The Wagner factor: Russia's return to Africa

Russians and Malian flags are waved by protesters in Bamako, during a demonstration against French influence in the country on May 27, 2021
8 min read
06 October, 2021
Analysis: Since its intervention in Syria in 2015, Russia has turned its attention to sub-Saharan and Central Africa, seeking to access the region's diamond and gold mines and challenge its geopolitical opponents.

After weeks of speculation, there is now growing evidence that members of the Russian mercenary group Wagner are in Mali.

As with Russia’s deployment of mercenaries in the Central African Republic (CAR), Libya has served as a springboard for Moscow’s military deployment in other parts of Africa.

When it comes to sub-Saharan Africa, public attention in Europe and the West more generally is often minimal, and countries, armies, and proxy forces take advantage of this to protect or advance their interests in the region.

The Sahel area, where France is a former colonial power and a current geopolitical ally of several countries, is one of the most dynamic parts of the world, crucial to the security of the EU and other parts of Africa.

"The Sahel - and in particular, Chad, Mali, and the CAR – provide a particularly good opportunity for Russia to deploy the foreign policy model it introduced in Ukraine and developed in Syria and Libya"

Russia, which has taken a major foreign policy step through its 2015 intervention in Syria, has turned its attention to sub-Saharan and Central Africa with the idea of not only gaining access to the region's diamond and gold mines but also challenging its geopolitical opponents.

The Sahel - and in particular, Chad, Mali and the CAR – provide a particularly good opportunity for Russia to deploy the foreign policy model it has introduced in Ukraine and developed in Syria and Libya, which includes linking oligarchic interests, bringing influence to the Kremlin's security apparatus, and the protection of these gains through mercenary companies such as Wagner.

Russia's interests in Africa have come to the fore in the last few years, especially after the intervention in Syria in 2015 and the entry into Libya’s conflict through support for the forces of Libyan National Army (LNA) commander Khalifa Haftar.

The deployment of military force and military advisers is often preceded by the preparation of public opinion through public events and media campaigns. The Russian African Economic Forum, held on 23-24 October 2019 in Sochi, was presented by the Russian media as a particularly important geopolitical and economic event.

The Kremlin is promoting its role in African countries, which is not only based on arms deals but also on soft power tools such as investment, trade, and cultural exchange. It is no coincidence that Russian diplomats often use history to their public image advantage in Africa - Russia does not have a colonial complex on the continent, unlike Portugal, France, Britain, or Italy.

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When Idriss Déby was killed in an attack by FACT rebels in April, it was reported that they had been trained by Wagner at Libya's Al Jufrah airbase. [Getty]

Paris, the main military force in the region which has led the now soon to end anti-jihadist Operation Barkhane since 2014, is certainly feeling that its interests are threatened.

In the last two years, including during the G5 Sahel meeting in Pau in January 2020, the French leader Emmanuel Macron talked several times with Chadian President Idriss Déby, with one of the topics likely to have been the possibility of a partnership between N'Djamena and Russia.

When Déby was killed in an attack by FACT rebels this April, it was reported that they had been trained by Wagner at Libya's Al Jufrah airbase, which is being used as a main platform for the Russians.

The recent escalation in Chad, the anti-French sentiment following the assassination of Déby, and the takeover of power by the army - whose generals had sent forces to support Haftar just a year earlier – is a warm welcome for Russia and its policies in Africa.

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An analysis of wider regional developments shows that Russian mining concessions and the deployment of mercenaries are related. There are examples in the CAR, and there will probably soon be more in Mali.

The CAR government began extracting diamonds from an area near the capital Bangui in July 2018. These activities are carried out with the help of the company Lobaye Invest, which is owned by the St. Petersburg-based company M Invest. It was founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of Wagner's main financiers.

Both oil in Syria - the subject of interest by Russian companies with links to the Kremlin - and diamonds in the Central African Republic are expensive goods that not every player can get. Many diamonds in the CAR are mined illegally and exported secretly, leading to a partial international export ban.

The development of new mines coincides with the arrival of Russian mercenaries and deals between Bangui and Moscow, as well as the resumption of violence in the country in which Wagner members are actively involved in favour of the embattled president Faustin-Archange Touadéra.

Protesters against Muammar Gaddafi celebrate on 27 February 2011 in Benghazi, Libya. [Getty]
The Wagner group was key to cementing Moscow's influence in Libya. [Getty]

To date, the number of Russian mercenaries in the country is estimated at between 2,200 and 3,000. These events preceded a deal to host about 1,000 mercenaries in Mali, sparking further criticism from France, which is wondering how to leave the Sahel without hurting its interests.

However, according to analysts, France has no fundamental problem with the Russian presence in the region.

“France is fully aware of Wagner’s substantial action in support of both Libya’s Haftar and Syria’s Assad — and Paris has never criticised these actors for their strategic proximity to Russia. That French silence is tantamount to benevolence,” Jalel Harchaoui, a Senior fellow at the Global Initiative who covers North Africa with a focus on Libya, told The New Arab.  The case of CAR is no more than a tactical disagreement between Russia and France, according to the analyst.

Indeed, the Russian mercenary presence in the Central African Republic is not a principal problem for Paris. What is unfolding now between France and Mali is a crisis that has almost nothing to do with Moscow’s recent moves into the Sahel region. Furthermore, there are no signs that Paris is leaving Mali any time soon; it simply wants to re-adjust the format of its intervention there.

Meanwhile, the military-led regime in Bamako wants to assert itself in terms of political legitimacy after the recent two coups d'état in 2020 and May 2021. Moscow has noticed that the rhetoric from the two capitals – Bamako and Paris - is very flattering.

"The Kremlin is promoting its role in African countries, which is not only based on arms deals but also on soft power tools such as investment, trade, and cultural exchange"

In official statements, France speaks of Wagner without saying it is linked to the Kremlin, and Mali speaks of Russia as though it has the capability of replacing France in the Sahel. “Observers have to remain circumspect,” Harchaoui warns, referring to speculation as to whether Russia and France could work together on the ground.

Russia wants to regain its Soviet-era influence in emerging economies, and Russian activity is not limited to the CAR and Mali. Reports about new concessions in countries such as Gabon, Sudan, and Rwanda have also appeared in the media. The Russians have also sent missions with military officers to Nigeria, where there has been no such activity so far.

These military and economic advances were accompanied by a media campaign, with the Russian media becoming increasingly active in covering events in Africa and challenging the continent's European presence.

But against the backdrop of recent events in the Sahel and Central Africa, is there potential for a larger rift? “I doubt that,” Sergey Sukhankin, a Senior Research Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, told TNA.

“France is already in a ‘rift’ with its Western partners that, aside from the so-called Anglophone block, also includes Switzerland,” he said. According to the analyst, given a combination of both domestic problems as well as strenuous ties with its foreign strategic partners, Paris will not seek confrontation with Moscow.

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At the same time, Russia – which is perfectly aware of France's problems – would not opt for a conflict. “I believe that at the end of the day some - temporary - compromise between the two could be found,” Sukhankin adds.

In early October, media reports emerged that Russia had sent military helicopters to Mali. But both Sukhankin and Harchaoui, as well as other international observers, doubt that Moscow could deploy a serious force in the African country.

However, according to news reports in the Russian press, the Kremlin may well use the mission in Mali as an opportunity to officially recognise the existence of Wagner. So far, Moscow has denied any connection to the mercenaries but during a statement on the margins of the UN General Assembly, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov mentioned the deal in Mali. In fact, this was the first official mention of Wagner by a Russian official.

The Russian media has reported that the recruitment of fighters has begun, but it is interesting that candidates from the occupied Crimea and Donbas have been ignored. According to Sukhankin, this could mean that the Russian security apparatus does not trust these types of fighters and will look for specialists for the mission in Mali to avoid possible problems and a negative public image.

According to Harchaoui, Russia aims to create a provocation and an image that it is a threat to Western influence in the Sahel. For now, Moscow is using hybrid tools, rather than boosting its military presence.

Ruslan Trad is the author of 'The Murder of a Revolution' and co-author of 'The Russian Invisible Armies'. His journalistic work is focused on PMCs, Syria, and conflict zones. 

Follow him on Twitter: @ruslantrad