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Russia’s Growing Footprint in Africa’s Sahel Region

The war in Ukraine has not stopped Russia’s activities in Africa. Over the past year, the Wagner Group, in particular, has taken advantage of France’s and other Western countries’ worsening relations with Sahelian states.

Published on February 28, 2023

Despite Russia’s military struggles in Ukraine, Moscow has not cut back its ambitions in the Global South. Over the past year, Russia has doubled down its focus on Africa’s Sahel region, a troubled part of the continent that spreads roughly from Senegal to the Red Sea. Through the infamous Wagner mercenary group, Moscow is inserting itself in countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso and is taking advantage of Western policy missteps, growing anti-European sentiment, and longstanding failures of international and local actors to address the root causes of regional instability.

While Moscow’s proxies in Africa garner a lot of attention, its influence across the continent is neither particularly wide nor deep. Nonetheless, with violence spreading in the Sahel, Washington has expressed concern over Moscow’s growing presence there. The Joe Biden administration, however, has few practical options to push back.

Why Is the Sahel Unstable?

Although rich in resources, the Sahel suffers from a long history of political instability, armed rebellions (especially in Mali and Niger), and bad governance. Since gaining independence in the 1960s, countries in the region have faced challenges of state- and nation-building. These countries inherited governing institutions and redefined territories that have proven difficult to manage.

Islamist insurgency groups control large parts of the region and fight against government forces and local populations for its resources. Civilians are often caught in the middle. Despite long-standing international and regional efforts to combat insurgents, these groups continue to expand their presence across the region. Traditional anti-terror campaigns have failed to stop the violence.

Meanwhile, a humanitarian crisis is growing. In January 2023, the head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel warned that armed conflicts have worsened human suffering and forced millions to flee. Roughly 2.7 million people have been displaced and 1.6 million children are malnourished, according to UN estimates. Russia’s war against Ukraine has further exacerbated food insecurity in a region where climate change and war already threaten local agriculture. Multiple military coups have occurred in the region since 2020: two each in Burkina Faso and Mali, one in Chad, and another in neighboring Guinea.

Regional and international mechanisms—such as the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)—have failed to prevent instability from spreading. MINUSMA’s mandate is narrow, focusing on efforts to support the implementation of a peace and reconciliation agreement in Mali and to provide security for UN officials working in the country. ECOWAS pushes regional integration and democratization, efforts that appear at odds with the conflicts that have engulfed several countries. The organization has also tried to mediate internal political crises and support peace operations in the region, but these efforts have largely been in vain. 

In 2013, France—the Sahel’s former colonial power—took a traditional anti-terror approach to the region when it launched Operation Serval in Mali. The campaign was initially seen as a success, but the follow-on Operation Barkhane, which began in 2014, had a much larger mandate for the Sahel overall.

At its peak, the Barkhane deployment totaled approximately 5,100 troops, which was hardly enough to prevent the spread of jihadist control and retain strong support for the campaign among regional governments and publics.

Especially in parts of Burkina Faso and Mali, essential services (including healthcare and education) have collapsed, and some of the bloodiest fighting in recent years occurred in 2022. As insurgent violence takes its toll on local populations and their plight worsens, public anger increasingly and understandably is directed at France.

How Have Relations Declined Between the West and Mali and Burkina Faso?

Political instability has given rise to increasingly repressive regimes that have caused friction between several governments of the Sahel and their international or regional partners. The relationship between Paris and Bamako, for example, sharply declined following back-to-back military coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021. Local resentment of France’s brutal colonial history has further exacerbated tensions. After a decade of failed anti-terror and stabilization efforts, France withdrew its forces from Mali in August 2022.

Like Mali, Burkina Faso is engulfed in violence. Its government only controls about 60 percent of the country’s territory, and violence continues to spread. Like in Mali, back-to-back coups in 2022 caused the country’s ties with France to spiral downward. Anti-French sentiment is also deeply entrenched, and protests against Paris are common in Ouagadougou, where the new military leadership asked for the withdrawal of the French ambassador in December 2022. The following month, the Burkinabe government called on France to pull all its forces from the country.

Ties between the United States and both countries have also worsened. Following the coups, the Biden administration suspended the countries’ free trade access to U.S. markets. Large-scale human rights issues also triggered laws that prohibit the provision of U.S. military or training assistance to countries of concern. While U.S. officials have expressed alarm about the Wagner Group’s presence in the Sahel, the administration appears neither inclined nor able to provide any alternative security assistance.

ECOWAS also has been on the receiving end of protests in both countries, stoked at least in Mali by the government. The organization sanctioned Mali in early 2022, although it lifted the sanctions after the military regime committed to a twenty-four-month timetable to return to civilian rule. It is working with the Burkinabe government to facilitate a similar transition but has struggled to make headway.

MINUSMA faces an uncertain future in Mali. At least 180 MINUSMA peacekeepers have been killed in action over the past nine years. Armed groups, including extremist organizations, local military forces, and the Wagner Group, now impede MINUSMA’s ability to operate and move around Mali to protect UN personnel, its primary mandate. The international community appears hamstrung in its efforts to address worsening violence.

How Has Russia Gotten Involved?

So far, Russia has invested minimal time and funding in Africa. But it is still steadily making inroads in various countries. Its presence delivers good publicity that undermines Western attempts to isolate Russia. To be sure, Russia’s track record is mixed. It has had most success in internationally isolated and deeply troubled Sahelian states, and it has struggled to make inroads in several African democracies.

Nevertheless, Moscow has proven that it knows how to take advantage of governance shortfalls, instability, and security vacuums in Africa.

For example, after brokering an exemption to the UN Security Council’s embargo on supplying arms to the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2017, Moscow quickly sent weapons and military trainers from the Wagner Group to that country. Prior to the Russians’ arrival, CAR had been under France’s strong political and military influence for decades, although that relationship failed to help Bangui make significant progress in terms of stability, security, and economic development. Moscow exploited Paris’s decision to withdraw its forces from CAR in 2017 at a time when armed groups remained active and held large parts of territory. However, Wagner support since France’s pullout has helped consolidate the current CAR government and prevented rebel groups from extending their control. Wagner’s entry into CAR was clearly an opportunistic move by Russia to exploit France’s failures and the favorable context for a new security interlocutor. Today, Wagner is the Kremlin’s most important proxy in CAR; it provides security for the government, facilitates Russian political and diplomatic influence, and has gained access to lucrative mining assets. Despite Russia’s increased presence, large-scale violence continues in CAR and the humanitarian situation for vulnerable civilians remains dire.

Moscow is now taking advantage of a similar alignment of opportunities in the Sahel. It has embraced the military regimes in both Mali and Burkina Faso, providing them with security assistance, diplomatic backing, and information operations support. Russian military advisers arrived in Mali in late 2021 after the country’s second military coup. Primarily through the Wagner Group, Moscow has provided the country with a four-hundred-strong contingent of mercenaries to combat jihadist groups. In mid-2022, it delivered arms shipments. However, Mali’s security situation continues to deteriorate, and the insurgency is spreading.

The government in Mali does not officially recognize Wagner’s presence in the country, but growing evidence of Russian mercenary activities and atrocities has made clear that Wagner or a similar Russian group is active there. In spring 2022, Wagner and local military forces orchestrated an anti-terror operation in the country that killed about four hundred civilians. Civilian casualties in the country have risen disproportionately since Wagner’s arrival, following clear patterns of the group’s violence against local populations in CAR, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine.

U.S. officials have expressed concern that Wagner seeks to replicate this modus operandi in Burkina Faso, where anti-French and pro-Russian sentiment have grown over the past five months. With France having pulled its remaining troops from the country by late February 2023, Burkina Faso is left with a choice. Will Ouagadougou establish a privileged relationship with Russia in which the Wagner Group is the key component of Russian activities? The mercenary group is certainly counting on that, looking for new opportunities and incentives to promote its services. Today, the extent of Russian activities in Burkina Faso remains unclear, but Ghana’s president has expressed alarm that Wagner forces are operating in the country.

In addition, African, European, and U.S. officials have warned that the Wagner Group is expanding into Chad. Located in a strategic position in the center of the Sahel, Chad has relatively open borders with CAR, Libya, and Sudan, where Russian mercenaries are also active. Wagner has purportedly provided material and operational support to local rebels seeking to destabilize and possibly oust the government of Chad’s interim president, Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno.

U.S. Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Richard M. Mills recently raised concern that Russian mercenary activities stoke human suffering in the Sahel without addressing the true causes of instability: poor governance, broken institutions, years of displacement, and the proliferation of armed groups. He argued that greater international focus should be on mitigating the Sahel’s growing humanitarian catastrophe, addressing governance shortfalls, and preventing the spread of instability to other parts of the region or neighboring countries. Indeed, neighboring African and Western countries have yet to invest the political, economic, and military resources that might disrupt Russia’s toehold.

While aligning with military regimes in Africa hardly enhances Russia’s power over the long term, it is certainly useful for unnerving countries including the United States, France, and some of the Sahel’s neighbors. Wagner’s head, Yevgeny Prigozhin, presumably relishes the commercial benefits generated by the group’s mercenary activities in Africa. But the real gains that he stands to earn are tied to the unique role that Wagner is playing in Ukraine, which helps Prigozhin bolster his financial and political position at home amid infighting among Russian elites.

What Should the International Community Do?

Washington and its partners in the Sahel have tough choices to make. Despite its rhetoric, the Biden administration seems unwilling and unable to push Russia out of the region. It is not clear whether U.S. policymakers have come to terms with that reality. Old tools, such as France’s counterterrorism operation, have failed. Currently, Washington has a modest military presence in countries including Djibouti, Kenya, and particularly Niger, where American drones and intelligence assets have played an important role in regional anti-terror operations. But there is little desire for the U.S. military footprint on the continent to grow any further.

Blaming Russia for all of the Sahel’s problems has understandable appeal given the brutality and sheer brazenness displayed by Wagner and other actors. But the notion of competing head-to-head with Russia in Africa as part of a wider great-power competition deserves close scrutiny. Unfortunately, the drivers behind the Sahel’s vast problems are unlikely to be alleviated if Russia is squeezed out of Mali and Burkina Faso. Countries across the continent, including in the Sahel, want greater agency in managing their foreign, political, and economic affairs. They do not want the United States and Europe to impose partners upon them. Some recent language from Western capitals about a zero-sum geopolitical competition on the continent amplifies that problem. In a similar vein, various African governments have rebuffed repeated U.S. and European demands that they pick sides in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Such pressure has, paradoxically enough, further stoked the anger and historic resentments that Russia and its proxies are now trying to exploit.

The most important issue for the region’s population is not Russia but the desire for improved security, economic, and social conditions. The Wagner Group may offer an easy fix and help individual regimes consolidate power. However, addressing the true causes of regional instability—bad governance, human suffering, the devastating impacts of climate change, and armed jihadist groups—requires a well-resourced, multilateral solution. Shoring up the resilience of neighboring states to manage the impacts of ever-spreading instability must also be a priority, including providing greater diplomatic and technical support to ECOWAS’ facilitation of the return to civilian rule in Mali and Burkina Faso.


The war in Ukraine clearly has not diminished Russia’s desire to act opportunistically, including in Africa. In fact, the Vladimir Putin regime’s break with the West is empowering Moscow’s recent outreach to several parts of the continent. Speaking in early February to the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s ruling party, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cited American and French colonialism as the main reason for global inequities and the West’s disproportionate power in international affairs. According to Lavrov, Moscow remains supportive of Africans’ efforts to push back against the West. Working with foreign partners in Africa to counter what Lavrov called “European colonialism” is officially part of Russia’s foreign policy. Lavrov’s language is blatantly self-serving, but many in the region are receptive to such narratives because of frustration with failed policies from the West—especially France—in Africa.

At the same time, actors such as Wagner often exploit regional instability in blundering ways, usually worsening the security situation for civilians and, in turn, harming Russia’s international reputation. This reality deserves highlighting, especially for civilian populations that have become disenchanted by worsening conditions and harbor deep resentment of France’s colonial legacy. Repressive regimes in the Sahel have jumped at the chance to partner with Moscow, but they are likely to find that Russian groups such as Wagner are no better at regaining control of regions lost to insurgents. All in all, that is bad news for people in the Sahel.