FOR years militias affiliated with al-Qaida and IS have exploited porous borders and large swathes of ungovernable land to terrorise the Sahel region and Central African countries. This toxic mix of volatility, terrorism, poverty and weak states in parts of Africa has given Russia opportunities to make inroads in the continent. Having failed to effectively combat terrorist groups on their own, some local state and non-state actors in the Sahel and Central Africa have embraced the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian mercenary force linked to the Kremlin, as a security partner.
The Wagner Group joined Libyan putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar during his April 2019 offensive on the capital Tripoli and as many as 2,000 Russian mercenaries remain in the country. The private military company also operates in Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, the Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan, Sudan, and allegedly Burkina Faso too. Organisations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) have documented the mercenary group’s human rights abuses in the CAR, Mali and elsewhere.
Russia’s soft power push
Moscow has capitalised on longstanding African grievances toward their former Western European colonisers to push a narrative about Russia representing an alternative power that counters French influence in Africa. ‘The Russians are trying to step in where France has withdrawn and trying to establish themselves as a dominant actor in West Africa by capturing states and building alliances with isolated military regimes. This is good (from Moscow’s perspective) because it undermines French claims to neo-colonial influence in West Africa,’ Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said.
Some African states have leveraged their relationships with Moscow to assert independence from the West. Against the backdrop of hardening anti-French attitudes in the Sahel, it is not uncommon to see pro-Russia rallies in Bamako, Ouagadougou and elsewhere in the region.
Moscow’s interests in these African countries have much to do with Russia’s grander geopolitical aims and desire to advance its revisionist agenda while revamping great power competition. ‘Russia frames its support for juntas that are anti-Western at a time in which its defending sovereignty in West Africa and resisting Western neo-colonialism,’ according to Ramani. ‘Having a strong foothold in West Africa cements the image of Russia as a continent-wide great power at a time in which its global influence and military power are under threat.’
Great power competition is ‘one area where I believe Moscow is interpreting things correctly and the West, especially the United States, is wrong,’ Colin P. Clarke, the Soufan Group’s director of policy and research, said.
US President Joe Biden has spoken about drawing down Washington’s equities in the Sahel to be repurposed for great power competition with Russia and China. But the Kremlin recognises that Africa is a hot spot in jostling between near peers and is clearly determined to allocate sufficient resources to compete.’
Nonetheless, some experts warn against exaggerating the Wagner Group’s influence in Africa. Russia’s footprint on the continent challenges Western interests, but ‘the narrative surrounding Wagner in sub-Saharan Africa is inflated,’ the International Crisis Group’s Enrica Picco said in an interview. ‘Wagner has not deployed sufficient financial resources nor mercenaries in sub-Saharan Africa to reverse the balance of power.’
Undermining the West’s efforts
While Russia’s geopolitical interest in establishing itself as a world superpower is undeniable, Moscow’s presence in sub-Saharan Africa is mostly linked to the country’s need and interest in resources. Russia has seized economic and commercial opportunities through bilateral agreements with local governments and helped local actors where the West refused.
There are many reciprocal benefits for Moscow stemming from the Wagner Group’s activities on the continent. The Russians are accessing manganese, oil, bauxite, diamonds, gold, chromium and uranium in the Sahel and Central Africa in exchange for the Wagner Group’s services.
While heavily sanctioned by the West since February 2022, these economic opportunities are increasingly central to Russia’s agendas in Burkina Faso, Mali, Sudan and other African countries as Moscow continues funding its war machine in Ukraine and working to weather the West’s financial warfare. Russia’s plundering of Sudan’s gold to finance Moscow’s war in Ukraine is a case in point.
Beyond the economic factors, stronger relationships with African countries help Russia counter the West’s agenda aimed at isolating Moscow on the international stage. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s recent Sahel tour, which included stops in Mali, Mauritania and Sudan, highlighted the extent to which these countries still consider Moscow an important partner notwithstanding Western efforts to make Russia a pariah for its invasion of Ukraine. Mali being one of only seven countries to vote against last month’s UN General Assembly resolution calling on Russia to leave Ukraine spoke volumes about Moscow’s strengthening partnership with Bamako and growing influence in the Sahel more broadly.
US and European officials view the Wagner Group’s operations in Africa as a threat at a time in which NATO’s southern flank is somewhat exposed and post-Cold War tensions between the West and Moscow are at an all-time high. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell declared, ‘The Wagner Group’s activities are a threat to the people in the countries where they operate and the EU.’
On February 26, the EU announced new sanctions against the Wagner Group for its human rights violations in the CAR, Mali, Sudan and Ukraine, targeting seven entities and 11 individuals with asset freezes and travel bans.
A concern for Western policymakers pertains to Moscow’s ability to leverage its influence in Africa via the Wagner Group in ways that can create problems for Southern European countries, given that NATO’s southern flank remains relatively understaffed in terms of both personnel and maritime forces compared to its eastern flank. Operation Sea Guardian, a maritime security operation not bound by Article 5, is the only operation the alliance oversees in the Mediterranean.
‘North Africa (Libya) and the Sahel (are) Europe’s soft southern underbelly, wherefrom Moscow can spill instability in addition to what Russians do on the East (Ukraine, Balkans or Syria),’ Petr Tuma, a visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Centre, said.
Russia is known for fomenting unrest in key countries for its own benefit. The Wagner Group can fuel instability in the Sahel and Central Africa in various ways (transnational terrorism, illegal trafficking of persons, cyber threats, maritime security challenges, etc.) that threaten EU security.
‘In countries where Wagner is already embedded, such as CAR or Mali, we can only wait for the ripe moment when the local population will understand that Russia didn’t bring either stability nor investments,’ said Tuma. ‘Europe’s focus now should be on countries with a risk of Wagner’s engagement, such as Burkina Faso. We must be more active in countering the disinformation, learn from our faults in Mali, offer governments the support they need … and at the same time let the solution be truly nation and region driven.’
Other experts similarly assess that the Wagner Group is not poised to be a driver of long-term stability in volatile parts of Africa. ‘There is little expectation, based on past performance elsewhere on the continent, that Russia will succeed in helping Sahelian states rid themselves of militants,’ Cameron Hudson, a senior associate with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Africa Programme, said.
Yet, it does not appear that the West has good options for countering Moscow’s clout in the Sahel and Central Africa. ‘Washington and its allies have a stark choice,’ explained Hudson. ‘They can either actively push back against Russian inroads and risk a new Cold War or sit back and say, “I told you so,” when Russia ultimately withdraws, leaving even more fragile states. In either scenario, western interests are hurt.’
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy
Alissa Pavia is the Associate director for the North Africa Programme within the Rafik Hariri Centre & Middle East Programmes at the Atlantic Council