There has been a second coup in Burkina Faso; the third in the Sahel this year. Mere months after Paul-Henri Damiba overthrew the country’s democratically elected president, he was himself overthrown last month, and for the same reason. The Islamist militias in the ungoverned spaces of the country continue to claim lives, and have displaced two million people within the country’s own borders. The countries of the Sahel are fracturing.
What caught the attention of observers, however, was the murky involvement of Russia. When Damiba was overthrown in January, it was thought the country would shift its alliance from France and ask Russia for help in its war against the militants. That didn’t happen and reports have trickled out that Ibrahim Traore, the army captain who led the most recent coup, will do so. Supporters of Traore waved Russian flags after the coup.
Most suggestive, however, was a statement by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group of mercenaries, that praised the takeover. Prigozhin’s fighters have been seen in multiple African countries, but only recently, as the Wagner Group has become more involved in the war in Ukraine, has he emerged from the shadows.
Yet suggestions are all there are. Russia is certainly up to something in West Africa – but Western analysts are still struggling to work out precisely what. There is a murkiness to Moscow’s motives in the region, a murkiness that makes it hard to combat its influence.
For starters, the purpose of extensive Russian disinformation and propaganda across social media is unclear. Increasingly sophisticated and spread in English and French across African countries, these employ multiple platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp, use jokes and memes, and display close knowledge of the politics of the region. The content is not overtly political, or at least not directly related to a specific policy outcome. But it exploits a sense of grievance against Western countries, frames Russia as a powerful country on the side of the people, displays nostalgia for the Soviet Union’s historical backing for anti-colonial movements, and emphasizes how African countries can take their futures into their own hands.
The difficulty is that many of these sentiments could equally come from people living there.
That vagueness is what makes the content such a threat. It can be hard to distinguish where genuine anti-French, anti-Western sentiment ends and pro-Russian propaganda begins.
And no-one can quite tell what the Russian end goal is in West Africa. Is it to create an anti-Western atmosphere? French troops are managing that quite well enough. Is it to promote a pro-Russian attitude that may filter through to leaders, who may support Russia in its war against Ukraine? Perhaps. Is it to pave the way for potential Russian involvement in the future? Maybe, although the content is so widespread, it is appearing in countries Russia isn’t publicly involved in. Russia could be playing an extremely long game.
Against that background of propaganda – a kind of steady drumbeat of pro-Russian content – there is actual involvement in political affairs. But even there, things are murky.
At the center of this murkiness is the Wagner Group. Wagner provided protection for the president of the Central African Republic, before expanding into Mali, a pivotal country in the Sahel’s war against militants, and one where Western powers are unambiguously losing. There, the group’s forces initially provided training and security. Then, with the French departing over the summer, even more have arrived from Wagner – all operating, if the Kremlin’s denials are to be believed, without the knowledge of Russia.
And now Wagner has suggestively appeared in Burkina Faso, bordering Mali. Small wonder if it seems as if there is a plan.
The difficulty is none of what Russia is planning is clear, beyond a general desire to weaken Western alliances with African countries, extend their own ties and, perhaps, gain access to natural resources.
And therein lies the hardest aspect of the battle for the Sahel: Russia is sometimes the mastermind, sometimes the scavenger.
The wave of violence across the Sahel has created enormous upheavals and the fury against the government in many countries is a symptom of this. The brutal history of France in the region has not been forgotten. Against that background, Russia has come in to pick up the pieces, offering ethics-free mercenaries without lectures on democracy. But Russia has also leveraged its history and its information warfare capabilities to create popular support for its involvement.
Burkina Faso will not be the last coup to have Russia’s fingerprints on it. The anti-French sentiment among West African publics appears to be here to stay. While it continues, Sahelian countries will be reluctant to accept any new influx of Western troops, and the French public will be reluctant to have their children fight a war where they are not wanted. For all its maneuvering, Russia doesn’t have to try hard to benefit from a war for hearts and minds that the West has lost.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern