Abuja, Nigeria – Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine has upended geopolitical and trade relations around the world, from buying military hardware to increasingly expensive wheat and oil.
But for Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, there is an added dimension given its military relationship with all the major players, especially Russia.
Historically, the two countries have explored areas of defense cooperation and arms trade. One of the subplots of the long Cold War era was that during Nigeria’s 30-month civil war that ended in 1970, the Soviet Union extended its military assistance.
Just last year, Abuja signed an agreement with Moscow for the supply of military equipment, personnel training and technology transfer.
The result of this agreement has since become increasingly visible, given the acquisition and use of Russian-made combat and transport helicopters like the Mi-35M and Mi-171E, two variants of export of Russian Mi-24s and Mi-8s for military purposes. operations in Nigeria.
But since Russia invaded Ukraine, the gains of the relationship may erode.
The West has responded to the crisis by deploying deadly military support, including anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles, to NATO countries close to Ukraine, such as Poland. A barrage of sanctions has also been directed against individuals and entities in Russia. On March 24, the United States announced sanctions against several Russian defense industrial companies, including some whose weapons are used in the invasion.
The new financial sanctions and restrictions, which align with previous actions and those taken by the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada, are designed to have a profound and lasting effect on the Russian defense sector.
They will prevent Russia from gaining access to advanced technologies and will inevitably disrupt supply chains and production, especially for targeted defense companies such as Russian Helicopters JSC.
This, in turn, will affect their ability to provide effective maintenance support and additional aircraft to overseas customers, including the Nigerian Air Force.
The Nigerian military is currently grappling with persistent internal conflict on multiple fronts, including uprisings in the northeast by Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), banditry in northwest as well as increasingly violent separatist rebellions in the southeast.
It also fights against maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, one of the most dangerous maritime routes in the world.
Without its supply of Russian weapons, Nigeria’s firepower will fall seriously behind.
A broken supply chain
Russia is the second largest arms exporter in the world, behind the United States.
Between 2017 and 2021, it was notably Africa’s largest supplier, accounting for 44% of major arms imports to the continent, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which tracks the trade. arms international.
Its 2021 report reveals that Nigeria received weapons from 13 suppliers during the same five-year period, including 272 armored vehicles from China, seven helicopter gunships from Russia, three combat aircraft from Pakistan and 12 combat aircraft. lighters from Brazil via the United States.
Over the past decade, Russian rotary fighter and transport aircraft equipped with modern technological systems and sensors have become a vital part of Nigeria’s bid to expand the combat capabilities of its air force.
But the delivery of more Mi-35M gunboat units suitable for close air support missions has already been marred by controversy. In 2019, Nigeria’s ambassador to Russia hinted at a brick wall in the supply chain – a fallout from pre-existing sanctions.
Two years earlier, the United States had signed the CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) aimed at piercing the arms export pipeline after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, involvement in the war Syrian civilians and interference in the 2016 US presidential elections.
In its 2022 budget, the Nigerian government has made provision for the periodic maintenance of the depot and the upgrading of three older MI helicopters. The Mi-24V and Mi-35P variants are known to be used by the Air Force.
A few years ago, Russian Helicopters JSC released upgrades for the Mi-35P variant, including an improved sighting system, digital flight control system and night vision goggles.
These would be perfect for Nigeria’s counter-insurgency operations against increasingly sophisticated armed groups within and around its borders. But the flood of new sanctions targeting the Russian defense sector is creating obstacles to Nigeria’s upgrade plans.
Belarus formed the AFSF
The sanctions also extend to Russia’s ally Belarus, which continues to support Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
This support could jeopardize military cooperation between Nigeria and Belarus, which in 2014 hosted the formation of Nigeria’s elite tactical unit, the Armed Forces Special Forces (AFSF). The AFSF was created as part of the overhaul of the Nigerian military’s response to the growing threat from Boko Haram.
There have been rumors of other planned deployments but nothing has been confirmed except for a visit by the head of one of the Nigerian Civil Defense Corps and senior officials from the Ministry of Home Affairs to Minsk last August.
Ukrainian tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers
The war is also depleting Ukraine’s ability to manufacture and export military hardware, which could also hurt Nigeria.
Between 2014 and 2015, Nigeria acquired Ukrainian military equipment, including T-72 tanks, D-30 artillery and BTR-4EN armored personnel carriers, before turning increasingly to China to get assets.
All of this could push Abuja to find new markets for alternative helicopters capable of fulfilling similar roles as effectively as its Russian helicopters, requiring further investment to build technical capacity and support infrastructure.
Yet there may be other political obstacles.
Last July, the bipartisan US Senate Foreign Relations Committee halted plans to sell 12 AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters and accompanying systems worth $875 million to Nigeria, amid concerns about the government’s human rights record.
Nigeria’s information minister denied knowledge of the situation, but his foreign affairs counterpart, Godfrey Onyeama, was more open. “We have a slight problem with some attack helicopters, but it’s more on the legislative side than on the executive side,” Onyeama said during a meeting last year between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. and Nigerian officials in Abuja.
The short- and long-term effects of the invasion of Ukraine and the continued stream of sanctions offer new opportunities for collaboration with Nigeria, once renowned for its professional military standards and willingness to engage in international missions. peacekeeping across Africa.
For now, it could also mean an increase in the arms trade with China – the world’s fifth-largest arms exporter – given the reluctance of the West, despite differences in quality, operationality and support. technical.
In 2019, General Stephen Townsend, then a candidate for Commander of US Africa Command (AFRICOM), informed the US Senate Armed Services Committee that China had provided Nigeria with armed unmanned aerial systems to improve its counter-terrorism capabilities, but the poor quality contributed to their infrequent use.
But the following year, the Nigerian Air Force acquired a number of drones including the Chinese Wing Loong II drones which resembled the American MQ-9 Reaper drones. While the MQ-9 Reaper would cost $30 million, the Wing Loong II would cost between $1 and $2 million.
These drones are notorious for not having the sophistication and technical capacity of their western counterparts but without too many choices, African countries could soon turn to them.
China’s relatively affordable and accessible military hardware could easily attract countries like Nigeria and Sahel states looking for alternative markets to acquire assets.