Russia's presence in Africa has been a fact for years, and not only at the military level. Russia's strategy is to expand its influence asymmetrically in Africa by conducting disinformation and destabilisation campaigns, as in the case of Mali.
In the case of Africa, we find countries that are rich in natural resources but that face serious political and economic crises and problems such as terrorism and organised crime, and this is where groups like Wagner come in to offer aid in exchange for becoming power brokers by assuming a debt to them.
Some countries in the region such as Mali, Chad and Guinea have suffered coups d'état in recent months and thus, coinciding with them, we have seen the presence of the Wagner military group.
If we look at Russia's military presence in Africa, we should consider the corridor that Russia could have connecting the Mediterranean from Libya to the Atlantic through Guinea, a corridor through which the main routes for illegal trafficking and organised crime also pass.
We all know what the result of Wagner’s intervention in different countries has been and specifically in the Central African Republic, where they are currently part of the National Security and have been accused of numerous violations and abuses against civilians.
In addition, we must bear in mind that Russia is also seeking to become the largest arms supplier on the African continent. Not only are we talking about natural resources in the Sahel, destabilising countries and pushing other European countries out of the area. But the arms sales business accounts for 49% of Russia's arms exports to the African continent at the moment. Therefore, once Russia enters Mali, it could expand to other Sahel countries and destabilise the whole region.
If we take into account the Russian strategy is clear and in most cases it fills the gap left in other countries in Africa by the US or Europe.
In the case of Mali, Russia's entry is a response to the inability of France and other international actors to halt the advance of jihadist terrorism, and to the popular discontent of recent years, who see Russia as a new hope for solving this problem.
However, Wagner's entry into Mali will bring greater destabilisation and create a worse scenario in which jihadist terrorism and organised crime will not only continue, but will also spread to other neighbouring countries, as it has already done in Togo, Côte d'Ivoire and Benin, and its penetration will be greater.
Another added problem coinciding with Russia's entry into the country has been the postponement of elections in Mali from February 2022 to January 2026, which means four more years of military rule, a fact that could also mean that countries such as Guinea or Chad, which also came to power through a coup d'état, could follow the same example as Mali.
Evidently, Russia's entry into Mali is a failure for France and the United States, which already knew of Russia's intentions after seeing its actions in the Central African Republic.
France already opposed Goita's military coup and its current situation is very complicated between the failure in the fight against terrorism, organised crime groups, a coup government, a disgruntled population and Wagner's entry.
Wagner's presence in Mali is undeniable, despite what the Malian government says, and there is evidence of the arrival of several planes from Russia in Bamako and the presence of military installations near the airport.
Local sources have also stated that there have already been clashes between Malian armed forces accompanied by Wagner soldiers and a jihadist group.
According to L'Opinion, the French intelligence community estimates Wagner's presence in Mali at "between 350 and 400 men". For its part, the Malian government continues to deny the presence of "mercenaries" on its territory, as the Malian ambassador to the United Nations repeated on 13 January, in response to statements by the French authorities, who claim to be "very concerned".
Complicating matters is Mali's acknowledgement of the existence of "state-to-state cooperation with the Russian Federation". "Russian instructors are currently in Mali to advise and train the Malian military in the use of equipment acquired from Russia," explained the Malian ambassador to the UN.
Wagner will continue to expand into Africa in the face of lack of opposition and possibly into Algeria and Tunisia as well. Algeria has already said it will fund Wagner in Mali.
Russia will thus regain the influence in Africa that it lost in the 1990s, and this is what has been called Russia's great return to Africa. Russia has made good use of the current situation in Africa by negotiating with countries such as the Central African Republic, Sudan, Mali and we shall see if Burkina Faso will also be able to do so.
Russia's arrival in Africa has come after an aggressive campaign by Russia against France not only calling for their departure but also for them to be attacked and expelled. It is what we call a war of influence and disinformation.
However, Russia's main purpose in Africa is to make a huge economic profit by evidently removing France from the scene and to do the same as it has done in other countries such as CAR by plundering the country's natural resources and committing numerous abuses. This is why Russia has used a geopolitical strategy to obtain a profitable financial income.
In this way Mali has become an arena for a new confrontation between Russia and the West. Wagner's arrival in Mali is a failure for both the West and ECOWAS.
We should also analyse Russia's role in Algeria, where we have seen in recent weeks how it has strengthened its economic and political relations with Algeria, remembering that Algeria borders the Sahel, a place of special interest for the European Union and where the possibility of the Wagner Group's intervention has been announced as part of its expansionist policy in Africa.
Similarly, Algeria has allowed Russia to use its airspace to carry out military operations in Mali, while vetoing France's use of its airspace.
We should remember that cooperation between Algeria and Russia goes back many years to its independence and that most of its arms are of Russian and Chinese origin.
What is clear is that Russia wants to expand into more African countries, as it has already done in Libya, Sudan and CAR, and now it is the turn of Algeria, Mali and we will see if Burkina Faso. Having an outlet to the Atlantic is very important for both Russia and China, so we will have to keep an eye on the next steps taken by both countries in Africa.
For its part, Algeria intends to make use of its friendship with Russia and China against Morocco, whose partners are the United States and Israel. We have already seen the joint exercises between the Russian and Algerian navies in the Mediterranean Sea in November 2021 in the midst of the crisis between Morocco and Algeria, where both fleets carried out cooperation exercises to boost regional security.
Some authors raise the possibility that Russia appears to be becoming a challenger in this 'grey zone', through mainly political, economic and military actions to consolidate its power and influence, and to weaken its adversaries in strategic positions in some parts of the African continent. It is concluded that Africa is becoming an arena of dispute in the 'grey zone' between Russia and the West, with significant geostrategic gains for Moscow and few benefits for the African nations where it is intervening.
While the European Union (EU) announced on 15 November the review of sanctions against the Wagner Group for "possible" activities in Mali, new revelations from European diplomatic services evoke the passage of at least one battalion in the Central African Republic (CAR) under the direct control of this Russian mercenary company close to the Kremlin.
The Brussels website EUobserver stated on Monday 29 November, on the basis of a report produced by the European External Action Service (EEAS), that Wagner now commands these troops trained in Europe as part of the EUTM RCA mission. Launched in 2016 and extended until September 2022, this security force training mission involves some 365 personnel and has an annual budget of around €17 million. A civilian advisory mission, EUAM RCA (71 personnel and an annual budget of €11.2 million), complements the EU's action in the country. MINUSCA, a UN peacekeeping mission, still has almost 15,000 troops. The Wagner Group, dubbed the UK's WG by European rapporteurs, would have "several hundred" members in CAR, while 2,600 Russian "military" personnel would be present.
As we can see, Russia's presence on the African continent is not new and seems to be here to stay. While we in Europe continue to worry about Russia's advance on the eastern flank, we forget that it is also penetrating through the southern flank, and while we are concentrating on what is happening on the eastern flank, Russia is roaming unchallenged on the southern flank. Europe must change its strategy in Africa and must act quickly and intelligently because any gaps it leaves in Africa will be filled by Russia. This will be a swift, silent and unopposed invasion.
Daniel Ramiro Pardo Calderón: El retorno de Rusia a África: operando en la “zona gris”