What are the dimensions of Russian policy towards the African Sahel?

Russia is a key international player in the African Sahel region, alongside other major powers such as the United States, China, and the European Union. Its role has notably increased in recent years, particularly since the early 2020s. This has been reflected in the intensity of its interactions with the region’s countries on various levels, especially military, security, and economic. The latest agreements include those signed by Russia with Mali and Burkina Faso to develop their national capabilities in nuclear energy production, as part of the sixth international forum “Russian Energy Week” held in Moscow from October 11-13, 2023. Consequently, several key considerations and influential dimensions shape Russian policy towards the African Sahel.

Key Considerations

There are several main considerations guiding Russian policy towards the African Sahel, which include:

Enhancing presence in a traditional Western sphere of influence:

Russia’s policy in the African Sahel aligns with its broader strategy across Africa, focusing on expanding various interactions with countries in the region, particularly those that view Russia as a suitable alternative to former colonial European powers, especially France. This strategy aims to capitalize on the shifting power balance in the region to support Russia’s strategic presence. Russia’s actions in the region have been evident since 2020, especially in security, where it seeks to strengthen partnerships with African countries. This was highlighted during the first Russia-Africa summit in Sochi, Russia, in October 2019, and the second summit held in St. Petersburg in late July 2023.

Exploiting strategic mineral resources:

Although the African Sahel is one of the world’s poorest regions, it is rich in rare minerals and energy resources, attracting foreign companies under the guise of humanitarian aid or counter-terrorism, often through military interventions. The Niger River basin and Lake Chad basin are particularly rich in uranium, gold, coal, and oil. For instance, Nigeria has about 37.05 billion barrels of confirmed oil reserves, representing about 3% of OPEC’s production in 2023. Niger, with significant reserves of gold, tin, gypsum, coal, phosphate, and copper, is the world’s fourth-largest uranium producer, with an annual output of around 4,000 tons. Similarly, gold is a major export for Mali, while Chad possesses substantial petroleum, gold, natron, uranium, limestone, kaolin, and salt resources.

Destabilizing the European Union by encouraging migration:

Russia aims to affect the stability of the European Union by disrupting European efforts to curb migration from the Sahel. The EU has funded interventions since 2015 to help countries like Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali manage migration more effectively. Significant numbers of migrants from West Africa reached European shores in recent years, posing a direct threat to the EU’s national security systems. Russia has reportedly influenced migration flows from Libya towards Europe, allegedly using this as a retaliatory measure against Western support for Ukraine. This has led to claims, such as from the Italian government, that Russian mercenaries in Libya are behind the increase in migrant arrivals as a form of retaliation.

Exploiting instability to build alliances:

Russia seeks to support the needs of Sahel countries, leveraging the widespread instability in recent years, marked by a series of military coups since 2020. These coups have led to significant consequences, including the disruption of transitional phases and the return to constitutional order. Russia has established political connections with various coup-led regimes to help stabilize their governance. Additionally, the region’s food insecurity, exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine war, has seen Russia offer free grain to Sahel countries like Burkina Faso and Mali, as announced during the second Russia-Africa summit in July 2023.

Influential Tools

Russian policy in the African Sahel involves several tools to strengthen its presence, including:

Propaganda against “new colonialism”: Russia promotes negative views of the colonial past associated with Western powers, highlighting their exploitative practices. Advanced propaganda campaigns, particularly on social media and through media outlets, aim to delegitimize liberal democracy and present the Russian model as a preferable alternative. This is supported by the absence of a colonial legacy for Russia, unlike Western powers, and the growing official and popular rejection of Western presence, especially French, since 2020. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has reiterated that European colonialism remains a source of global inequality and voiced support for African independence.

Establishing security partnerships with ruling regimes: A significant dimension of Russian policy involves security partnerships, primarily through private security firms like the Wagner Group. Active in the region since at least 2020, Wagner’s involvement has been notable in Mali, where it has assisted in fighting jihadist groups. Despite the transitional military regime’s official stance, international reports suggest Wagner receives substantial monthly fees for its services, potentially linked to accessing natural resources. The U.S. has condemned Wagner’s presence due to security risks, while the European Council has imposed restrictive measures against the group.

Exploiting rising anti-Western sentiment: Russia capitalizes on declining support for Western policies, particularly French, in the Sahel. French influence has waned significantly in Mali since the coups of 2020 and 2021, leading to the expulsion of the French ambassador and the withdrawal of French military forces. This void has allowed Russia to strengthen its relations with Mali as an alternative security partner, further solidified by Mali’s withdrawal from regional organizations and the planned UN peacekeeping mission withdrawal by January 2024.

Engaging with transitional military regimes: This strategy is evident in countries like Burkina Faso, which experienced two coups in 2022. Burkina Faso’s transitional government has sought closer ties with Russia, including ending the status agreement with French forces and expelling them by February 2023. Similar patterns are seen in Mali, where Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s visit in early 2023 included promises of military support against terrorism. In Niger, Russia maintained a balanced stance following the July 2023 coup, cautioning against potential military intervention by ECOWAS and positioning itself as a strategic ally amidst the withdrawal of French forces.

Supporting nuclear energy sectors: Recently, Russia has focused on agreements to develop nuclear energy in the Sahel, addressing significant electricity access issues. The latest developments include agreements with Mali and Burkina Faso for peaceful nuclear energy use, signed during “Russian Energy Week” in October 2023. These agreements cover infrastructure development, public awareness, basic and applied research, nuclear safety, and training, essential for meeting the region’s energy needs.

In conclusion, the African Sahel has become a strategic focal point for Russia in recent years, characterized by building alliances with anti-Western regimes, enhancing regional influence, and challenging Western presence. Future trends suggest continued Russian efforts to attract more Sahel countries through security and economic incentives, appealing to their national priorities and disillusionment with Western roles.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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