After the military tensions between Russia and the West in the Black Sea, Africa becomes the focus where military powers could clash again. Several African countries are experiencing an increased Russian military presence. Following Moscow's ambitions to establish military bases in Sudan, Russia's interest has shifted to other African nations. On 23 June, Russia signed a military cooperation agreement with Mauritania during the 9th Moscow Conference on International Security. During the summit Russia also reaffirmed its support for Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela and strengthened its ties with countries such as Myanmar and China.
This pact with Mauritania will allow Russia to gain weight in the Sahel, a region plagued by jihadist terrorism and insecurity. The agreement also coincides with France's official withdrawal from the region, putting an end to Operation Barkhane. This mission, which has caused controversy both in Africa because of its colonial heritage and in France because of the number of casualties, will be replaced by a joint European operation. However, many of the troops do not have as many ties to the Sahel as France, so the new mission is expected to be weaker. For example, the Swedish parliament, which is participating in the operation, has approved the deployment only until the end of the year.
For this reason, Russia could become a key actor in the Sahel and the fight against terrorism to the detriment of European powers. However, some European media have pointed to alleged actions by Moscow to cause instability in order to gain influence.
The British newspaper The Times reported that the rebels who killed Chadian President Idriss Déby were trained in Libya by Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group. German media outlet DW suggested that two of the ringleaders of the coup in Mali, led by Colonel Assimi Goïta, spent a year at a military university in Russia. It is worth noting that both Idriss Déby and Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, former president of Mali, were strong allies of Emmanuel Macron in the Sahel.
In addition to the recent agreement signed with Mauritania, Russia has had more than 20 military cooperation pacts with other countries on the continent since 2015. In the case of the Sahel, some of the agreements are also security-related, such as with Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. With the latter, for example, it cooperates in the fight against terrorism and facilitates the exchange of military, political and international security-related information.
Another country with a significant Russian presence is the Central African Republic. Paramilitaries from the Russian Wagner group have been charged with defending the interests and stability of the government of Faustin-Archange Touadéra, an ally of Moscow. The same is true in Libya, where Marshal Khalifa Haftar is supported by Russia through Wagner's mercenaries. With the decline of Western presence and the spread of jihadism, it is only a matter of time before governments in the region try to look to Russia for help in containing the terrorists.
The 2019 Russia-Africa Summit was one of the key points in relations between African countries and Moscow. "We are not going to engage in a new sharing of the continent's wealth, rather we are ready to compete for cooperation in Africa. We have a lot to offer our African friends," said President Vladimir Putin at the summit in Sochi. Russia, unlike other European countries, does not have a bad colonialist image in Africa. The Soviet Union helped some African countries during the decolonisation process, so its presence on the continent does not cause as much rejection among African public opinion as other countries such as France.
The recent French withdrawal, coupled with the lack of US military presence in the Sahel, facilitates Russian plans for greater control in the region. Such projects could create a new centre of tension between Moscow and NATO, as is already the case elsewhere. Russia could also tackle jihadist terrorism, the biggest security problem in the region. Moscow has experience in this field in other areas such as Syria, where it has confronted Daesh on several occasions.
Moscow's interests also include the region's abundant natural resources, although here it could clash with China. The Asian giant has promoted large commercial projects in Africa to exploit natural resources as part of what many analysts already consider a process of 'neo-colonisation'.