Russia in the Sahel

Ideological Pillars of the Kremlin’s Influence in the Sahel

The war in Ukraine has created non-reversible dynamics in a variety of areas, with far reaching consequences across the globe. Whatever the outcome, the Kremlin has invested too much of its prestige into the war and, as most analysts agree, is unlikely to stop without attaining results that could be presented as a victory[i]. In the meantime, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine continues to export beyond Russia’s borders the narrative on President Vladimir Putin’s counter-hegemonic role in world politics. Countering this propaganda has turned out to be a challenging if not impossible task for Europe and North America, mostly because of the fact that deep reasons leading to controversial partnerships with Moscow are still very poorly understood. This paper is about the risks of this narrative that highlights the importance of sovereignty at any price. The risk is not about the narrative itself, but the precedent it is creating, allowing for other actors with similar initiatives to emerge.

The Kremlin is building its image in Africa on the sabotage of the “Western” presence, specifically in conflict zones. It is driven by the symbolism of the Soviet Union as a liberator from colonial oppression and nourished by less specific anti-globalist ideas, confronting the “Global West” for neocolonialism and “crimes” committed during wars in the Middle East and in Africa through the 1990s and at the beginning of the 2000s (Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya are the most recent examples).

People acknowledge evidence of war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine, but argue that the West had committed even worse.

The audience in francophone West Africa is specifically receptive to the Kremlin’s propaganda[ii]. There are two ways in which this narrative is being assumed. In some cases, it is just taken for granted, accepting the Kremlin’s interpretations that either deny the massacres or disguise civilian deaths (like in the case of the Moura massacre, committed in Mali at the end of March). In other cases, people acknowledge evidence of war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine, but argue that the West had committed even worse in the past: starting from colonial violence to current aggressive anti-immigration regulations and systemic failure of international security forces to stabilize the Sahel region[iii].

Calls for an increased Russian presence in the Sahel continue to grow, together with the expansion of a network of local activists, supporting the Kremlin’s narrative on the importance of sovereignty and resistance to the neocolonial oppression of the “West”. These calls cannot be explained only and exclusively by propaganda. As it has been shown, for example in Mali, social mobilization in support for Russia started well before its active involvement by the end of 2020[iv].

There are at least three inter-connecting factors that might contribute to deep drivers that explain partnerships with Russia and the expansion of the Kremlin’s influence in the Sahel: (1) the attractiveness of the Kremlin’s counter-terrorist strategy; (2) a need for deep changes within models of governance in the Sahel; and (3) increasing tolerance to structural, symbolic and physical violence in the region.

Russian counter-terrorism strategy and risks of its attractiveness in the Sahel

Russian counter-terrorism programs are sincerely perceived as being the best alternative to western security presence.

While conflict continues to expand and intensify, a lack of impact on the ground has fuelled doubts about the reasons of Western military presence in the Sahel[v]. In the meantime, feelings of hopelessness and despair increased the attractiveness of Russian “solutions”[vi]. Portrayed by the Kremlin’s propaganda as quick end efficient, Russian counter-terrorism programs are sincerely perceived as being the best alternative to western security presence in the Sahel.

Indeed, Russia has invested a lot of its “soft power” in the promotion of its leadership role in the arena of international security. For example, the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism is a Russian diplomat[vii] who could potentially play a role in shaping the global counterterrorism agenda and deprioritize issues related to human rights abuses. Russia is also putting much effort in propaganda campaigns presenting to external audiences, specifically in Africa, its military operations in Syria and most recently in the Central African Republic as success stories[viii]. For instance, the extensive disinformation campaigns led through social media in Mali has proven to be very efficient, cutting any alternative sources of information (RFI or France 24 are considered as unreliable and promoting western propaganda).

Russia's counterterrorism actions have relied specifically on its military's modus operandi, emphasizing punitive counterterrorism measures at the expense of broader socioeconomic approaches targeting the deeper causes of insurgency.

An important principle of the Russian approach to counterterrorism is that it is based on experiences from fighting the Chechen nationalist resistance. Moscow’s primary purpose was to preserve the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. Indeed, the brutality of Russian military interventions contributed to the transformation of localized struggles into a region-wide religious war as part of a global Islamist jihad[ix]. More generally, Russia’s regional and global counterterrorism actions have relied specifically on its military’s modus operandi, emphasizing punitive counterterrorism measures at the expense of broader socioeconomic approaches targeting the deeper causes of insurgency. However, success stories of Russian-led military operations do not mention possible negative consequences for the long-term stability of the Sahel. In the Sahel, where the presence of non-state armed actors has already contributed to a significant civilian death toll, the emergence of private military companies as new actors involved in conflicts will lead to new cycles of inter- and intra-community violence, which will be difficult to repair over the coming decades.

The disastrous effects of an extensive military-heavy approach to tackling insurgency have already been demonstrated by the examples of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars where the use of private military companies by the United States (such as Blackwater) contributed to the strengthening of insurgency[x]. Strong western military presence in the Sahel has been criticized by local human rights organizations too[xi]. How, in this context, can one explain the attractiveness of the Russian military’s punitive approach to counterterrorism?

Needs for transformation within Sahelian States

Most of the Sahelian countries are in grave need of socio-political transformation. Indeed, through 2021-22, a number of them (including Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Guinea) witnessed military coups translating profound mistrust into new political institutions[xii]. Long-standing abuses by political elites, non-inclusiveness and inequitable management of resources (access to water and land) contributed to generate grievances that have been frustrated for years. This wave of military coups is therefore conveying the need for deep changes within models of governance, not necessarily remaining within the framework inherited from colonial rule and going beyond ill-fitting Western models.

Terrorism has been perceived as a risk to the foundations of the state, its stability and sovereignty. Such conceptual framing may seem specifically attractive for some Sahelian elites.

The deep need for transformation is currently being exploited by the Kremlin’s offer and policing model of governance as we can observe it with the Mali’s violent authoritarian turn. This should also be understood from the perspective of Russia’s historical perception of terrorism. For Russia, it has almost always been about an “internal” threat. Terrorism has therefore been perceived as a risk to the foundations of the state, its stability and sovereignty. Such conceptual framing may seem specifically attractive for some Sahelian elites who might wish to exploit the “Russian offer” for their own benefit. However, as the history of military intervention has shown, including in the examples of Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States, the instrumentalization of counterterrorism to accomplish political domestic objectives is a counterproductive strategy because it finally contributes to exacerbation of grievances transforming them into more radicalized trends.

High tolerance to violence

The Kremlin’s project and its counter-terrorist modus operandi will continue to find its audience in the Sahel.

The Kremlin’s project is being accepted by populations despite atrocities committed by Russian troops in Ukraine. The seemingly smooth acceptance of the massacres must be questioned from the perspective of ethics and morality. It can be explained by high tolerance to violence that has been specifically developed in its symbolic or physical forms in the last years in the Sahel. The representations of violence, on what is “tolerable” on the one hand and what is “unthinkable” on the other are constantly evolving. The danger about the Kremlin’s project and its counter-terrorist modus operandi, focused on the military dimension and punitive actions, is that it will continue to find its audience in the Sahel, leading to civilian deaths and triggering more insurgency in the years to come.

Conclusion: going beyond a direct countering perspective

Growing attraction to “Russia’s offer” in Africa is a threatening process for long-term stability in the Sahel. Current strategies of European partners to re-define security operations through regional relocation remain extremely fragile without undergoing a deep process of restructuring by responding to the “needs” of the Sahelian states. Furthermore, direct confrontation with Russian private military companies will not contribute to long-standing peace, but will lead to more civilian deaths, paving the way for new cycles of violence that could be even more difficult to stop. Rather, the promotion of a better understanding of the deeper-lying drivers that led Sahelian countries to partner with the Kremlin would allow for devising more proactive strategies for countering insurgencies.

[i] See, for example, interviews and articles of Russian sociologist Greg Yudin who was also one of those who predicted the war in Ukraine. CBC. Greg Yudin, April 5 2022. See also Oleg Ignatov, from International Crisis Group interview.
NPR, May 10, 2022. “Russia’s war in Ukraine could become a ‘frozen conflict,’ analysts say”.
[ii] Maxime Audinet. « Le lion, l’ours et les hyènes. acteurs, pratiques et récits de l’influence informationnelle russe en afrique subsaharienne francophone ». IRSEM, 2021.
[iii] Interviews conducted via WhatsApp through March-May.
[iv] Smirnova, T. « La Russie et le coup d’État au Mali : héritage historique et logiques géopolitiques ». Bulletin FrancoPaix, vol.6, n°1-2.
[v] Financial Times « How France lost Mali: failure to quell jihadi threat opens door to Russia ». December 2021.
[vi] Social mobilizations in support of the Russian presence have been regularly held since the active phase of involvement of Russian mercenaries in Mali.
[vii] Mr. Vladimir Voronkov was appointed Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism on 21 June 2017.
[viii] See, for example, russian film « Tourist » was made in order to glorify presence of russian mercenaries in CAR. Dubbed in the Sango language, it was previewed on Thursday 14 May 2021 at the stadium in Bangui, in the presence of at least 20,000 spectators.
[ix] « Russia’s counterproductive counterterrorism ». Hearing before the commission on security and cooperation in Europe. Aug 29, 2019.
[x] Major Jeffrey S. Thurnher,  « Drowning in Blackwater: How Weak Accountability over Private Security Contractors Significantly Undermines Counterinsurgency Efforts ». Army Law. 64 (2008)[xi] « Mali : Frappe à Bounty : Tabitaal Pulaaku demande une réparation ». Maliactu, April 1, 2021.
[xii] « Coups d’État en Afrique : le retour de l’uniforme en politique »,  Bulletin FrancoPaix, Vol. 7 No. 1-2  numéro spécial dirigé par Marc-André Boisvert.

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