Russia’s undeclared war on the West in the Sahel

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While all eyes are on the invasion of Ukraine, Russia is seeking to expand its influence and win new allies in Africa to counter the breakdown of their relations with the West. Nowhere is this more potentially destabilising than in the Sahel.

This African region south of the Sahara Desert, with a population of over 100 million in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Chad, and Mauritania, is in the grip of a multifaceted economic, security, humanitarian, and climatic crisis.

It has led the UN General Secretary, Antonio Guterres, to proclaim it a global threat in September 2022. In Burkina Faso alone the number of internally displaced persons has risen from 4,700 to over 1.8 million between 2018 and 2022, not counting the more than 10,000 people killed in attacks in Burkina Faso since 2015.

Years of partnerships and funding from the West have not resulted in the expected prosperity and economic growth. Rather, over the past decade, we have seen an unprecedented increase in terrorist attacks across the central Sahel, which is now home to a concentration of terrorist groups that destabilise these states and threaten global stability and peace.

Russia is exploiting the ongoing political and security crises, and is, in effect, waging an undeclared war’ with the West in the Sahel, using disinformation as its primary weapon. This risks further undermining hopes of stability and prosperity in the Sahel for coming generations.

A Russian disinformation machine is growing

The Russian strategy in the Sahel consists primarily in courting political and military leaders for no-strings-attached security partnerships while fostering tensions between the local population and their long-time international partners.

The cost for Russia is relatively low and is achieved through sophisticated disinformation campaigns, mainly through social networks, media, and among the political class and civil society members.

These campaigns are aimed primarily at discrediting liberal democracy and legitimising the Russia model as an alternative for leaders to deal with acute and mounting security threats.

We have seen how the Russian disinformation machine works, with the fake video of a supposed mass grave left behind by the French army in Gossi, Mali, which circulated last year. Russian-backed fake accounts pushed it, causing it to ‘go viral’ in the region, despite the French army demonstrating that it was created from various, non-related sources and was in fact fake, and linked to Russia and the Wagner group.

Russian contractors have proved unable to face the threats from jihadist groups in Mali, let alone improve security or provide a sustainable solution to the conflict

However, Wagner mercenaries’ role in the Moura massacre in Central Mali, where at least 300 civilians were murdered, did not gain similar traction online, as set out in a recent TBI study on how Russia is deploying massive disinformation to increase its influence in Africa.

After succeeding in establishing itself in Mali, Russia’s unrelenting engagement with the successive military junta and political leaders in Burkina Faso indicate that Russian ambitions are high.

Even so, Russia’s partnerships with states in the Sahel are not working. Predictably, Russian contractors have proved unable to face the threats from jihadist groups in Mali, let alone improve security or provide a sustainable solution to the conflict, and they show a complete disregard for the root causes of the conflict.

It is no secret that Wagner is ineffective on the ground. The first contractors were deployed in Mali in December 2021 and ACLED reports that 2022 is on track to be the deadliest year for Mali since the Sahel crisis began over a decade ago.

Total fatalities from organised political violence in the first half of 2022 alone surpassed the 2021 figure. Wagner attacked and perpetrated abuses against the local population, and committed extrajudicial killings, all confirmed by local communities, and documented by Human Rights Watch, the International Federation for Human Rights and local non-profits.

However, Putin deploys anti-colonialist rhetoric, fans grievances among younger people and exploits the presumed lack of support from the State, using African social media champions to spread Russia’s message.

Anti-Western Russian propaganda also prospers among a public that finds it difficult to understand how the security situation could have deteriorated so much despite nine years of French military operations, the presence of thousands of UN troops (in Mali), not to mention the EU’s training missions and the US Government’s engagement. It is also successful partly because of the  significantly low school completion rate and the weakness of democratic civil institutions such as an impartial media.

Time to act before it’s too late

Strong national leadership in Niger and Mauritania, sanctions on Wagner, and the clear ineffectiveness of Wagner contractors are helping to prevent an explosion of Russian influence, but it’s not enough.

The world must first recognise the impact of Russian influence and activity, both overt and under the radar. The millions of dollars’ worth of contracts Wagner have secured to help the junta in Mali to fight terrorists, as well as their courting of the junta in Burkina Faso with weapons and support, helps Russia lay claim to new partnerships across the Sahel and wider West Africa to continue to dismantle democracies, allow East vs. West lines to be drawn and drive chaos.

This makes it more difficult to arrive at a common solution to curb insecurity. Russian presence in Mali contributed to Bamako’s withdrawal from the G5 Sahel, ongoing tensions, and difficulties with MINUSMA, and disengagement from several partners.

Any solution needs to let Sahelians drive change – something that has been lacking so far. International partners should stand ready to support by responding to immediate humanitarian needs, bolstering the state to address root causes, while negotiating a clear path to civilian rule and a reinforced and coordinated regional intelligence and defence strategy.

The West should continue engaging with Sahelian leaders, highlighting the economic viability  for work with the West over Russia, which actually counts for less than 1% of foreign direct investment in Africa.

Western governments should use their influence with major technology and social-media platforms to help tackle the threat, but most importantly to support governments and local media to reinforce improved education systems and promote and empower fact-checking organisations, such as Africa Check.

These organisations can push back on Russia’s sophisticated disinformation campaigns allowing social media influencers, youth and reinforced local media outlets to change the narrative. This support will also reinforce the leadership and ownership of African nations and their civil society to raise with social media companies that disinformation campaigns are a regional security concern breaching the democratic rights of citizens.

As Russian aggression in Ukraine brings conflict to Europe’s doorstep, Ukraine’s allies need to be thinking about taking a more holistic approach to challenging Russia. A strategy to counter Russia’s influence in the Sahel is needed to respond to Russia’s antidemocratic “blame game”.  It’s not too late, the West can still reach out to the Sahel as a true partner to combat Russian disinformation and propaganda, and not abandon the region.

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