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Beatriz de León: "Russia's strategy in the Sahel is based on destabilising Europe"

The expert from the Francisco de Vitoria University visited the microphones of 'De cara al mundo'
Beatriz de León Cobo

 -   Beatriz de León Cobo

In the latest edition of "De cara al mundo", Onda Madrid's radio programme, we had the participation of Beatriz de León Cobo, collaborator of Atalayar and the Francisco de Vitoria University, to talk about Russia's activity in Africa, especially in the Sahel, a region that is worrying due to terrorist activity and political instability there.

How much should we be concerned about what is happening in the Sahel?

We should be very concerned, now more than ever, we are in a time of absolute instability with the whole world looking towards Ukraine and this leads to a vacuum in terms of all the attention that needs to be paid to this strategic area. The Sahel is less than 2,000 kilometres from Europe's borders, there are problems related to political stability, many coups d'état and, above all, an autocratic tendency that worries European countries because it seems that things will continue to get worse instead of better. Secondly, the security situation is at its worst in years because of the diversity of groups, which are no longer found only in Mali or Burkina Faso, but have been descending and committing attacks on the borders of other regions such as Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Togo. It is a very worrying situation, where we are even beginning to find rivalries between Boko Haram and Daesh at the tip of Lake Chad. The multiplicity of organisations and armed groups engaged in counter-guerrilla warfare against the jihadist groups means that the terrain has become very insecure and the situation has little prospect of improvement.

It seems that being in Africa does not affect us and is our backyard, but if terrorist groups manage to destabilise the region, or reach the area of Mauritania, Algeria and Morocco, the consequences would be incalculable. 

The consequences could be catastrophic. The good news is that Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania are well aware of the threat and even have informal agreements to ensure that they control the threat, and their intelligence services are very good. If any of the governments in the Sahel fall, there is no guarantee that this will not spread like wildfire to all sides. It should also be borne in mind that the stronger the terrorist groups become, especially economically, the more opportunities there are for them to use the people smuggling network to get their people into Europe. We must be very clear that this is a real threat, which affects millions of people in the Sahel, but which also affects us directly.

There, everything is being trafficked... arms, people, drugs... the situation is unacceptable for the European Union and also for other powers such as the United States and China, but no action is being taken in the forceful manner that this conflict requires. 

Looking at the figures of what the countries of the European Union are investing, yes, there is a great investment of money and resources, the problem is that the conflict is advancing so quickly that sometimes the instruments we use are obsolete. The threat is advancing and changing, it is totally hybrid, the jihadist networks come together with armed groups and it is very complicated to identify all these groups and people, even more so if you are not on the ground, despite the fact that we have soldiers; speaking of the Sahara desert, only the Tuaregs are capable of controlling it. All these complexities, the porous borders, mean that high levels of coordination are required, with each strategy we are implementing lessons, but we still have a long way to go. The problem now is the lack of political will, France is leaving Mali, not the Sahel, but there are many European partners who hesitate to stay in Mali and the Sahel because of the complicated circumstances and, above all, because if they don't want to be there, they cannot be forced to stay, even though it is important for us, they are sovereign countries. os. 

Beatriz de León Cobo

What are the Russian mercenaries of the Wagner group doing in Mali? Why is the Malian government working with Russia?

For many reasons, Russia's strategy in the Sahel goes back many years, they have had a defence agreement since 2018, and they have been increasing their cooperation, it is Putin's long-term strategy that is mainly based on destabilising Europe. They use not only the military instrument but also civil society, it is incredible to see Russian flags at Malian demonstrations and to know that the leaders of Malian society are pro-Russian and are happy to collaborate. In the end, they see Russia as a 'partner' that will not impose any kind of vision of what a state should do in terms of democracy, Russia doesn't care whether an autocratic tyrant or the most democratic person rules, and this gives Africans a lot of confidence, especially given their history of colonisation with European countries. Russia is carrying out a very good strategy in several countries at the same time, such as Guinea, Mali, or Burkina, where they are positioning themselves well in civil society through large disinformation campaigns and talking to African leaders to exchange defence for landmines, as they did in the Central African Republic. They do this in exchange for protection of leaders, operations against terrorists, and all this without thinking about human rights or governance or all the things that we Europeans require whenever we work with African countries, being more pragmatic and taking other interests into account.

What can we do, is there any course of action available?

It is a very complex question, but a key point is that we have to understand that although Wagner is not Russia, it is a private military company, we have to understand that the Russians are behind it and are playing the strategy of not getting involved in political issues in Mali, and that is why they are winning the battle. We must rethink why we have such ease of negotiation with China or Saudi Arabia and so many problems with Assimi Goita. The European Union has to think very carefully about the extent to which it wants to throw away these ten years of international operations and definitively cut off relations just because the president of the transition does not seem to us to be doing well or because he seems to us to be committing many human rights violations; we have to be a little flexible in our relationship. In any case, I don't think we should leave the region, Spain shares this position and, of course, we have the European Union behind us, but it is very important that we don't leave the ground. Terrorism, migration and organised crime are not a problem for Africans, they are a problem for everyone. That is why we must continue to talk to the strategic actors involved in the Sahel, short, medium and long-term solutions must be found to get us out of these crises, which are crises given by the media and political personalities of today, and I believe that we cannot throw away all the years of building the relationship for a bad moment. Of course we must be, and the Spanish population must be aware of this, because Africa is the future, it is our neighbour, and on top of that, we Spaniards share a border with them.