In other words, the intervention was a complete failure from a security standpoint. This pattern of failure can be found anywhere Russia and Russian paramilitaries intervene. In Libya, a contingent of about 2,000 Wagner mercenaries failed to help General Haftar's forces besiege Tripoli in September 2019. In Mozambique, in the fall of 2019, the same mercenaries provided security assistance to battle against the Islamic State's jihadist insurgency in Cabo Delgado, only to face a rapid onslaught.
Even in the Central African Republic, where mercenaries-supported by Russian state structures (diplomacy, army)-accomplished the incredible feat of gaining control over security forces, mining concessions, and financial institutions, they still cannot receive credit for the collapse of the rebel group known as the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) that was threatening Bangui in December 2020. Indeed, had Rwandan special forces (the main military force on the ground) and MINUSCA not intervened, Russian instructors would have had a hard time waging war, accompanied only by ill-equipped, underpaid and chronically bullied Central African Armed Forces.
Calling Russia's security overture what it really is
If Russia’s security offer is a mirage in terms of accomplishments, why has it been so popular? Why do so many beleaguered actors turn to the heirs of Soviet collaborators in the early years of the Cold War? How can this phenomenon be explained from the perspective of clients? Indeed, Russia's reasons for this measured and affordable expansion strategy are clear: profitable leverage in its confrontation with the West and appropriation of resources. These inroads are no longer driven by the political objective to spread the gospel of socialism, but by the opportunistic exploitation of African conflicts for economic reasons, coupled with strategic considerations spurred on by real imperial messianism.
- A life insurance policy: Here lies the number one reason behind such contractual arrangements. Whether it be Bachar al-Assad on the brink of collapse, Faustin-Archange Touadéra's highly contentious reelection, Khalifa Haftar losing Washington’s support, or Malian colonels steering a fragile transition and becoming entangled in a diplomatic stalemate, contested political regimes have continually been propped up by Russian forces. Russia's presence has rebalanced power and stabilized its allies to thwart any possible military threats being contemplated by the West. A rather hypocritical paradox when considering that Western neocolonialism, largely denounced in the propaganda parroted by Russia, offered the same guarantee in the past.
- A lever to become involved in internal affairs: in Africa, the Russian mirage is mobilized to cater to a public opinion with new-found aspirations, particularly captivated by pan-African emancipation movements that Russian propaganda and agents of influence used to indoctrinate. "Client" regimes pull on this lever to gain legitimacy and exert greater pressure on domestic opposition, echoing Russia's own exploitation to put pressure on reluctant "new clients". Political forces also view Russian engagement as a tool to seize power and dispose of existing regimes. One thing should therefore be absolutely clear: although the "spontaneous" pro-Russian rallies in West Africa speak volumes about France's eroding image, they are all too often political chicanery compensated by the local government or by Russia...one of the many tools at the disposal of so-called "hybrid warfare" strategies.
- A strategic, but unsurprising risk-taking strategy: By studying "Russia's withdrawal from the continent" in the post-Soviet period of the 1990s, it is clear that this phase is just an exception in Russia's history. A large number of African elites, from the military, in particular, were trained in Moscow and still feel attached to and in awe of Russia. There is therefore nothing extraordinary about Cold War instincts resurfacing. African and Arab leaders can sense that the West's strategy is fragile. And because they are confronted with major endogenous challenges that have forever been underestimated and become insurmountable, it is natural to look for easy solutions rather than re-examine their destructive social, economic and historical policies. This is a risky and long-term gamble but one that is rationally calculated over the short term. Indeed, restoring long-dreamt-of sovereignty is just as much at stake as regaining a role in a multipolar and changing world. Trapped in never-ending national crises, often due to short-sightedness with respect to their own turpitudes, political leaders can also gain in stature among nations, challenge the Western system, and latch onto another power.
Outlook for Africa: costs and benefits of the proposition
African political leaders and populations must carefully consider the stakes and the risk that comes along with them. As Moscow and Wagner mercenaries continue to search for opportunities ripe to exploit, what will the reaction be from the leaders of Burkina Faso, Togo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and Chad, who are either already in discussions with, or eyed by, Russia?
In similar fashion to the "Françafrique" they seem to forget they loathe, these leaders will always be sure to find a guarantee of stabilization in the Russian solution as long as security challenges persist: Burkina Faso remains the scene of an active and violent insurgency with almost half of the country under jihadist control; Togo and its neighbors in the Gulf of Guinea are now the targets of regular attacks in the north of their countries; The Democratic Republic of the Congo is reeling from a double blow of violence, with a resurgence in attacks by the M23 rebel group, and steadfast activism by the Islamic State's Congolese branch; Sudan is experiencing a tug of war between President Burhan, civil society and General Hemeti, Commander of the Rapid Support Forces, whose visit to Moscow in March 2022 did not go unnoticed; and Chad, currently engaged in difficult national dialogue, is contested by armed historical opponents who are reportedly in bed with Russia.
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