It is now undeniable that Russia has become an influential and dangerous actor in the Sahel, which may be deliberately exacerbating the region’s problems as Sahelian countries struggle to cope with growing political and security crises. What Russia is doing is bad news for sub-Saharan Africans, but also has broader ramifications outside the continent. That said, I want to caution French readers against blaming Russia for the failures of French policy and the dominance of anti-French populist policies in Mali. What the Russians have done is cleverly exploit French failures, the failures of French-backed regimes, and anti-French sentiment already present in the Sahel. Sentiment for which France shares much of the responsibility after a long history of post-colonial interventions, not to mention colonization itself. Awareness of Russian influence should not distract French leaders and the French public from introspection about their own mistakes, and the sometimes destabilizing effects of French actions, even those with the best of intentions. One such mistake, directly related to Russian influence, is the failure to consider the full extent of hostile opinions spread across the region and their significance. As far as I know, French efforts to counter them and engage seriously in a battle of narratives have always been haphazard, to say the least.
Russian Activities in the Sahel
Russia’s main line of action in the Sahel has been influence operations exploiting social media. Russia has also used the Wagner Group as a decoy and tool, while deploying an older form of influence in the form of advisors with direct access to key leaders. The latter has been relatively well documented in the case of the Central African Republic, where Russian individuals associated with the Wagner Group are known to be close to and likely to have influence over the president of that country. In the case of Mali, there is speculation, particularly regarding Mali’s Minister of Defense, Colonel Sadio Camara, who studied in Moscow and is known to be particularly close to the Russian government. However, compared to the Central African Republic, the evidence of Russian influence on the Malian junta remains largely circumstantial.
Russian information operations in the Sahel have been well documented by several French and American studies. They involve the use of Facebook and WhatsApp, as well as Russian state media outlets such as Russia Today and Sputnik, to generate and distribute content. The content produced tends to reinforce key discourses that denigrate France and the West in general, as well as French-backed regimes, while promoting certain forms of populist politics. These discourses include arguments that France is to blame for the country’s misfortune; that nothing would have happened if France had not brought down Muammar Gaddafi; that France is seeking to divide Mali; that France is complacent toward Tuareg separatist groups; that France is not serious about fighting terrorists; and that France is even helping terrorists. Finally, France is said only to be in the Sahel to steal its natural resources.
These views have found an enthusiastic audience in the Sahel, notably among a public that finds it difficult to understand how the security situation could have deteriorated so much despite nine years of French military operations, the presence of thousands of UN troops, not to mention the European Union’s training missions. Of course, given their colonial history and that of multiple post-colonial French interventions, many of which have served French interests more than those of local populations, Sahelians and other West Africans have other reasons to distrust France. The fact that Operation Barkhane is fundamentally different, at least in intent, is an argument that can be made – I make it all the time – but it is a difficult argument to make to a skeptical audience. Even pointing out that French companies play little to no role in the exploitation of Mali’s mineral wealth has little impact on those convinced otherwise. (On this point, it is interesting to note that Mali’s commercial mining sector is in fact dominated by Canadian companies.) Anti-French sentiment combined with traditional pan-Africanist and anti-imperialist themes constitutes a powerful ideology. In the classical Marxist sense of the word, this refers to a belief system that aims not only to explain why things are going wrong, but also to justify existing power structures. In this case, it enables one to reject blaming oneself or one’s own governments. In short, everything that happens is not the fault of Mali, its authorities, or its elites.
There is circumstantial evidence of another possible aspect of Russian influence operations. Wagner’s arrival in Mali in late December was accompanied by a change in the substance and tone of the Malian regime’s messages and diplomacy. Malian officials, particularly Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop and Transitional Prime Minister Choguel Maïga, but also the Malian military, have been significantly more aggressive in their messages and interactions with Mali’s Western partners. This includes France, of course, but also the United States, as when Diop responded to AFRICOM’s allegation that Mali was paying Wagner $10 million a month by questioning the credibility of the U.S. government, referring to its 2003 claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. This rhetoric is motivated, in part, by inflammatory statements made by President Macron and the French foreign minister. But when combined with what appears to be a concerted propaganda effort by the Malian armed forces to encourage the belief that they have accomplished far more in recent operations than they did prior to the 2020 coup, one can see the outlines of a comprehensive strategic communications plan. Of course, the Malians themselves are capable of devising such a plan, but there is no denying that such things are a Russian specialty and, more specifically, a specialty of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s empire.
Wagner’s presence in Mali, unlike in the Central African Republic, remains shrouded in ambiguity. The government still insists that Wagner is not in the country, while paradoxically promoting the idea that Russian assistance is already making a significant difference on the battlefield. Indeed, the ambiguity is useful, because in the absence of clear information, the scale and value of Russian involvement have been greatly exaggerated in the popular imagination. Wagner arrived in Mali at the end of December 2021. According to several sources, their strength on the ground is said to be around a thousand. Present in Timbuktu and in Bamako where they maintain a rear base, some have joined the Malian military in reconnaissance operations in central and southern Mali, specifically in the regions of Koulikoro, Mopti and Segou. They have already suffered some casualties, and a few may have been taken hostage by the al-Qaeda affiliated jihadist coalition known as JNIM (Jamāʿat nuṣrat al-islām wal-muslimīn). Interestingly, most analysts, including myself, assumed that Mali paid for Wagner by granting it sweetheart deals on mineral deposits (a practice Wagner has used in other countries). However, to date, there is no known link between Wagner and existing mining licenses in Mali. The Malian mining sector is sufficiently well governed that the issuance of mining permits is easily observable: if there were an agreement (or if there is one in the future), it would be easy to find a paper trail. The available evidence indicates that Mali is paying in cash out of its own funds.
Why Partnering With the Russians Is Bad for Mali
While there is, in theory, nothing wrong with enlisting the support of another provider of security assistance, turning to Russia comes at the cost of weakening the country’s bilateral relations with France and its other Western partners (notably the United States and the many members of the European Union who contribute to French military operations, European Union training missions and the United Nations mission in Mali, MINUSMA). This might be an acceptable price to pay (setting aside the fact that French, European and UN operations are free, while Mali pays the Russians) if Russian aid equaled or exceeded the combined French and European efforts in effectiveness or simply offset cuts that France and its allies might make in the weeks and months ahead. This, however, is a fantasy.
Simply put, it is a matter of mathematics: It is impossible for a few hundred Russian mercenaries to do a better job than several thousand French and European soldiers supported by French military aircraft and drones. Moreover, Wagner has been credibly accused of numerous human rights abuses in the Central African Republic, where it has targeted members of the Fulani ethnic community in particular. There was every indication that such abuses would be repeated in Mali. Unfortunately, MINUSMA, Human Rights Watch, and Le Monde have linked Wagner to abuses committed by Malian armed forces against civilians, most recently the massacre of more than 200 people in Moura in late March 2022. These reports are increasingly validated by testimony that Wagner personnel were involved in the deaths of several civilians, as were Malian forces. This is not without consequence: abuses committed by either Malian security forces or government-allied militias have indeed contributed greatly to the radicalization of Malian communities. This is certainly the case for the Fulani in central Mali, where the government and government-allied forces target them for collective punishment, driving more of them into the arms of jihadist groups. In other words, Wagner contributes to insecurity in Mali more than it promotes security.
Comforting Bad Governance
The issue of human rights abuses is linked to a larger problem. Deploying Wagner reflects a desire for a quick fix that will solve Mali’s security problems while avoiding addressing the multiple demographic, economic, environmental, political and social problems that fuel the insurgency, not to mention the Herculean task of security sector reform. It has been a habit in Mali for at least as long as the country has had a terrorism problem (i.e., since the early 2000s) to try to cut corners and find easy solutions. The belief that somehow Russian aid will make a significant difference absolves the junta from providing real solutions to the country’s problems. Ironically, the reliance on Russia perpetuates the problem often decried by anti-French critics, that Africans are too dependent on foreign powers and that they are giving up their own agency.
Currently, this belief in the magical powers of Russian aid emboldens the regime and the Malian public in its confrontation with France, Europe and ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), particularly with regard to the length of the transition period and the holding of elections. There is a feeling that Mali cannot only afford to ignore its Western partners and ECOWAS, but that it will be better off without them, thanks to Russia. The Malian junta has clearly found in its anti-French rhetoric and defiant posture a very simple way to secure popular legitimacy at the expense of developing effective policies to secure the country and defeat jihadism.
Fueling a Counterproductive Policy at the Regional Level
At the same time, the anti-French populist policy promoted by Russia has found an echo throughout the region. As demonstrated by the demonstrations in Burkina Faso and Niger in late 2021, when the movement of French military convoys was blocked. Surprisingly, according to press reports, the demonstrators were convinced that the purpose of the convoys was to deliver weapons to the jihadists. In addition to posing a serious problem for the French military, which relies on ground transportation for troop movements and logistics, the wave of anti-French sentiment is putting significant pressure on the governments of Burkina Faso and Niger, both of which work closely with the French military. Indeed, after Burkina Faso’s coup in January 2022, more than one analyst has identified Niger’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, as the next to fall. Bazoum certainly needs France, but he is walking a tightrope. As for Burkina’s new strongman, Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, he seems to be sticking to his country’s alliance with France, but his grip on power remains fragile. He must also quickly demonstrate that he can turn Burkina Faso around. A lack of progress or even the perception of a lack of progress in the coming months will undoubtedly fuel discontent, which will likely be expressed in anti-French sentiment. We can count on Russia to facilitate such a development.
Russia’s calculated involvement in the Sahel is undoubtedly complex, and it is difficult to estimate the relative weight of Moscow’s many potential motivations. One of them may be the most trivial of all: money. Wagner, despite its ties to the Russian government, is primarily a private company linked to an oligarch. The growing global competition for strategic minerals cannot be ruled out either. In addition to gold, Mali is rich in bauxite, copper, cobalt, lithium and uranium. Mali also has geographical features that suggest possible oil and gas deposits, although there has been little serious effort to identify them and none to exploit them. Lithium in particular looks promising. The Australian company Firefinch, in partnership with the Chinese lithium giant Ganfeng, has been investing in southern Mali since last year and is involved in the construction of a large future lithium mine.
However, Russia may have other motives. One possible motivation would be to destabilize the European Union by stimulating migration from West Africa, or at least sabotaging European efforts to prevent further migration by stabilizing the Sahel. This is, after all, one of the main reasons why Europeans are present in the Sahel, and we have already seen evidence in Syria of Russia’s willingness to instrumentalize migrants against Europe. Russia is accused of bombing Syrian communities to motivate residents to leave the country. It is also accused of trying to influence the migration flow in Libya against Europe. The migration movements of recent years have revealed the EU’s weaknesses on this issue and their corrosive effects on the internal political life of member states, with the resulting “crises” favouring far-right parties in Europe, which are generally anti-NATO, pro-Russian and sometimes even Russian-sponsored.
Another possible motive would be to undermine France’s efforts to promote a unified European defence and security policy, motivated by Russia’s hostility to the European Union. France has clearly wanted to Europeanize the conflict in the Sahel, in part to ease the burden on its military. However, France also has used the conflict as an opportunity to pursue its goal of promoting a European security policy in line with French interests. In doing so, Russian actions in Mali are straining the coalition that France has put in place and threaten to derail the project.
Russia now has a strong hold on the Sahel, especially on the popular imagination of local populations. It has achieved this at remarkably low cost, mainly through information operations conducted via social media. This influence is detrimental to France, of course, but especially to the Sahelian countries themselves, which are increasingly under the sway of unproductive populist policies. Any state has the right to change its patron if it wishes, and the populations have the right to associate with whomever they wish. However, in this case, the choice of Russia is more than doubtful, given the Russian motivations and their lack of consideration for the interests of the populations in question. If there is room for speculation about possible Russian gains, there is little to speculate about the real winners of this policy pursued by certain regimes in the Sahel: the jihadist groups of the Sahel.
French readers should remember, however, that a full appreciation of the importance of Russian influence should not encourage them to take comfort in the idea that French failures are simply due to Russia. On the contrary, an analysis of the weaknesses that Russia has so skillfully exploited would be most appropriate.
The original version of this text was published in French on Le Rubicon. Check it out here!