Malians hold a photograph with an image of Colonel Assimi Goita, leader of Mali's military junta, and Russia's flag during a pro-Malian Armed Forces (FAMA) demonstration in Bamako, Mali, May 28, 2021. (Reuters Photo)

Russia’s Wagner Group in Africa: Growing concerns of the West

By Giorgio Cafiero – Alissa Pavia

Malians hold a photograph with an image of Colonel Assimi Goita, leader of Mali’s military junta, and Russia’s flag during a pro-Malian Armed Forces (FAMA) demonstration in Bamako, Mali, May 28, 2021. (Reuters Photo)

The West does indeed face a stark choice when it comes to the Wagner Group’s activities in Africa but in either scenario, it is likely that Western interests would be hurt to some extent

For years militias affiliated with al-Qaida and Daesh have exploited porous borders and large swathes of ungovernable land to terrorize 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. Organizations 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 capitalized on longstanding African grievances toward their former Western European colonizers 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 “The Russians are trying to step in where France has withdrawn and trying to establish themselves as a dominant actor in West Africa by capturing states and building alliances with isolated military regimes.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.”

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