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Russia's Bid to Provide Security in Africa: An Illusory Solution

Russia's Bid to Provide Security in Africa: An Illusory Solution
 Jonathan Guiffard
Senior Fellow - Defense and Africa

A tantalizing offer

As soon as Russian military forces set foot in Syria to join the civil war in September 2015, a "new" narrative started to circulate, spreading the idea that Russia was now in a position to offer robust, direct and non-Western security assistance to countries and actors in search of effective stabilization. 

The array of services and options relies on several concrete levers including the supply of weapons, military instruction and mercenary forces, as well as the assurance of combat unfettered by any Western rules of engagement. Russia appears as a providential actor that is making the most of the current economic zeitgeist ("spirit of the age") in which Western countries are exhausted, scarred and delegitimized after twenty years of war on terror.

Russia sweetens its bid with an aggressive political and diplomatic campaign, both official and unofficial, by breathing new life into Soviet anticolonial rhetoric. For example, Russia has organized demonstrations conjuring up historical ties to Africa’s wars of liberation during the Cold War to cast itself in a positive light and at the helm of the direct opposition to Western unilateralism, particularly in the Arab world and African continent.

This coherent, nimble and progressive strategy is being deployed by a range of Russian actors, both from the public and private sectors.

This coherent, nimble and progressive strategy is being deployed by a range of Russian actors, both from the public and private sectors, to capitalize on American and French strategic difficulties and swiftly offer turnkey solutions. It is also underpinned by the positive image of Russian military accomplishments: Russia is solicited because the assumption is that it can succeed where the West has failed. 

This is a highly disputable assessment owing to a widespread illusion among African leaders and populations who face complex security challenges. The horrific situations they must endure, particularly in the Sahel region, compel them to search for a way out. In reality, Russia's security proposal is largely based on flawed preconceptions among local populations, which some African decision-makers use to conceal the true reasons behind Russia’s engagement. 

The case of Russian instructors in Mali against the jihadist threat

As 2021 neared its end, over one thousand Russian mercenaries from the private military company commonly known as the Wagner Group were deployed to Mali, at the request of the country's transitional government. This large and well-equipped contingent joined Malian Armed Forces in Bamako and, shortly thereafter, in central and northern parts of the country (Mopti Cercle, Timbuktu, Menaka and Gao). 

Mali’s military rulers justified the decision to hire Wagner operatives as a response to the offer made by Paris to G5 Sahel states to restructure Operation Barkhane (a French-led anti-insurgent operation against Islamist terrorist groups in the Sahel, active since 2014). Specifically, France would wind down its presence in Mali -deemed excessive, unadapted and counterproductive- but boost supplies of equipment, training and targeted combat support. The proposal was turned down by the Malian government and, to justify the high financial and political costs to come as a consequence, the junta provided reassurance by confirming that Russian cooperation would help succeed where France had failed: on the military front.

Whether this position is cynical or rooted in conviction, it does not hold water. The scope of Bamako’s confrontation is gradually evolving from solely fighting terrorism to achieving a balance of power with two jihadist organizations: the Sahel branches of Al Qaeda (Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin; JNIM) and the Islamic State (Wilayat al-Sahel; ISGS)

Today, the JNIM counts at least 2,000 to 3,000 fighters, the vast majority of which are leading a very effective strategy of asymmetric "hit and run-type" guerilla warfare against Malian Armed Forces bases and patrols in central and southern parts of the country. The militant group also has the capacity to maneuver and retreat in the north where it no longer faces any resistance. The ISGS has about 500 to 1,000 fighters, engaged in direct combat in the three borders regions (Oudalan province of Burkina Faso, Liptako Gourma region of Niger and Mali) through the efficient and elusive mobilization of hundreds of jihadists who then run off into an ocean of dunes and tree-lined ravines.

One can therefore understand why Malian forces, still in training, are not able to wage war, having already lost control over half of the country in 2012 to the same enemy, which at the time had much less experience and far fewer fighters. It is important to underscore, however, that Russian mercenaries have no experience of their own in counter-terrorism and deploy brutal and inadequate operating procedures that proved to be ineffective in Afghanistan (1979-1989) and Syria (2015-) and modestly successful at best in Chechnya. Indeed, the "pacification" of this breakaway republic in the Soviet Caucasus came at the cost of two gruesome wars (1994-1996; 1999-2006/2009) and multiple anti-terrorist operations against a national insurgency supported by Islamist groups.

The Russian model is based on a large number of ground troops, air superiority as well as systematic and brutal house-to-house mop-up operations in villages suspected of harboring terrorists.

The Russian interventions led to the death of several hundred thousand people, mostly non-combatants, the antithesis of what counter-terrorism seeks to achieve: precision and the protection of civilian life.

The Russian model is based on a large number of ground troops, air superiority as well as systematic and brutal house-to-house mop-up operations in villages suspected of harboring terrorists. 

Yet, mercenaries deployed in Mali do not have sufficient resources to launch a massive bombing campaign (a few aging fighter jets) or any practical anchoring points (nomadic enemies not commonly found in urban environments). They do, however, become a major catalyst for the jihadist insurgency. Serial massacres (Moura in April 2022 and Nia Ouro in September 2022) create a spiral effect and become the symptom of a failing military solution. This largely explains the swelling insurgency, particularly among settlements of Fulani civilians, a favorite target of the Russian-Malian strategy. In turn, this instability runs the risk of being used as an excuse by the JNIM to surround Bamako, likely leading to the de facto fragmentation of Mali in the future.

The result of Russia's intervention in Mali is staring us in the face. According to the non-profit organization ACLED (The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project), 2022 is already the deadliest year for Mali and Burkina Faso since the conflict started in 2013. It should come as no surprise that the Malian Armed Forces, which face well-known difficulties, have not scored any meaningful victories. But not only have Russian mercenaries obviously not had any success on the ground of their own (even if only symbolic), but they also managed to fan the flames of the conflict.

Previous failures: Syria, Libya, Mozambique

This impending failure was easy to anticipate by examining the predicament in which other countries find themselves after inviting Russia to provide security assistance. The first to have started painting this brand image is, of course, Syria. Russia's military intervention helped prevent the collapse of Bachar al-Assad’s regime, loosen the rebel and jihadist noose around Damas and regain control in central Syria. From listening to Russian and Syrian authorities spin the narrative, this "success story" would have continued and even ended the war if the United States and Turkey had not interfered and deployed their own strategies.

This pattern of failure can be found anywhere Russia and Russian paramilitaries intervene.

Yet the facts don't lie. In spite of Russia's largest military intervention since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Syrian regime only managed to climb out of isolation by negotiating the safe passage of enemies in opposition-held areas; it has still not regained real control of the country's central (the Badia desert) and southern (Daraa region) provinces; and it does not have the requisite military capabilities to do battle with its enemies in the northwest (Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and rebel coalition) and the northeast (Syrian Democratic Forces).

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 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.

Countries risk being disappointed when they see their military resources (equipment, training) arrive from Moscow, particularly now that Russia has expended a significant portion of its military apparatus in Ukraine. Massive deployments from Soviet times are a thing of the past, just when Wagner operatives are being pulled out of battlefields to support the war effort in the Donbas region of Ukraine. It goes without saying that collaborators and instructors will still be more than happy to help "clients" exploit their raw materials, the common thread of Russia's approach (oil in Libya, iron ore in the Central African Republic, gold in Mali, etc.).

These leaders will always be sure to find a guarantee of stabilization in the Russian solution as long as security challenges persist

If this blueprint fails to respond to the legitimate security aspirations of African populations, nations run the risk of replacing "one master with another". Sovereignty, treasured by current African elites, will once again be infringed upon.

In addition, security challenges will not just conveniently go away as this game of poker forgets one key variable: the tenacity of jihadists on the battlefield which has been continually underestimated even as they demonstrate tremendous resilience, a strong sense of initiative and unquestionable fighting abilities. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are not the United States, France, Algeria, or Morocco, nor are they their henchmen. They are two autonomous organizations that are hell-bent on destroying the current political institutions of the countries where they deploy, "whatever the cost".

Electing to go the Russian route runs the risk of being a losing proposition each and every time: gradual isolation of countries and their leaders; loss of financial backing from the international community; gradual loss of control over national territories; destruction of institutions by Russia’s new colonial mindset and subsequent string of jihadist military victories... consequences that could come with a high price tag in exchange for a life insurance policy. The balance of power is different from what it was during the Cold War. Russia does not have the same political and economic clout as the Soviet Union and therefore cannot compensate for the international isolation of its allies. Countries facing security threats, whether in Africa or elsewhere, will therefore only achieve safety through exacting solutions. These might certainly be difficult to pursue and complex to implement, but they will measure up to the challenges encountered by these nations. Against the jihadist trap, two decades of Western intervention have shown that there is no such thing as a shortcut.


Copyright: Florent VERGNES/ AFP

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