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Zimbabwe-Russia Relations: From Historical Legacies to Contemporary Security and Mineral


In June 2022, I authored an article clarifying that the U.S. Office of Security Cooperation in Zambia “is not to be confused with a U.S. military base.” Despite this clarification, questions about U.S.-Zambia security cooperation continued to surface. To address these concerns, I wrote a follow-up piece on African non-commissioned officer training in which I detailed the role of the U.S. Office of Security Cooperation in Zambia. This piece included insights from a briefing with U.S. Marine Corps, 4-Star General and Commander of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), Michael Langley. General Langley emphasized, “This is just an office with a desk with a very capable officer manning that desk. His mission is to keep deepening our long-term bilateral security relationship between the United States and Zambia,” and clearly said, “No, there are no plans to establish a U.S. base in Zambia.”

Amidst this background, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa recently expressed his discontent to Russian President Vladimir Putin, underscoring the complex geopolitical landscape in which Zimbabwe navigates its international relations. There are some factors in the origins of some attributes in Zimbabwe-Russia foreign affairs behavior that warrant consideration.

Historical overview

Zimbabwe’s foreign policy is rooted in its colonial history and struggle for independence. The country, formerly Rhodesia, gained independence in 1980 after a long liberation war. Robert Mugabe, a key figure in this struggle, became the first leader of independent Zimbabwe.

Mugabe’s nearly four-decade rule was marked by authoritarianism and human rights violations, including the Gukurahundi massacres targeting the Ndebele population. The country’s coat of arms, featuring a Russian Kalashnikov AK-47 rifle, symbolizes the transition from war to independence.

In the early 2000s, a controversial land reform program led to economic decline and instability. While the program was intended to address historical injustices, it resulted in widespread chaos, economic decline, hyperinflation, and numerous deaths. Emmerson Mnangagwa, who succeeded Mugabe in 2017 following a military coup d’état, has continued the pattern of authoritarian rule and economic mismanagement.

With regard to Crimea, in 2014, on Russia’s actions on the Black Sea “Territorial integrity of Ukraine,” Zimbabwe was one of 11 countries that voted against the United Nations text.

This history has significantly shaped Zimbabwe’s contemporary foreign policy and domestic governance.

2. Zimbabwe-Russia Ties

Russia and Zimbabwe share a multifaceted relationship that spans several decades, deeply rooted in historical ties, strategic interests, and mutual political support. This relationship has evolved significantly, particularly in the post-Cold War era, as both countries seek to navigate the complexities of global geopolitics and economic challenges.

2.1 Historical Links

The foundation of Zimbabwe-Russia relations was laid during Zimbabwe’s War of Liberation. The Soviet Union supported Zimbabwe’s fight against colonial rule by providing military training and supplies to Zimbabwean liberation movements. This support established a legacy of solidarity and cooperation between the two nation-states.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia inherited these historical ties and continued to foster relations with Zimbabwe. The legacy of Soviet-era assistance remains a point of diplomatic reference, helping to solidify a bond that extends beyond mere economic or political interests.

2.2 Strategic Partnership

The Zimbabwe-Russia strategic partnership focuses on military cooperation, economic ventures, and political alignment against Western hegemony and sanctions. Zimbabwe relies on Russia for security support, including advanced equipment like Ansant light helicopters, to bolster security even if it faces no external threat against its sovereignty. Economically, the partnership is showcased through numerous agreements, particularly in mining, with Russian investments boosting Zimbabwe’s mining sector, exemplified by projects like the Darwendale platinum mining. This collaboration strengthens Zimbabwe’s strategic image and economic resilience amid international pressures. One additional and significant aspect of this partnership is the mutual opposition to Western hegemony and sanctions, which both nations view as instruments of political and economic coercion. The security relationship is strategic, aimed at bolstering Zimbabwe’s image as strong.

On economic ventures, at the 2019 Kremlin meeting of the two leaders—self-identified by the Government of Zimbabwe—as “aimed at consolidating and solidifying” Mnangagwa’s Second Republic foreign policy, nine Memoranda of Understanding and Agreements were signed: on agriculture, education, fertilizer, infrastructure, investments, mining; diamond and platinum, trade, and rail. Russian companies have invested heavily in Zimbabwe’s mining sector, leveraging their expertise and capital to exploit these resources. Notable projects that have received media attention include the Darwendale platinum mining venture, a joint initiative that underscores the essence of economic symbiosis between the two countries.

2.3 Multipolar World and Diplomatic Engagement

Mnangagwa as a key speaker, addressing Russian-watcher audiences, on stage with President Vladimir Putin, is very much about the optics for both leaders to project an appearance that, rather than being weakened, that they are growing in influence—from the authoritarian world to the democratic world. Mnangagwa’s presence at SPIEF24 alongside Putin signals a strategic move towards a multipolar world order, aligning with Russia’s anti-Western dominance agenda. This diplomatic engagement reflects Zimbabwe’s aim to diversify partnerships amid strained relations with the West and economic challenges. Both countries advocate for a balanced global power distribution, evident in Mnangagwa’s speeches and meetings, which emphasize resistance against perceived Western interference. These diplomatic efforts not only strengthen bilateral ties but also project a united front on the global stage, showcasing Zimbabwe’s desire for integration into the Eurasian economic sphere. This is not new.

In 2019, besides his 3-day official visit to the Russian Federation, his Eurasia Tour included Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. This in turn, highlights a dependency on Russia, contrasting with Mnangagwa’s rhetoric of promoting a multipolar world.

2.4 Challenges and Opportunities

While the Zimbabwe-Russia relationship may appear robust, it is not without challenges. Yet, despite challenges, Russia’s strategic interests in Zimbabwe’s critical minerals and the broader African continent motivate continued engagement.

Moreover, the strained relations between Zimbabwe and Western countries, particularly the United States, complicates the landscape. The U.S. sanctioning, that targets Mnangagwa for corrupt practices and human rights violations, are a key factor in his rhetoric to Putin. The now evolving, strategic partnership with Russia, offers Zimbabwe an alternative pathway for economic development and security cooperation. By aligning with Russia, Zimbabwe is trying to leverage what it perceives as Russian expertise and resources to mitigate some of its economic challenges and enhance its regional influence. Beyond these challenges and opportunities, there at least two specific aspects of this relationship—security cooperation and critical minerals—which help our conceptualization of the contemporary geopolitical dynamics at play.

3. SADC Security Dynamics

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, comprising 16 member states, faces a myriad of security challenges that have significant implications for regional stability and development. These challenges range from internal conflicts and terrorism to political instability and economic disparities. Understanding the security dynamics within SADC is crucial for comprehending Zimbabwe’s strategic choices, including its close ties with Russia.

3.1 SADC Security Challenges

In the SADC region, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Mozambique face internal conflicts threatening regional stability. Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province suffers from violent extremism causing significant humanitarian crises and displacement. The DRC struggles with armed violence, including religious jihadist violence, in its eastern provinces. The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) has withdrawn from South-Kivu, with its mandate ending on December 20. The East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) also exited, leaving the DRC without peace as armed violence escalates. These domestic issues demand regional cooperation and external support. In December 2023, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (SAMIDRC) was deployed there.

The rise in terrorist activities is a major concern. In Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, jihadist assaults linked to international terrorist networks have prompted regional and international responses. SADC member states deployed the SADC Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) to help combat the insurgency, emphasizing the importance of collective security efforts. A phased drawdown of troops is set to complete by July 15, 2024, with South Africa extending its forces until December 31. However, peace remains elusive in Cabo Delgado, and incoming SADC chairperson Mnangagwa will inherit these security challenges.

One of the most pressing threats is the Islamic State Mozambique Province (ISIS-M). According to MEMRI’s Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM), issue 445 of the ISIS weekly Al-Naba’ magazine, released on May 30, detailed ISIS-M’s activities in May. ISIS-M claimed responsibility for several armed operations, including a raid on Macomia on May 10, capturing and later executing a Mozambique Defence Armed Forces soldier.

Ahlu Sunna wa Jama (ASWJ), a Sharia law armed group—aka ISIS-M, designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S.—was recognized as an ISIS-affiliate in 2019. Since 2017, ISIS-M has killed at least 2,148 people, see Figure 1. As retrieved on June 10, 2024, from the Global Terrorism Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC, 2024)’s statistical data—Global Record of Incident Database (GRID)—24% of the time, blades were the go-to weapon. Perpetrators are skilled in swinging a category of melee-type fighting weapon; a machete, at the victim. A machete attack weapon type is used for beheading, chopping, executions, hacking, slashing, or stabbing that non-combatants cannot make a clean dodge. Out of all incidents between 2017 and 2023, a weaponized, sharp blade was used.

Figure 1: Tactics: ISIS-Mozambique methods in incidents, 2018-2023. Source: GTTAC Global Record of Incident Database, 2018–2023

3.2 Zimbabwe’s Security Concerns

Zimbabwe’s security concerns stem from both internal and regional dynamics. Internally, political instability, human rights abuses, and economic challenges, exacerbated by the government’s harsh approach to dissent and corruption, undermine social cohesion and heighten security concerns.

Regionally, instability in neighboring countries like Mozambique and the DRC impacts Zimbabwe. Strategic alliances, especially with Russia, are driven by the need to enhance global perception and secure security agreements.

3.3 Military Cooperation

Zimbabwe’s close ties with Russia include significant military cooperation, including participation in military exercises. In contrast, many SADC member states, including Angola, Botswana, Malawi, South Africa, and Zambia, engage in military exercises and defense cooperation with the United States. These engagements enhance their military capabilities and strengthen ties with the U.S., highlighting diverse security alignments within the region. For instance, Angola sought Oshkosh Defense vehicles, Botswana co-hosted the 2024 African Chiefs of Defense Conference with U.S. Africa Command, and Zambia hosted the AFRICOM Senior Enlisted Leader Conference. South Africa participated in the U.S. Army Southern European Task Force Africa (SETAF-AF) Exercise Shared Accord held in KwaZulu Natal, in 2022.

In August 2022, Zimbabwe participated in military games organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense, alongside Eurasian countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Venezuela, and Vietnam. During the games, Zimbabwe’s battle tank went “off track” in a competition.

4. Mnangagwa’s Remarks

At the St. Petersburg event and also at the Constantine Palace, Mnangagwa expressed to Putin a sense of isolation, noting that he “feels lonely” on the international stage, particularly due to Zimbabwe’s strained relations with Western powers. His remarks on what he described as the “consolidation of power” by the US further underscore his critique of the current unipolar world order. These statements have elicited varied responses from global actors, with some expressing solidarity and others reinforcing existing geopolitical divides. He expressed appreciation for Putin and criticized the U.S., Malawi, and Zambia, in particular. These remarks reflect Zimbabwe’s strategic alignment with Russia and its stance on multipolar world order. There are reactions from different stakeholders.

4.1 Putin’s Response

Putin expressed optimism about deepening bilateral ties and cooperation between Russia and Zimbabwe. He emphasized the historical relationship between the two nation-states and highlighted the potential for collaboration in various sectors, including energy, mining, and defense.

Putin’s remarks underscored Russia’s interest in strengthening its presence in Africa, particularly in strategic regions like Southern Africa. He acknowledged Zimbabwe’s strategic importance in the region and welcomed Mnangagwa’s efforts to enhance economic and political ties between the two countries.

Additionally, Putin’s response reflected Russia’s own broader geopolitical strategy of expanding its influence and partnerships across Africa, aligning with its vision of a multipolar world order. He emphasized the need for diverse and mutually beneficial partnerships to counterbalance perceived hegemonic tendencies, indirectly referencing the United States’ influence in global affairs.

This means that Putin’s positive response to Mnangagwa’s visit signals Russia’s continued willingness to engage with Zimbabwe and other African countries in fostering closer diplomatic, economic, and strategic relations.

4.2 From a U.S. Lens

The view from the U.S. is one that emphasizes the importance of democratic governance and human rights. A U.S. Department of State spokesperson with deep familiarity of U.S-Africa partnerships told me, “The United States has been and will continue to be a reliable partner with the people of Zimbabwe. Our more than $5 billion in health, humanitarian, and development assistance since Zimbabwe’s independence has rehabilitated health clinics, provided lifesaving medications, and now has helped families make ends meet during this devastating drought, adding that “We are making good on our commitment to support the health and prosperity of Zimbabwe’s 16 million people. We would like to do more with Zimbabwe, but progress requires reform. We will continue to urge the Government of Zimbabwe to take meaningful steps toward more open, accountable, and democratic governance, including addressing corruption, so all Zimbabweans can prosper.”

Another perspective reiterated its stance on concerns the Biden administration may have on improved Zimbabwe-Russia defense and foreign policy ties. A State Department spokesperson said, “Russia – and its Wagner Group and other linked entities – manufactures and exploits insecurity to expand Russia’s presence and malign influence on the African continent, threatening stability and good governance, stripping countries of their natural resources, and abusing human rights in the process. Also, disinformation is one of the Kremlin’s most important and far-reaching tools to destabilize and otherwise exert malign influence on other countries, including in Africa.”

Consider: What role do lithium and other critical mineral resources play in President Biden’s approach to the US-Zimbabwe relationship?  One June 12, a State Department spokesperson said:

“Zimbabwe has abundant resources that could be more sustainably used to support its social and economic development priorities.

The United States government is always interested in building mutually beneficial economic relationships, but our longstanding concern with human rights abuses and corruption in Zimbabwe remain.

We continue to urge the government of Zimbabwe to adopt reforms that will attract responsible business investment that adheres to high environmental, social, and governance standards.  We hope that they are able to seize these types of opportunities to the benefit of the Zimbabwean people.

We support U.S. business exploring potential investment in Zimbabwe’s critical minerals sector, but ultimately, U.S. companies make their own decisions, independent of the U.S. government, on where to invest and do business.  We know that transparent and predictable business practices play an important role in private sector decisions.

The success of business endeavors for a few investors does not produce Zimbabwe’s economic prosperity – that depends on good governance, rule-of-law, and human rights. The human, social and environmental costs of a poorly managed and regulated mine can far outweigh any revenue it generates in taxes or jobs created,” said a State Department, June 12, 2024.”

4.3 Implications for Zimbabwe’s Foreign Policy

Mnangagwa’s remarks and their responses impact Zimbabwe’s foreign policy significantly. Aligning closely with Russia places Zimbabwe within a specific geopolitical camp, potentially limiting its engagement with Western countries and influencing its domestic policies.

Regionally, Zimbabwe’s relations with neighbors could be affected by Mnangagwa’s criticisms. Diplomatic responses from countries like Zambia highlight the need for Zimbabwe to maintain constructive dialogue to ensure regional harmony and cooperation.

Moving forward, Zimbabwe must balance its strategic alliances with the need for regional stability. The significance of critical minerals in the Zimbabwe-Russia relationship and their broader implications for global geopolitics also play a crucial role in shaping Zimbabwe’s foreign policy.

5. Zimbabwe’ Critical Minerals

Zimbabwe’s wealth of critical minerals positions it as a significant player in the global mining industry and adds a crucial dimension to its international relations. This makes it important to explore the role of critical minerals such as cesium, tantalum, platinum, zinc, and nickel, examining their economic significance and their impact on Zimbabwe’s geopolitical strategy, particularly in its relations with Russia and other major global powers.

5.1 Significance

Zimbabwe’s mining sector is a cornerstone of its economy. The country’s rich deposits of various minerals have attracted considerable international interest. According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Mineral Commodity Summaries 2024 (USGS MCS, 2024), key minerals such as platinum, nickel, and tantalum are essential for numerous high-tech and industrial applications, including electronics, aerospace, and defense industries.

Tom Sheehy, a fellow…



Read More:Zimbabwe-Russia Relations: From Historical Legacies to Contemporary Security and Mineral