Foreign Affairs
Russia’s Growing Influence in Africa

Russia’s recent rise in Africa, following the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, has raised concerns about the future of Wagner Group’s African projects. Russia’s behavior appears to be competition with the West, with potential clashes with Ukrainian special forces in Sudan, diplomatic and intelligence operations in Burkina Faso, and alleged US strikes on Russian aircraft in Libya. Russia is also targeting jihadist forces in Mali.

However, maintaining this level of competition is challenging, as Russia must simultaneously conduct offensive operations in Ukraine and contend with Islamist militant groups in the Sahel who have recently turned their anti-Western rhetoric on Russia.

Burkina Faso, which was expected to be the next base for Wagner operations after the 2022 military coup, has seen the arrival of twenty Russian military personnel late last year. However, Russia’s deployment directly competes with French and other Western operations in the region.

The recently arrived Russian military personnel are alleged to be members of the Russian military intelligence services (GRU), which aligns with the recent arrest of four French nationals working as computer technicians on espionage charges.

The arrival of GRU units near these arrests suggests some Russian involvement in these operations. The Africa Report claims that French intelligence maintained support operations for Burkina Faso’s National Intelligence Agency amidst the withdrawal of French military forces, but the Russian arrival appears to have severed this discreet relationship.

Russian activity in Burkina Faso is an evolution of Wagner tactics used against French forces in Mali, demonstrating the Kremlin’s ever-shifting presence in Africa. In Burkina Faso, Russians have shifted their approach from a private sector, “corporate” model to a more statist one, targeting French security assets rather than a more nebulous shift in public opinion.

Recent airstrikes in Libya suggest an increasing political temperature, with a Russian Ilyushin Il-76 transport plane hit by a drone strike and satellite imagery found burning at al-Joufra, a base belonging to the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Heftar. Experts disagree on the attacker, with French RFI and Italian Nova claiming an American drone conducted the attacks.

The Wagner Group’s attacks and statements suggest a militarized Western response to African activities, with the US dissatisfied with Libya’s status and Kremlin’s use of Libya as a transportation hub.

In Mali, Wagner Group and the Kremlin have bitten off more than they can chew, with Wagner-led formations taking the town of Kidal, previously occupied by Western security forces, in violation of the Algiers Agreement of 2015, which gave Tuareg groups autonomous rights in the region.

Jihadist groups in Mali are shifting their focus from France to Russia, with Iyad Ag Ghaly, leader of al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), announcing a new stage of campaigns against Sahelian governments. Wagner Group, a miscreant army, has been criticized for its actions, with a 69% share of its total targeting activities targeting civilians. The group has also introduced booby-trapping in Mali for the first time.

JNIM forces damaged a Wagner Mi-8 helicopter, causing its destruction. Wagner Group’s presence in Mali cannot be guaranteed long term and will be tied to Mali’s government payment. If jihadist and Tuareg separatist groups prioritize combat against Wagner Group and government forces over internecine warfare, the Kremlin may find this deployment too bloody and expensive to maintain.

Canadian and Australian mining companies operating in Mali’s gold mines indirectly pay Wagner Group’s salary through taxes. Russian authorities plan to become more involved in the country’s mining sector through exploitation agreements and the establishment of gold processing plants to solidify Russia’s gold demands.

As the civil war in Sudan continues, Ukrainian special forces have become a significant factor in the conflict. Russian forces, belonging to the Wagner Group, allegedly facilitated a convoy of military vehicles illegally into Sudan to support the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) faction. On September 6, alleged Ukrainian drones targeted six RSF vehicles on the Shambat bridge between Omdurman and Khartoum.

On October 6, 2023, X social media accounts circulated footage of alleged Ukrainian snipers operating in the Al-Markhiyat mountains against Wagner Group and the RSF. This unconfirmed involvement in Sudan could signal an international expansion of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine appears interested in fighting Russia and its proxies, regardless of location, and has not denied these attacks.

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