“Africa Corps”: Russia expands its influence in the Sahel

(To Renato Caputo)

Russia is expanding its influence and military presence in the Sahel at an unprecedented pace.

After having consolidated itself in Mali – where Wagner Group mercenaries were decisive in the national army's reconquest of Kidal against Tuareg rebels last November – Moscow is now laying the foundations for its deployment in Burkina Faso and negotiating with the Niger to become a key military ally. To this end, the Russian government created a new military structure called Africa Corps, which operates under the Ministry of Defense. It thus intends to replace the Wagner Group and move from a decentralized private company to one controlled more directly by the state. At the same time, in early December, the UN formalized its complete withdrawal from Mali after handing over the Mopti base to the Malian authorities.

On November 14, after violent fighting against the Tuareg rebels, the Malian army triumphantly entered the city of Kidal, a separatist fiefdom that the authorities had not controlled for more than a decade. However, the Malian soldiers were not alone: ​​around 600 Wagner mercenaries were part of the huge convoy leaving Gao for the mission. In several videos shared on social media, mercenaries could be seen in armored vehicles driving around the city after it was captured by the army. Days later, a flag with the Wagner logo flew over the Kidal fort until it was removed by the Malian authorities (they prefer to maintain a patriotic narrative that attributes the success of the operation to their own armed forces).

Would the Malian army have been able to reconquer the Kidal region on its own? What there is no doubt about is that Russian participation has contributed to altering the situation in the Sahel in an anti-Western way.

The presence of Wagner's mercenaries on Malian soil has been reported since at least December 2021, as has their participation in numerous anti-terrorism operations, especially in the center of the country.

Russian weapons have since entered Mali and Colonel Assimi GoÏta (pictured, left), leader of the military junta, received a lot of attention from Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Russia-Africa summit held last July.

The death of Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin has changed the way Russia provides military support to its African allies. On November 22, a recruitment announcement appeared on Telegram for a corps called "Africa Corps" which presents itself as Russia's new armed wing on the continent and is directly linked to the Ministry of Defense.

According to the All Eyes on Wagner association: “the Africa Corps would constitute a convenient cover for the operational staff of the Russian Ministry of Defense, as well as for its security services, having a much more limited autonomy than that of the Wagner Group, being devoid of a strong figure (editor's note - like Prigozhin)”.

Burkina Faso is also moving closer to Russia. On November 10, a Russian army plane landed at Ouagadougou airport. According to several sources, about 20 uniformed officers got off the plane and checked into a luxury hotel in the capital. After a year of low profile, Russian soldiers were seen openly at a chemical factory and allowed themselves to be photographed at a laboratory that produces drugs to treat viral hemorrhagic fevers in Bobo-Dioulasso, the country's second-largest city. According to All Eyes on Wagner, days earlier, public television in Burkina Faso had broadcast a report on the fight against jihadism in the north-central region in which an army captain appeared with two large Wagner logos sewn onto his uniform.

Although Captain Ibrahim Traoré, the strongman of the Burkinabè military junta, has chosen to strengthen the country's own resources in the anti-jihadist fight, carrying out intense, sometimes forced, recruitment both for the armed forces and for the controversial Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (VDP) – has also recognized on numerous occasions the need for international support, especially in terms of war material.

Like Goïta, Traoré (pictured, left) had several conversations with Vladimir Putin at the St. Petersburg summit and later by telephone, and the Russian and Burkinabe military delegations have met on several occasions over the past year.

In Niger, where a military junta has also governed since last summer, the new authorities denounced last Monday the defense agreements that linked it to the European Union. On the same day, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov met in Niamey with General Abdourahmane Tchiani, President of Niger, and General Salifou Mody, Minister of Defense. The meetings aimed to “strengthen cooperation between the two countries in the field of defense,” according to a Nigerian government statement.

It is clear that there is a Russian strategy to extend its influence and curb the West's.

This Russian expansion comes after the authorities of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger expelled French soldiers from their respective territories and created the Alliance of Sahel States, a mutual aid and military cooperation organization born after the other countries in the region have threatened military intervention against Niger. The three states also collaborate in economic and trade matters to counter sanctions from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The UN mission in Mali was also forced to pack its bags at the request of the military junta.

Meanwhile, jihadism - which has been affecting the region for more than a decade and is carried out by local weapons of al-Qaeda and the self-styled Stato islamico - remains very active. In late November, a jihadist attack in the northern Burkina Faso city of Djibo killed at least 22 people and many more were killed in Malian towns such as Ménaka.

In mid-December, Burkina Faso and Niger announced their withdrawal from the Western-backed G5 anti-jihadist alliance, paving the way for its dissolution.

Photo: RIA Novosti / Kremlin