The Congolese student who chose to fight on the side of pro-Russia separatists

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Fighting alongside pro-Russia separatists as part of Moscow’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine wasn’t mentioned in the brochures of Luhansk University when Jean Claude Sangwa, a 27-year-old student from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, moved to the breakaway region last year to study economics.

But when the head of the Kremlin-controlled, self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic announced a full military mobilisation of the region on 19 February, Sangwa, together with two friends and fellow students from DRC and the Central African Republic, decided to join the local militia and take up arms against Ukraine.

“I joined because the war came to our republic. What should I have done? I am a man and have to fight,” Sangwa said in broken Russian. “The whole world is fighting against Russia,” he added when asked why he had decided to join the militia.

Sangwa moved to Russia two years ago to study in Rostov, a city close to the Ukrainian border and then moved to Luhansk, which had been captured by separatists backed by the Russian army in 2014.

There is a long tradition of Africans studying in Russia, beginning from when the Soviet Union started offering scholarships to African students in newly independent socialist and communist states in the post-colonial period.

Between the late 1950s and 1990, about 400,000 Africans studied in the Soviet Union. While the numbers decreased significantly after the fall of communism, Vladimir Putin recently said more than 17,000 Africans were currently enrolled in Russian universities.

Shortly after joining the Luhansk militia, Sangwa was sent into combat and spent two months fighting. During that time, many of his African friends assumed that he was dead and posted goodbye messages on his social media accounts.

Three days after the war started, on 27 February, Sangwa’s photo was posted online by Find Your Own, a Telegram channel created by the Ukrainian internal affairs ministry to identify captured and killed soldiers. The post said Sangwa had been killed by Ukrainian forces alongside another African soldier.

“The Ukrainian enemy found my military ID card and said I was dead. I am alive, as you can see,” Sangwa said. He is currently back patrolling the streets in Luhansk as a member of the militia.

Pro-Russia forces drive past a destroyed residential building in Popasna, Luhansk
Pro-Russia forces drive past a destroyed residential building in Popasna, Luhansk, in May. Photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

There is no evidence that apart from Sangwa and his two friends, more African soldiers have been sent to Ukraine. But while Sangwa’s story is unusual, his pro-Moscow sentiments and opinions about who is responsible for the war are mainstream in large parts of Africa.

“Certainly, the west likes to think that sanctions have isolated Russia globally,” said Paul Stronski, a senior fellow and specialist on Russia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “And they did when it comes to the transatlantic community and wealthy Asian nations. But in the eyes of the rest of the world, and particularly the African continent, Russia isn’t that isolated.”

For many years, Stronski said, Moscow has been cultivating ties with African leaders, and in 2019 Putin hosted the first Russian-African summit, attended by the leaders of 43 African nations.

“Many on the African continent now believe the conflict is driven by Nato expansion, by reckless western policies,” Stronski said.

According to Stronski, some of Africa’s support for Russia can be explained by anti-western sentiments stemming from the legacy of European colonialism. Russia has been accused of amplifying those grievances ​​through disinformation campaigns on the continent.

“In Africa, the west has also been accused of double standards, caring more about Ukraine and its refugees than it does about other tragedies unfolding in Africa and across the world,” Stronski added.

Some of Putin’s most enthusiastic supporters since the start of the war have been pan-Africanists – advocates of the doctrine of African unity and anti-imperialism.

Putin just “wants to get his country back,” Kémi Séba, a prominent Franco-Beninese pan-Africanist, said in early March. “He doesn’t have the blood of slavery and colonisation on his hands. He is not my messiah, but I prefer him to all the western presidents.”

Similarly, a leader of the Nigerian community in Moscow told the Guardian that most Nigerians there were sympathetic to Russia. “The issue is complicated, but the west pushed Russia to do this,” he said.

A pro-Russia rally in Bangui, Central African Republic, in March
A pro-Russia rally in Bangui, Central African Republic, in March. Photograph: Carol Valade/AFP/Getty Images

Beyond issues of morality, Russia has gained a foothold in Africa through developing defensive alliances, supplying weapons to authoritarian leaders with no strings attached and presenting itself as an ally against armed insurgents.

Several African leaders, most notably South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, have openly said they believe western efforts to expand Nato contributed to the war.

Even though African nations are likely to be disproportionately affected by the impending global food crisis owing to their strong dependence on Russian and Ukrainian wheat, some African leaders have shifted the blame for food shortages and price rises on to the west, parroting Russia’s narratives.

On Friday, during a meeting with Putin in Sochi, Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, the current chair of the African Union, blamed EU sanctions on Russian banks and products for worsening the problem and steered away from criticising Russia’s actions, including its blockade of Ukrainian ports.

Despite its political clout in parts of Africa, Moscow has not yet indicated an intention to recruit soldiers from the continent or other places to bolster its forces, even though reports have emerged that Russia is facing a shortage of infantry.

Kremlin officials were quick to play down reports that several hundred local men in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, had gathered outside the Russian embassy in April hoping to fight in Ukraine.

Nevertheless, pro-Kremlin voices have embraced Sangwa’s presence in Luhansk as a sign of the growing military ties between Russia and Africa.

On 31 May the Telegram channel WarGonzo, led by the popular Russian propagandist Semen Pegov, posted a video of Sangwa in full military gear patrolling in Luhansk.

“It is not just our Wagner guys in Congo,” Pegov said, referring to the notorious, Kremlin-linked, private military group that has propped up authoritarian leaders in Mali, the Central African Republic and Sangwa’s home country, DRC. “Now our Congo guys are also in Luhansk.”

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