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HomeGeopolitical CompassEurope, Russia, OceaniaLiberal Intervention’s Renewed Crisis: Responding to Russia’s Growing Influence in Africa

Liberal Intervention’s Renewed Crisis: Responding to Russia’s Growing Influence in Africa

Author: Katja Lindskov Jacobsen and Karen Philippa Larsen

Affiliation: Department of Political Science at University of Copenhagen and Danish Institute for International Studies

Organization/Publisher: International Affairs

Date/Place: January 23, 2023/ UK

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Number of Pages: 20


Keywords: Russia’s Influence in Africa, liberal Interventionism, Strategic Vacuum, Mali, Central Africa Republic


The article examines the phenomenon of international competition among major powers in areas where liberal intervention clashes with Russian presence. The authors argue that conventional interpretations of the “vacuum” concept fail to explain certain aspects of this competition. According to traditional understanding, when a great power withdraws from a region, another great power seeks to fill the void. This explains Russia’s presence in various parts of the world, such as Mali and the Central African Republic, as Russia steps in to fill the gaps left by diminishing interventions by other powers, particularly liberal ones. The authors introduce a new approach called “the logic of the great power vacuum” to explain the consequences and effects of strategic voids. The article also highlights instances of pragmatic coexistence between Russian and liberal actors, as seen in Mali and the Central African Republic, which poses a theoretical challenge.


The main idea of the article centers around the necessity to understand the logic of the great power vacuum, the need for liberals to acknowledge the shortcomings of their approach, and how this understanding will enable Russia to exploit anti-colonial sentiments and security vulnerabilities in liberal approaches to Africa. The article calls for a shift in the previous crisis response strategy, suggesting that instead of retreating and allowing Russia to fill the vacuum, a completely opposite approach should be adopted. This involves identifying the specific voids that Russia seeks to fill and formulating appropriate interventions accordingly. The introduction presents two key concepts: first, the constitutive results of the logic of the great power vacuum, highlighting how liberal interventionists’ unity in countering Russia’s influence in Africa is shaped by their shared goal; second, a warning against misconceptions about the Russian presence and the different types of voids that Russia may seek to fill compared to those left by liberal interventionists.


Methodologically, the article relies on two approaches: content analysis of letters, documents, reports, etc., and interviews conducted with various actors in liberal intervention, including advisors, military personnel, intelligence agencies, and Russian representatives. 


The article is divided into three sections. The first section discusses the theoretical framing of dominant interpretations of intervention as a practice. It starts by using post-structuralist analytical vocabulary to offer an alternative understanding of how liberal interventionists in Africa perceive Russia and analyzes their political discourse to grasp their view of the “external other.” It also draws from literature on intervention practices to examine the disparities between rhetoric and action. Additionally, the section explores longstanding African criticisms of liberals, highlighting how they disregard African agency and the security priorities of African actors. This section is divided into two parts:

  • Destabilizing Dominant Representations: This part explains how post-structural analysis sheds light on the contradictions inherent in the liberal interpretation of Russia’s presence in Africa. It examines the “double and differential ethics” in the political discourse of the United States and France, where they warn against Russia’s presence as an “external party,” while simultaneously being present in Africa themselves and serving as an “external party” to Africans.
  • Contradictions and Shortcomings: Interference and Assumptions about Practice and Agency: This part addresses the overall limitations in interpreting the Russian and liberal presence in Africa while recognizing the significance of interventionist practices. It presents examples of pragmatic coexistence, such as the European Union Training Mission (EUTM) and Russia in the Central African Republic, where Russia provided weapons that the mission couldn’t supply. These examples help to understand the gaps between liberal rhetoric and on-the-ground-practices.


The second section explores how the logic of the great power vacuum contributes to the formation of a liberal interventionist society while highlighting its deficiencies. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States and the European Union began framing the participation of “other actors” in Africa within the context of great power competition. The problem lies in liberals exclusively attributing competition to the logic of the vacuum, assuming forces seek to fill strategic voids on the continent. However, they overlook the real reasons that attract these forces despite being considered “external others” to Africans. This section consists of two parts:


  • Two Deficiencies: This part identifies two shortcomings in the liberal approach. First, liberals fail to recognize the role of African actors in shaping the modalities of intervention, disregarding the agency of the host country. Second, liberals have a flawed understanding of the concept of “vacuum,” limiting it to spatial emptiness and failing to consider other dimensions. They assume that liberal and non-liberal actors cannot operate in the same space, ignoring how illiberal actors coexist with liberal intervenors.
  • Background of the Liberal Intervention Crisis: This part highlights how liberal interventionists perceive illiberal actors as the “external other,” shaping the unity of the liberal interventionist society by contrasting themselves with characteristics attributed to illiberal actors like Russia. However, this logic also implies that liberal intervention is associated with democracy and human rights, which presents temporary and fragile limitations, demanding liberals to prove their sincerity.

The third section of the article delves into the contradictions inherent in the logic of the vacuum while explaining the Russian presence in Africa. The authors provide empirical evidence from the cases of Mali and the Central African Republic to substantiate the shortcomings mentioned in the previous section. In the case of the Central African Republic, pragmatic coexistence is observed between Russia and liberal actors, challenging the assumption that liberal and non-liberal actors cannot collaborate. For instance, Russia delivered weapons to the Central African Republic when the European Union’s embargo prevented the mission from doing so. In Mali, the liberal presence faced difficulties due to its failure to account for the host country’s role in inviting outside parties. This highlights another shortcoming of the liberal approach, neglecting the agency of Africans and the host country in shaping intervention scenarios.


In conclusion, the article highlights two main points. Conceptually, the logic of the great power vacuum suffers from two shortcomings: the spatial understanding of the vacuum and the inability to explain pragmatic coexistence between liberal and illiberal interventionists. However, this logic also unifies the liberal position, as any vacuum filled by illiberal interventionists threatens the interests of liberals as a whole. Practically, the case studies of Mali and the Central African Republic demonstrate that the Russian presence in Africa is not solely a result of liberal absence or the decline of the United States and the European Union. Additionally, increased Russian presence does not imply the absence of space for Russia. Therefore, the logic of the vacuum, based on misleading assumptions, has proven inadequate in explaining the phenomena discussed in the article. The authors propose that liberal interventionists alter their perspective on intervention by considering the views of host countries, addressing their security concerns, and improving the lives of the local population. This approach entails paying attention to Russia’s actions and preventing the creation of alternative voids. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that different types of strategic vacuums require tailored responses in diverse contexts, as exemplified by the cases of Afghanistan and Africa, where China, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia are also present alongside Russia.

By: Dr. Nabil Kahlouche, Strategic Researcher



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