Russia is aspiring to play a pivotal and influential role in the efforts to combat terrorism in the African Sahel, even as the region is witnessing an increase in terrorist threats, especially after the military coup that ousted Malian President Boubacar Keita on 18 August 2020. On the other hand, France, which leads European and Western efforts, faces increasing challenges in the field of counterterrorism.

Catalysts for the Russian role in the Sahel region

  • Political motives: Moscow seeks the support of African countries for its foreign policy at the United Nations (UN).[1] It also seeks to circumvent European pressure after the annexation of Crimea, and to employ the issue of illegal migration in the region as a political pressure card with the aim of easing European sanctions against it.[2]
  • Economic motives: Moscow seeks to offer its military aid to the countries of the region in exchange for access to natural resources. Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria are rich in oil and gas. Mali and Burkina Faso have gold mines, and many of which are under the control of terrorist organisations in Mali,[3] while Niger is rich in uranium. Civilian nuclear energy corporation Rosatom aspires to enter the uranium market in that country.[4] Therefore, Russian military support is likely to be conditional on acquisition by Moscow of a share of the natural resources in those countries.
  • Military motives: Russia is the world’s second largest exporter of weapons. Exports to Africa accounted for 17 percent of its arms exports during the period 2015-2019. Russia accounts for 37.6 percent of the African arms market, while the US accounts for 16 percent, France for 14 percent, and China for 9 percent.[5] Therefore, Moscow seeks to increase its military sales to the countries of the region. Russia’s state-owned company Rosoboronexport declared 2019 the “Year of Africa”, and concluded arms sales deals with many African countries, especially Burkina Faso, Angola, Mali and Nigeria.[6]

Mechanisms of the Russian role in the Sahel region

  • Signing military and security cooperation agreements with many Sahel countries, especially Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. These agreements allow Russia to offer training, educational and medical programmes for military purposes.[7] For example, the military cooperation deal with Niger provides for cooperation in efforts to combat terrorism, exchange of military and political information, and international security issues.[8]
  • Supporting political currents opposed to the French role in the Sahel region. For example, Russia sponsors Kemi Seba, an African figure popular for his anti-Western views. His ideas generate a public opinion against French influence in the region.[9]
  • The role of the Russian Wagner Group, which is Russia's military arm in Africa. It is active in many African countries, especially Central Africa, Libya and Mozambique. The former Malian Defence Minister General Ibrahim Dahirou Dembele announced during a parliamentary session in November 2019 that Russian Wagner Group had arrived in Mali to provide technical support to the Malian armed forces.[10]

Opportunities for the Russian role in the Sahel region

  • The dilemma of the French role in the war on terror in the region: despite the heavy French military presence (5,100 soldiers), France has not yet been able to stop or reduce terrorist activities.[11] For France to stay capable of countering those organisations, it needs the support of European countries that are still reluctant to support those French efforts.[12]
  • Growing political and popular support for the Russian role in the region: for example, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, President of Burkina Faso, called on Russia to join the international “Partnership for Security and Stability in the Sahel” (P3S). In a statement, Chadian President Idriss Déby stressed that "Russia’s support is vital to strengthening regional stability ... ". Some civil society institutions and political parties, such as the Patriot Group of Mali (GPM), also called for Russian intervention. Thousands of Malians left after the August 2020 coup and demanded a Russian role in combating terrorism.[13]
  • Decline of the US military presence in the Sahel region: the US tends to redeploy its military personnel and focus on specific areas of the African continent.[14] The cost of US support in West Africa is estimated at 45 million dollars a year. The US Department of Defense is no longer interested in spending this money on missions it considers to be outside its strategic focus.[15]
  • Decline of the performance of the European Union (EU) in the face of illegal immigration. Russia is likely to attempt to control the main migration route that crosses the Sahel and North Africa. The increase in the number of migrants causes a new migration crisis, which leads to the exacerbation of political tensions within the EU, which can be politically exploited and employed by Russia.[16]

Challenges of the Russian role in the Sahel region

  • US sanctions that pursue the Russian Wagner Group due to US accusations to it of recruiting mercenaries and sending them to fight alongside Russian separatists in Ukraine.[17] Former US National Security Adviser John Bolton had previously accused Russia of selling weapons to African countries in exchange for a vote at the UN.
  • Some African authorities accuse Moscow of using corrupt methods and techniques to exercise its influence on African countries, especially the role of Wagner Group in concluding tactical deals with government opponents when it comes to securing access to resources.[18]
  • Challenges related to the international competition for resources in the region, especially with China, France and the US, as the region constitutes a historic arena of influence for France (former colonies). While the US tends to reduce its military presence, it continues to maintain military bases in this region, especially the US base in Niger. China may consider the Russian role a threat to its interests and growing influence in the African continent in general, which may cause the emergence of some differences with Beijing and impede the transition of Moscow and Beijing from tactical cooperation to strategic concord in Africa.[19]

The future of the Russian role in the Sahel region

First scenario: the growing Russian role in the region. This means that Russia would head towards sending forces to the region as part of its efforts to combat terrorism, especially in light of the challenges facing the French efforts and the growing political and popular calls within Africa for Russia to intervene in the fight against terrorism.[20] On the other hand, France would seek to avoid showing a reaction to the Russian role in the region, and instead step up its economic and social engagement to offer a distinct model of cooperation.[21] Nevertheless, Moscow faces many challenges to strengthen its efforts and presence in the region, especially in light of its military involvement in Syria, Ukraine, Libya and other countries, not to mention the Russian economic conditions which were weakened by European sanctions after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.

Second scenario: a limited Russian role in the region: this means that Russia would limit its military intervention to providing limited assistance in the field of training and forming special forces to combat terrorism, especially that Russia is aware that France has its own economic interests that it wants to protect in the region and keep competitors away from them. French President Macron warned at the Pau Summit (January 2020) against the intervention of "third countries" in Africa through mercenaries, in a clear reference to Russia. France subsequently proceeded to strengthen its military presence in the region.[22] While there is a will on the part of Moscow to establish a new partnership with Africa, this does not mean that it wants more participation beyond what has already been announced, especially that the Kremlin has not yet responded positively to the call of the Sahel countries to join an international coalition against terrorism.[23]

Conclusion

Russia seeks to exploit the deteriorating security situation in the African Sahel region in order to enhance its security and military presence there. In this context, Russia criticises the failure of Western countries to eliminate terrorist organisations in this region. Regardless of what it says, in fact, Moscow, like other international powers, aspires to obtain an ample share of the oil and mineral resources and wealth that abound in the Sahel region. This means that Moscow will face the challenges of the Western presence which would only allow it to have a limited role. Therefore, Russia’s efforts to increase its influence and role in the African coast are expected to lead to an increase in the policies of international competition in the region as a whole.

References

[1] Jideofor Adibe, What does Russia really want from Africa?, November 14, 2019, available at: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2019/11/14/what-does-russia-really-want-from-africa/

[2] Grey Dynamics, Russia in West Africa: Trying to Replace the West? 30/6/2020, available at:  https://sofrep.com/news/russia-in-west-africa-trying-to-replace-the-west/

[3] Idem.

[4] Samuel Ramani, Russia Takes its Syrian Model of Counterinsurgency to Africa, Commentary, 9 September 2020, available at: https://rusi.org/commentary/russia-takes-its-syrian-model-counterinsurgency-africa.

[5] Steve Balestrieri, Putin is reportedly looking to expand Russia's persence in Africa with new bases in 6 countries, 12/8/2020, available at :https://www.businessinsider.com/russia-reportedly-signs-deals-allowing-bases-in-6-african-countries-2020-8

[6] Paul M. Carter, Jr., Understanding Russia’s Interest in Conflict Zones, Special Report, United States Institute of Peace, July 2020, p.14.

[7] Statement by Vassily Nebenzia, Permanent Representative of Russia to the UN, at the open VTC of UNSC members on Peace and Security in Africa (G5 Sahel), 5 June 2020, available at: https://russiaun.ru/en/news/sahel_050620

[8] Russia to sign military cooperation deal with Niger, available at: https://tass.com/defense/959862.

[9] Grey Dynamics, op. cit.

[10] Redação DefesaTV, Mercenários do ”Wagner Group” presentes no Mali?, 10/12/2019, available at: https://www.defesa.tv.br/mercenarios-dowagner-group-presentes-no-mali/

[11] Sergey Sukhankin: Terrorist Threat as a Pre-Text: Russia Strengthens Ties with G5 Sahel, Terrorism Monitor, Vol. XVll, issue 6, 20/3/2020, p.6

[12] Grey Dynamics, op. cit.

[13] Laurent Ribadeau Dumas, La Russie exerce-t-elle une influence au Mali?, 21/11/2019, available at: https://www.francetvinfo.fr/monde/afrique/politique-africaine/la-russie-exerce-t-elle-une-influence-au-mali_3711387.html

[14] Gey Dynamics, op. cit.

[15] Idem.

[16] Idem.

[17] Kimberly Marten, The GRU, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and Russia’s Wagner Group: Malign Russian Actors and Possible U.S. Responses, July 7, 2020, available at: https://docs.house.gov/meetings/FA/FA14/20200707/110854/HHRG-116-FA14-Wstate-MartenK-20200707.pdf

[18] Łukasz Maślanka, France and the Russian Presence in Africa,17/3/2020, available at: https://pism.pl/publications/France_and_the_Russian_Presence_in_Africa

[19] Samuel Ramani, op.cit.

[20] Grey Dynamics, op.cit.

[21] Łukasz Maślanka, op.cit.

[22] Idem.

[23] Margot Colone, Quelle présence militaire russe au Sahel?, available at: http://gipri.ch/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Quelle-pr%C3%A9sence-militaire-russe-au-Sahel_-.pdf

 

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