The Kremlin is taking up the mantle of Wagner Group after Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death, and is now moving to compete directly with the West in Africa, particularly in the Sahel region.
Russia’s continued war in Ukraine may marginalize these operations, given limited manpower reserves and the increasing attrition rate of military and paramilitary leadership.
Unless it secures valuable resource extraction contracts or other types of collateral, such as port facilities, Russia cannot sustain its security operations in Africa.
The United States and its allies are slowly being drawn into this competition, which could lead to escalation.
Amidst the smoldering wreckage of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s plane, it appeared that Wagner Group would suffer without its senior leadership, putting its African projects in jeopardy. Yet, Russia is stepping up in Africa after the demise of Prigozhin. What will it mean for West Africa, a region plagued by ethnic violence and a recent rash of juntas, remains to be seen.
Russia’s behavior increasingly looks like competition with the West, whether it may be clashing with Ukrainian special forces in Sudan, engaging in diplomatic and intelligence operations in Burkina Faso, and alleged US strikes on Russian aircraft in Libya. Russia is even picking up where the West left off in Mali, becoming the new target of jihadist forces there. Maintaining this level of competition is easier said than done. It may become difficult for Russia to sustain such operations while simultaneously conducting offensive operations in Ukraine, particularly as a ready-made replacement for Wagner Group has yet to fill the group’s shoes. Further, Moscow will have to contend with Islamist militant groups in the Sahel, who have recently begun turning their anti-Western rhetoric on Russia.
A New Presence in Burkina Faso
Many expected Burkina Faso to be the next base for Wagner operations in Africa after the country’s 2022 military coup and amidst its ongoing fight with jihadists. The arrival of twenty Russian military personnel late last year, alongside Burkina Faso’s involvement in a junta alliance alongside Mali and Niger, suggests that this development may finally be coming to fruition.
However, Russia’s deployment directly competes with French and likely other Western operations in the region. The recently arrived Russian military personnel are alleged to be members of the Russian military intelligence services (GRU). This timeline lines up with the recent arrest of four French nationals working as computer technicians on espionage charges. The Burkinabe junta government claims that the four work for the French intelligence service, the General Directorate for External Security, and they have been imprisoned while negotiations with France continue. The arrival of GRU units so close to these arrests suggests some Russian involvement in these operations. Indeed, the Africa Report claims that French intelligence maintained support operations for Burkina Faso’s National Intelligence Agency amidst the withdrawal of French military forces, yet the Russian arrival appears to have severed this discreet relationship.
Russian activity in Burkina Faso is an evolution of Wagner tactics used against French forces in Mali, demonstrating the ever-shifting nature of the Kremlin’s presence in Africa. In that case, Wagner-affiliated organizations pushed pro-Russia, anti-French narratives in public polling and through social media. In Burkina Faso, the Russians have shifted their approach from a private sector, “corporate” model to a more statist approach, targeting French security assets rather than a more nebulous shift in public opinion, as occurred in Mali.
Tensions Increasing in Libya
Recent airstrikes in Libya suggest that the political temperature in the country may be increasing. On December 19, a Russian Ilyushin Il-76 transport plane was hit by a drone strike and satellite imagery found the aircraft burning on the tarmac at al-Joufra, a base belonging to the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Heftar, which has been supported by Wagner Group in the past.
The plane was allegedly carrying electronic jamming devices destined for Libya and Sudan. This followed similar attacks on December 7 at al-Joufra and Zillah. Experts disagree on the attacker, as French RFI and Italian Nova claim that an American drone conducted these attacks, the latter basing this claim on an unnamed Libyan source. This occurred against the backdrop of recent statements by State Department officials, categorizing Wagner Group as a dangerous, destabilizing element in Libya, an organization that hindered the democratic transition in 2021 and one that “has no interest in a political solution to the Libyan conflict.”
Taken together, these attacks and strong statements against the Wagner Group suggest an increasingly militarized Western response to Wagner Group activities on the African continent. It particularly suggests that the United States is unhappy with the status quo in Libya and the Kremlin’s use of Libya as a transportation hub for its military and proxy activities across Africa.
Overextended in Mali
In Mali, it appears that Wagner Group and the Kremlin have bitten off more than they can chew. Wagner Group’s influence over the Malian army has placed it in the crosshairs of both Tuareg separatists and Islamist groups. Wagner-led formations have recently taken the town of Kidal, previously occupied by Western security forces, in violation of the Algiers Agreement of 2015, which gave Tuareg groups autonomous rights in this region. Although Tuareg groups may be retreating, this retreat may be baiting Wagner and its Malian allies into a trap.
Meanwhile, jihadist groups appear to be reorienting their focus from France to Russia. In his first video appearance since August 2021, Iyad Ag Ghaly, leader of al-Qaeda affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) announced a new stage of campaigns against Sahelian governments on December 12. In his speech, he characterized Wagner Group as a “miscreant army with no values and bad behavior” and described himself as the defender of civilians caught between a rock and a hard place, the Wagner Group and the Malian army. This follows a summer and fall of ramped up conflict between Wagner and jihadist groups across Mali. On September 14, JNIM forces allegedly damaged a Wagner Mi-8 helicopter, leading to its destruction.
Wagner’s activities in Mali overwhelmingly target civilians, at a 69 percent share of its total targeting activities, and the Group has introduced booby-trapping in Mali for the first time. Further, the group has proven ineffective against JNIM, while Islamic State Sahel province continues to expand its reach in Mali. Wagner Group on the other hand continues to take casualties from ambushes and landmine attacks set by jihadist groups, as these groups eschew direct combat.
Given this pressure cooker scenario, Wagner’s presence in Mali cannot be guaranteed in the long term and it will necessarily be tied to payment by Mali’s government. Should jihadist and Tuareg separatist groups prioritize combat against Wagner Group and government forces over internecine warfare, the Kremlin may find this deployment too bloody and expensive to maintain, particularly as Malian authorities struggle to pay the Group’s monthly salary. According to Le Monde, the Canadian and Australian mining companies operating in Mali’s gold mines are indirectly paying Wagner Group’s salary through taxes. In order to solidify Russia’s gold demands, Russian authorities plan to become more involved in the country’s mining sector through exploitation agreements and even the establishment of gold processing plants.
Ukrainian Special Forces in Sudan?
As the civil war in Sudan continues to expand across the country, outside involvement has grown apace. The latest combatant appears to be Ukrainian special forces. Russian forces allegedly belonging to Wagner Group facilitated a 100-truck convoy of military vehicles illegally through Chadian territory into Sudan to support the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) faction on September 6. On September 8, alleged Ukrainian drones targeted six RSF vehicles on Shambat bridge between Omdurman and Khartoum. Eight other alleged attacks hit vehicles, personnel, and buildings in Omdurman and Ombada. Elsewhere, social media accounts on X circulated footage of alleged Ukrainian snipers on October 6, 2023, operating in the Al-Markhiyat mountains against Wagner Group and the RSF, although the investigative journalism site Bellingcat could not yet confirm the identities of these combatants.
Ukrainian involvement in Sudan, though unconfirmed, would signal an international expansion of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Given that no one else has claimed these attacks, these claims appear legitimate. Further, a lack of denial by the Ukrainian military suggests the opposite. Regardless, Ukraine is either involved in Sudan or portraying itself as involved, effectively accomplishing the same ends. Ukraine appears interested in fighting Russia and its proxies, regardless of location.
Across Africa, Russia is recommitting to power projection through military assistance programs and coup protection schemes, taking up the mantle of Wagner Group. The Kremlin is now squarely in competition with the West across many of these deployments, as seen in Libya, Sudan, and Burkina Faso. While Wagner Group was plausibly deniable, direct Kremlin confrontation with the West appears to be eliciting a stronger reaction from Western actors. Unlike their halting and limited responses to the Wagner Group, NATO countries have a long history of confrontation with the Russian state to draw upon, including in Africa during the Cold War. This direct style of competition necessarily puts both parties in a dangerous escalatory position, particularly if direct kinetic engagements occur between Russian and NATO forces.
Still, the conflict in Ukraine must be considered alongside Russia’s involvement in Africa. Had Russia not intervened in Ukraine in 2022, the Kremlin would have had significantly more latitude to interfere in Africa. In particular, Russia’s ill-fated decision to deploy Wagner units to the Ukraine front started the chain of events that led to the march on Moscow, the aborted coup attempt in July, and Prigozhin’s killing in August 2022. Without the war in Ukraine, Wagner Group would have remained untouched and would almost certainly be continuing its campaign in Africa today.
Regardless, the Kremlin’s decision to continue supporting African security missions now relies on a more direct approach. This means that every military intelligence or special operations fighter deployed to Africa will be unavailable in Ukraine. Russia’s continued war of attrition with Ukraine will thus continue to act as a gatekeeper for larger deployments in Africa. Leadership attrition may be particularly problematic for new African expeditionary deployments, as the Kremlin appears to be running out of military and paramilitary leadership cadres. Many have died on the battlefield in Ukraine, while others, like Prigozhin and fellow Wagner commanders Dmitry Utkin and Evgeniy Makaryan, have been purged behind the lines. Replacing officers is never an easy process, particularly in the midst of a war, and doing so for a variety of deployments further complicates the issue.
Last, Russian expeditionary operations in Africa will fail if these Russian officials fail to secure payment for their operations or other types of collateral, like port facilities. The Russian state is already engaged in a costly war in Ukraine, made significantly more expensive by Western sanctions. While former Wagner Group operations were at least partially financed by Prigozhin, new operations will necessarily require an investment by the Russian state. Should these deployments fail to support a quick return on investment, it is unlikely that the Kremlin could continue these operations indefinitely. One need look no further than Mali, where Wagner Group is attempting to break into gold mining and processing to offset expenses incurred through its costly operations supporting Bamako.
While the Russian military and intelligence services may present an intimidating façade in its attempt to take up the mantle of Wagner Group in Africa, this transition is proving neither easy nor quick. Russia’s war in Ukraine is hamstringing its African operations, while also likely bringing in new competitors, including possible Ukrainian operations in Sudan. The Kremlin will need to strike a balance between overcommitting and under delivering in Africa, as the former will necessarily hurt its campaign in Ukraine and the latter could prove disastrous for its public image in Africa.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.