been Mozambique, in which Wagner both established a military presence and exerted political involvement in 2019. A separate CFR article, from earlier in 2023, notes that, in this instance, it was “to help fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State in the northern Cabo Delgado province,” albeit only for several months (jihadist guerillas and poor coordination proving to be too obstructive for even Wagner fighters). Russian-affiliated groups have also attempted to influence local Mozambican elections, notably that which occurred before the Russia-Africa summit in 2019, which saw President Nyusi reelected despite concerns of “electoral violence and fraud.”

Russia presents an ongoing security threat to countries in the West, especially as it continues its devastating war in Ukraine and seeks to influence the politics of foreign nations, such as the United States. Such activity, has also negatively impacted Africans, such as by severely reducing grain shipments to countries on the continent as a result of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War. Nonetheless, states such as Mozambique maintain close ties to Russia. Given that African countries form the largest voting bloc within the UN, these ties damage the prospects of a stable, democratic world order.

The current ruling party of Mozambique, FRELIMO, has extensive ties with what was once the Soviet Union. It began as an independence movement fighting the colonial Portuguese in the 1960s and 1970s (FRELIMO itself stands for Frente de Libertação de Moçambique, or, Liberation Front of Mozambique). Like other rebel movements in the Portuguese colonies of Angola, Cape Verde, and Guinea-Bissau, FRELIMO received military, financial, and diplomatic support from the Soviet Union. It is important to note, too, that FRELIMO eventually adopted a Marxist-Leninist ideology which ran parallel to its independence efforts. According to Elizabeth Banks, a researcher at New York University in 2019, “socialism was invoked both as a theory to explain colonialism and as a concrete doctrine of economic development and nation-building that de-emphasized ethnic and regional affiliations.” Within this context, FRELIMO and the USSR were close partners. The Soviets supplied both weaponry and military, technical, and medical training to fighters of the rebel movement.

And the degree to which the average Mozambican participated in this internationalism was often surprisingly large. As Banks notes, “the Soviet and Mozambican socialist regimes were coercive for some but enabling for others; leaders used internationalism as a tool for building state legitimacy and for maintaining state control over their own populations, even as they and other citizens used internationalist practices as a pathways to personal and professional fulfillment.” Though many records relevant to the FREMILO-Soviet partnership either remain classified or were never preserved, much of the data regarding the interactions between the FRELIMO and Soviet authorities exists implies that the extent of the USSRs interaction with FRELIMO was not restricted to military training and arms deals. A Journal of Contemporary History article titled, “Students from Portuguese Africa in the Soviet Union, 1960–74: Anti-colonialism, Education, and the Socialist Alliance,” written by academic Constantin Katsakioris, explores this matter more in depth. They note that, “A major ally of the Marxist-inspired liberation movements, which fought against Portuguese colonialism in…Mozambique, the Soviet Union provided them with not only military [aid], but also civil aid in the form of scholarships.”

Soviet efforts to educate students loyal to FRELIMO in institutions of the USSR were thus widespread, largely because “student training constituted an integral part of the new Third World policy Moscow adopted in the second half of the 1950s,” which extended into the decades that followed, as noted by Katsakioris. This would be especially important to FRELIMO, which required a competent leadership team. In addition to front-lines fighters, they “needed quadros who would assume specific responsibilities, from doctors at the movements' hospitals to political representatives abroad, and would form the nucleus of elites in the future independent states.” However, within this framework, technical expertise was just as important as traditional education (if not more so, in some cases): while students receiving typical political or academic training occasionally questioned the leadership of the Soviets and FRELIMO – or, more drastically, defected to the West – those educated in technical professions could immediately apply their knowledge on the field, notes Katsakioris.

Furthermore, these education initiatives were quite popular among Mozambicans. Katsakioris states that, “young members of the liberation movements…expected the parties to obtain scholarships for them to study abroad. Some youths directly addressed the Soviets to ask for assistance, mobilizing various arguments.” This, combined with the professional milestones that Mozambicans could obtain through cooperation with the internationalist movement (as Banks illustrates), implicated many citizens – whether they knew it or not – in what ultimately amounted to a widespread cooperation between Mozambican liberators and members of post-independent society and the USSR.

Dzvinka Kachur, a researcher from Stellenbosch University, South Africa, recently compiled a report entitled Russia’s Resurgence in Africa: Zimbabwe and Mozambique (the former of these being another country that is relatively close with Russia today, even if not historically). She observes that the impact the Soviet Union had on the independence of both Mozambique and Zimbabwe is evident even in the most standard of state symbolisms (let it be noted that the seal for each country features a Russian Kalashnikov assault rifle). Mozambique’s FRELIMO, in particular, established formal diplomatic state relations with the Soviet Union on the very day of their independence, on June 25, 1975. Kachur states that, “before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, more than 1,500 Soviet specialists were working in defense, healthcare and public service in Mozambique.”

However, developments have slowed down considerably since then. Kachur’s report notes that, regarding current Russian president Vladimir Putin, “…for most of…his leadership, Africa was not a priority.” Putin, over the course of his leadership, has visited few countries in Africa, none of which were Mozambique (the only country in Sub-Saharan Africa that Putin has ever visited, in fact, is South Africa), and not a single Russian leader has ever set foot in Mozambique. For a time, Russia’s interest seems to have been stubbornly focused on internal affairs; that is, until the invasion of the Crimean Peninsula, in Ukraine, in 2014. Facing an onslaught of sanctions from the West (as well as decreasing oil prices), Russia turned to its former African partners once again – including Mozambique. Kachur states that, “since the imposition of Western sanctions, Africa has become the only region in the world to consistently increase imports from Russia.”

 Russia has also been involved in a surprising level of humanitarian effort on the continent (in spite of the many instances of harmful intervention that are also noteworthy). For instance, when Cyclone Idai hit Mozambique in 2019, Russia provided blankets, tents, and food to the country. “Russia is also actively involved in providing African countries (such as Mozambique) with humanitarian aid in areas like food security, public healthcare and the effects of climate change,” Kachur notes, and has been an active player on behalf of African countries in general in the United Nations. The USSR even held the key role in initiating the 1960 UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, a measure that “proclaims the necessity of bringing colonialism in all its forms and manifestations to a speedy and unconditional end and declares that all people have a right to self-determination.”

Due to more recent events over the past decade, it is plausible that the relationship between Russia and Mozambique is continuing to strengthen. President Filipe Nyusi, first elected in 2014, has begun to reignite a relationship that had mellowed to a level of indifference, amplified by the acceptance of market economic policies in both countries – Russia and Mozambique – during the 1990s. As noted by Zitamar News, Mozambique has a lot to gain from turning once again to Russia in recent years. For one, there is the matter of the jihadist insurgency in Cabo Delgado, which threatens local development, and which Mozambique had once hoped Russia could help to solve, such as through the sale of arms (despite the failure of the Wagner mission). Additionally, countries in the West discontinued providing much financial assistance to Mozambique after the uncovering of a major scandal in 2016 (in which bribes were paid to Mozambican officials in exchange for contracts). Mozambique also requires assistance in renovating much of their infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals.

With Russia more isolated from the West in recent years, several Mozambican diplomats, as well as President Nyusi, hope that Russia’s unfortunate position can be used as leverage in Russo-Mozambican negotiations. Mozambique hopes to take “advantage of Russia’s international isolation to win further concessions and support — including, perhaps, weapons that Western donors are reluctant to supply.” Mozambique strives to gain Russia’s favor via acts such as abstaining from votes in the UN to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although the degree to which this tactic of Mozambique will pay off is still unclear, it certainly provides an incentive for Mozambique to continue to engage in a constructive and more involved relationship with Russia, even as they continue to stay neutral on the world stage.

Ultimately, Mozambique's increased engagement with Russia mirrors a larger Africa-wide trend. From similar cooperation between Russia and countries such as the Central African Republic, Zimbabwe, and even more developed nations such as South Africa, to Russian relief and military efforts all over the continent, it is evident that these partnerships continue to be prominent. Mozambique stands as testimony to the possibility of growing Russo-African relationships in a world in which Russia has become increasingly isolated, and in which countries in Africa, as well as developing countries and emerging economies all over the world, deem Western efforts at aid and relief to be insufficient, or incompatible with state goals and aspirations.

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