How Russia uses fragility in the Sahel region11 min read
In the past three years, six coups d’état have plagued the former French colonies in the Sahel region: two in Mali and Burkina Faso, one in Guinea, and most recently one in Niger. With the exception of Guinea, the ‘newfound’ leaders of these Sahel states turned their eyes to the Russian ‘Private Military Company’ Wagner to consolidate their power, moving away from the traditional regional hegemon, France. Using Wagner as a tool to exert its influence abroad, Russia has severely increased its focus on the Sahel over the past year and started a “charm offensive” towards Sahelian countries. Niger’s recent coup and move towards Russia has been a blow to French state-building attempts that aimed for stabilisation through democracy and the liberalisation of the economy. How is it possible that in Niger, which recently had a successful democratic power-transition and was one of the last Western holdouts, people are now flying Russian flags and anti-French sentiments are growing?
We argue that Russian influence is largely a reaction to previous Western and African failures to build stable states and address the causes of instability in the Sahel, and that the Russian playbook for intervention fits better with the needs of autocratic leaders in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso.
Wagner’s rise in the Sahel
The Wagner group presents itself as a private military company and was founded by the influential Russian businessman Yevgeni Prigozhin in 2014. Originally, former elite soldiers constituted the base of Wagner’s mercenaries, but Prigozhin increasingly recruited prisoners, civilians, and foreigners to expand the group. Although private military groups — in other words, mercenaries — are “technically illegal” under international law, Wagner is largely funded by the Russian government who uses the group to “extend its influence overseas without the visibility and intrusiveness of state military forces.” It is the Kremlin’s tool to get the “dirty work” done and to follow up Russian interests under the radar overseas.
Wagner is active in, amongst others, Mali, Libya, Sudan, and CAR. They work as combat troops against Islamist and other insurgent groups, assure local leaders’ safety, operate as “media specialists (…) to run large disinformation campaigns promoting Russia and denigrating the West,” and extract local resources. Despite propagating to be “on the side of justice and sovereignty,” Wagner troops have reportedly committed widespread human rights violations across multiple African countries. Prigozhin’s recent death spread worries amongst Sahelian leaders as they feared losing support, but Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov immediately reassured them that “Wagner mercenaries will not be withdrawn from Africa.”
Growing fragility and Western failure in the Sahel
The Sahel region, inhabited by more than 300 million people, spans from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea and ranks among the most fragile and poorest regions globally. Climate shocks, chronic insecurity due to conflicts, terrorism, and an environment of impunity erode state legitimacy and social order. For decades, human, arms, and drug trafficking, as well as the illegal extraction and trade of natural resources, have shaped the “illicit trans-Saharan trade.” Large parts of the sparsely-populated and difficult-to-control Sahel are trapped in a constant struggle for state authority, with local warlords holding control where the state authorities cannot. This instability and power-contestation prevents elected governments from meeting the needs of the people and has led to militaries taking governmental control. Since 2020, several coups d’état have left 150 million people under junta rule, infamously making the Sahel “Africa’s coup belt.” Instead of more stability, these developments further intensified grievances, frustration, and “violent insurgencies,” as former state-building initiatives failed to build stable democracies that meet the needs of the people.
It is this fragility that Western state-building approaches tried to prevent in the past decades. Western initiatives have largely been trying to build stable democracies and liberal economies, using Western state models as blueprints. In this context, states were asked to implement ‘modern’ reforms, fair and free elections, a liberal economy, and other pillars of Western democracies. Financial aid and other forms of assistance are usually tied to these reforms. The long-term ambition was to create peace and stability as well as sustainable development in the region. Looking at the current situation, Western state-building can only be considered a failure. The end of France’s military operation “Operation Barkhane,” which failed to defeat Jihadists in the region, largely meant the retreat of Western forces.
Freedom-fighters for Niger’s coupmakers?
Niger is the most recent example of Russia’s role in several Sahelian states. Niger’s “long-running democracy” was overthrown by a coup orchestrated by General Abdourahmane Tchiani. On 26 July, the elected president Mohamed Bazoum and some ministers were detained. Two days later, Tchiani declared himself head of state and leader of the new military junta. In response, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) threatened to intervene militarily and set up a standby force. The West largely responded with condemnation and concern as Niger, a former French colony, is the U.S. and France’s key ally in combating regional terrorism and controlling migration flows towards the European Union. Niger’s army was trained by Western forces and has remained highly dependent on foreign assistance, which were put on hold by Western countries in response to the coup d’etat.
In the light of ECOWAS’ potential military intervention and Western pressure, the putschists searched for other allies to hold on to power. In neighbouring Mali, up to 1,000 Wagner troops have supported Mali’s army since French forces were ousted in 2022. For Tchiani, too, Wagner appeared as a potential “guarantee” to stay in power. Not only did the new leaders turn towards Russia, but protesters on the streets of Niamey also called for Russian support, chanting slogans such as “Long live Putin.” Such pro-Russian demonstrations are grist to the Russian propaganda mill. Pro-Russian sentiments in Niamey were fuelled through propaganda and disinformation on Nigerien events in order for the Russians to strengthen their influence, pave the way for possible intervention, and potentially gain access to Niger’s resources. On pro-Russian telegram channels, content about Niger increased by 6,645% after the coup. Yet, there is no evidence of direct Russian influence behind the coup.
Niger appears to be the latest failure of Western-led state building approaches in the Sahel. Not only is the coup in Niger an existential challenge to the political integrity of the country, but yet another successful coup in the Sahel region could prove inspirational for neighbouring countries. Which means the Niger coup succeeding would pose a threat to leaders across the Sahel and to ECOWAS, vulnerable due to economic and political challenges. The stakes to (re)gain influence in the region are high for Russia and for the West.
Why are the Wagner troops so active in the Sahel zone?
The fragility of Sahel states leaves space for Russian interference, but why does Russia specifically seem to do so well? For Russia, the prevailing fragility, competing powers, and waning influence of the West has become an entry point to look for new partners and avoid geopolitical isolation.
Russia has no qualms about supporting autocratic regimes and provides rather “unbureaucratic support,” using its political, financial, and military capital. For instance, Russia used its permanent seat on the UN Security Council to veto a resolution denouncing the 2019 coup in Sudan. While the West has supported plenty of autocratic regimes, Western countries tend to nevertheless push for democratic reforms and power-sharing agreements. After a coup, the new government can make good use of international support to gain legitimacy. Wagner’s support helps legitimise putschists by finding them an ally with significant international power in Russia, allowing putschists to strengthen their position in the UN and other international institutions.
What makes Russia a game-changer in the current situation?
Firstly, Russia provides support without asking for the implementation of democratic state structures, human rights, and other fundamental components of liberal state-building. Importantly, Russia is not offering an alternative to French state-building, but a hands-off approach that is attractive to African elites not intending to share their power with anyone.
Secondly, Russia is not a historic coloniser in the Sahel, and as such has an advantage when it comes to presenting a compelling narrative in contrast with the West. It allows Russia and Wagner to convey that they support African independence against the “neo-colonialist West.” Furthermore, Russia outsizes Western failures in the region and spreads disinformation. For example, Russian sources claimed that the French ambassador was forced to leave the DRC at gunpoint, giving the appearance of a weak and failing France. Western failures like the above-mentioned Operation Barkhane and longstanding African grievances with Western influence and diplomacy have left the Sahel region open to similar messaging.
Thirdly, Russia has proven to be a ‘reliable partner’ to other groups in the region and beyond, for example in Syria. Wagner troops are an instrument in securing the position of coup-takers and questionable dictators: in unstable situations, 1,000-2,000 armed mercenaries can make a huge difference. A case in point is Niger’s coup generals asking Wagner for help, with their security threatened by a potential ECOWAS intervention.
The future of Russia and Wagner in the Sahel
The demand for Wagner in the Sahel is likely to remain the same or even increase, as the regional power vacuum of local governments is here to stay. Climate change, political, economic, and social insecurity, as well as jihadist movements, are likely to increase fragility in the region. Russia has proven to be a reliable partner for putschists through Wagner and other PMC’s, which allow for plausibly-deniable Russian influence and financial opportunities abroad without engaging its official military force.
However, the Wagner network faces an uncertain future. The death of several of Wagner’s main leading figures in a plane crash in August will likely prove harmful to running the organisation effectively. Whether Wagner will be incorporated into the Russian army or keep its semi-independent character remains to be seen. Other private military organisations could replace or substitute Wagner’s operations, although they will be hard-pressed to reach the full scope of Prigozhin’s ‘empire’ of shady connections, troll factories, and sizable marketing agencies (amongst other things). Another factor is, of course, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has taken its financial, material, and political toll. The Kremlin is likely to prioritise preventing civil unrest and demonstrate unity — meaning the resources Russia can commit to foreign adventures in the Sahel are limited.
Yet, Russian officials have assured that Wagner would maintain its operations in Africa to secure the position of Russian allies even after Prigozhin’s rebellion. After all, the Wagner network has been key for Russian influence and geopolitical strategy beyond Russian borders. In the current situation, Russia needs to find allies and strengthen its economic and political situation, as the West is cutting its ties with Russia. Russia is not shy to use disinformation, violate human rights, and support autocrats, putschists, and other questionable figures to extend its international leverage. Therefore, private military companies, in particular Wagner, have been of great importance.
The cards are being reshuffled: the West needs a new approach
The Sahel has been under Western influence for over a century, resulting in the region being amongst the poorest and most unstable in the world today. The failure of Western state-building to significantly improve this situation has led to anti-Western sentiments amongst Sahelian populations and has helped enable military or political factions to take power by force.
Russia, largely through Wagner, makes use of this situation by providing military support to putschists. It uses anti-colonial and pro-autonomy messaging that is attractive to Sahelian populations. Non-democratic Sahelian leaders can expect support from Russia without pesky demands to pay lip-service to free elections, human rights, or the implementation of power-sharing mechanisms. Putschists can achieve some level of international recognition through Russia. The Western way would be for putschists to go through a long process of Western state-building that might take away the newly-gained power of coup-makers to unlock financial assistance and recognition.
Russia will continue to have an entry-point into the Sahel as Russian foreign policy thrives on instability and the need for foreign forces to keep the peace: or, more accurately, to keep the elite in power. The caveat of Russian influence in the region is the questionable future of Wagner, their primary tool of influence in the Sahel, and Russian preoccupation with their invasion in Ukraine.
New approaches to tackling the underlying long-standing problems need to be considered and translated into efforts to stabilise the Sahel and counter malign influence. While this seems to collide with the fundamental democratic assumptions of the West, Russia or China may offer an alternative to former colonial powers. This alternative does not include state-building mechanisms, but offers support in form of weapons, mercenaries, or credits in exchange for influence or resources. If the West does not reinvent its state-building initiatives, the power cards are likely to be reshuffled. Maybe this time foreign power-struggles will finally give Sahelians more agency in their own state-building processes.