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After Wagner, Russia makes new military plans in Africa

Martina Schwikowski | Kossivi Tiassou | Jean Fernand Koena in Bangui
February 9, 2024

The Wagner Group used to serve Russia's interests in Africa — unofficially. But with Wagner's collapse, Russian President Vladimir Putin has launched a new Africa Corps, with soldiers officially deployed to Burkina Faso.

Several men hold up Burkinabe and Russian flag during a demostration
After the coup in September 2022, supporters of junta leader Ibrahim Traore carried the flags of both Burkina Faso and Russia during ralliesImage: ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

The depth of the ties between Burkina Faso and Russian President Vladimir Putin was made clear a few days ago, when Moscow decided to help the country's military junta out by sending 100 military staff to Ouagadougou — even as the war in Ukraine continues unabated.

According to a Telegram post, these soldiers are supposed to help protect junta leader Ibrahim Traore as well as the general public from terrorist attacks.

But as members of the newly established Russian Africa Corps landed in the capital city, it was clear they would de facto be taking over from the defunct Wagner Group — Russia's infamous private military contractor led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who died in a mysterious plane crash last August.

However, the new unit, in contrast to Wagner, will now be directly subordinate to Russia's Defense Ministry. Another 200 soldiers will also soon be dispatched to the area, according to the Telegram message.

Praise for Russian soldiers

Supporters of the junta in Ouagadougou praised the arrival of Russian soldiers.

"They are here to train our men for handling weapons which the Burkinabe state has ordered. It is natural that they have come to train them," said Nestor Podasse, leader of a movement close to the junta.

Podasse was among the first to post pictures of the Russian soldiers upon their arrival.

Even for many people who have no ties to the junta, or who might even be opposed to the military dictatorship, the arrival of the Russian soldiers may come as a relief.

Burkina Faso has been experiencing a downward spiral of jihadi violence for years, with some groups overtly displaying their ties to terrorist groups like the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) and al-Qaeda.

These groups also have regional allegiances with jihadi insurgent groups in the neighboring countries of Mali and Niger, which are also governed by military juntas.

Russia growing its regional influence

By deploying Africa Corps soldiers to the Sahel region, Putin is again showing off his influence on the continent, particularly in West Africa.

According to Russian historian Irina Filatova, a professor emeritus at University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, the new military structure is intended for deployment in five African countries: Burkina Faso, Libya, the Central African Republic, Mali and Niger.

In terms of security arrangements, Russia is their new partner of choice, Filatova told DW. "Putin is very interested in Africa, especially West Africa. According to the Western narrative, Russia is isolated. But Putin can show that Africa supports him."

Handshake between Ibrahim Traore, wearing miltary attire, and Vladimir Putin, wearing a black suit
Putin welcomed Burkina Faso's junta leader, Ibrahim Traore, at his Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg in July 2023Image: Alexander Ryumin/dpa/Tass/picture alliance

In practical terms, added Filatova, Russia hopes to establish the Africa Corps as an instrument of foreign affairs.

Those five countries are used to seeing a Russian presence. Before the establishment of the Africa Corps, Wagner mercenaries were engaged to fight Islamist terror in the region, while also serving as guards for local leaders.

Their presence, however, also helped Russia grow its economic influence on the region.

The Kremlin used to downplay the extent to which the mercenaries served its political agenda. But with the launch of a dedicated military unit for Africa, there are hardly any questions left about Russia's interest in the region.

Kremlin wastes no time in restructuring initiative

The Kremlin was quick to recalibrate its strategy in Africa after the demise of the Wagner Group.

When Wagner boss Prigozhin staged a revolt against the Russian military and ordered his mercenaries to march toward Moscow in June 2023, he had clearly overstepped a line with Putin. Eight weeks later, he was presumed dead in a plane crash

Two Burkina Faso government members and the Russian ambassador are talking behind bags of grain carrying the flags of both countries
Aid deliveries of wheat (seen here) or fertilizer to African countries are also seen as a way for Russia to wield soft power in the regionImage: FANNY NOARO-KABRE/AFP

A few months later, in late November, the French newspaper Le Monde reported that in a Telegram channel close to the Russian Defense Ministry, the name "Africa Corps" had been circulated for the first time.

Some of the soldiers involved in the unit are believed to be former Wagner mercenaries, said Filatova, while others were being recruited in their countries of deployment.

Putin 'protecting the regimes' in Africa

"The interventions of Russian services, be it in Niger, Mali or Burkina Faso, first and foremost serve the purpose of protecting the regimes and only to a lesser degree to fight against jihadis," French military analyst General Dominique Trinquand told DW.

Filatova agreed with that assessment, saying the main focus of the unit in Burkina Faso will be to protect junta leader Traore.

Since the coup in September 2022, the ruling junta has distanced itself from its former key ally, France. As former colonial ruler, Paris kept close ties after the country gained independence in 1960.

Now that the junta has expelled French troops, it has intensified its ties with Russia. Recently, the three countries of Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali also turned their backs on ECOWAS — the regional economic alliance, which also enjoys support from the West.

What is Wagner's future in CAR after Prigozhin's death?

But this isn't just a case of swapping partners for a marriage of convenience in the economic arena. The partnership between Russia and West African nations may bring about other important political gains for Putin, which could echo much farther .

Filatova argued that in the UN General Assembly, and potentially even in the Security Council, "the Sahel countries could vote for Russia and inspire other African countries to follow."

In other words, Putin's growing influence in the Sahel may not just be about the region itself — even though Russia continues to have economic interests in the Sahel's vast mineral resources.

Plans for a Russian military base in CAR

When it comes to the complexity of Russia's expanding influence in Africa, one country strikes a perfect example: the Central African Republic (CAR). In 2018, CAR decided to build stronger ties with Russia, signing a defense agreement.

This paved the way for greater military influence of Wagner mercenaries in the country.

The next step is supposed to be the opening of an official Russian military base in the southern town of Berengo, equipped to meet the needs of 10,000 soldiers. Berengo already has an airport and other installments necessary for running a military base.

Men and women in official attire sit under a military tarpaulin, with men in camouflage standing in the foreground
CAR's president, Faustin Archangel Touadera, has been deepening his country's ties with Russia for yearsImage: FLORENT VERGNES/AFP/Getty Images

According to Fidele Gouandjika, minister and adviser to CAR President Faustin Archange Touadera, the base will serve as a hub for activities in the whole region due to its strategic position.

"We have wished for Russia to increase its presence in CAR to be able to intervene in case there appear to be problems with terrorism or leaders who want to destabilize the regimes in Central Africa," Gouandjika told DW, adding that his country was ready to start constructing the base.

Civil rights activist Paul Crescent Beninga described the CAR plan as a paradox. "We are under the impression that we have just switched rulers. We left France only to bow down to Russia," he said.

This article was originally written in German.

Correction, February 9, 2024: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Fidele Gouandjika. DW apologizes for the error.

Edited by: Sertan Sanderson