While the world has been watching the events and tensions unfold in Ukraine, and rightfully so, since the Russians have amassed more than 130,000 troops and counting on the borders, many have turned a blind eye toward the security situation in Africa.
And the situation there has implications for the European community as well, which is why the countries of Western Europe have gotten involved. As Islamic jihadist terror grows in Sub-Saharan Africa, more and more of the people get displaced, and they’ll set their eyes on resettling in Europe which is ill-equipped to handle more.
And as the threat grows, so too does Russian disinformation programs, as Moscow looks to grow its influence and undermine the United States, NATO and the West at every turn. Look no further than what has transpired in Mali as an example.
Background on Mali Insurgency:
A Tuareg rebellion against the Malian government in 2012 was quickly hijacked by Islamic terror groups as al-Qaeda and the Islamic States created offshoots of their organizations to create large new areas for them to expand. Mali is located in the Sahel, a semi-arid Sub-Saharan country that is suffering from climate change, that it can ill-afford.
France, reacted to its former colony’s plight and sent 5,100 troops during “Operation Barkhane” beginning in 2013. The tactical results were immediate as French combat troops and special operations forces quickly pushed the insurgents nearly completely out of Malian territory and isolated them in a tiny remote section of the country.
But Mali’s political leadership did little to eradicate the root causes of the insurgency as well as provide the basic needs for the people and had precious little presence in the outlying areas of the country. As a result, the insurgents were able to regroup, reform and slowly gain back ground. They also spread the fight to the other countries that make up the G5 Sahel, (Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania). And they’ve had a steady supply of recruits among the young people who have little prospects with the current situation. The terror groups have played upon this fact.
The fighting has been reduced to a stalemate, while French troops carry any tactical fight they are involved in, the insurgents, hit small Malian military outposts and civilian areas, which are easy targets. Without a political solution along with the military one, the insurgency will carry on and on.
The French people were growing tired of their troops, fighting and dying so far from home and have grown increasingly ready to pull its troops home. President Emmanuel Macron has been trying to get more of the EU’s troops involved in the fight while cutting back the number of French troops. He created the Special Operations Task Force “Takuba” which means saber in Taureg. The special operations forces from several EU countries has been training the host nation forces of all five G5 Sahel countries and working by, with, and through them on the battlefield.
But the political situation is in a shamble. Mali’s military conducted a coup in August of 2020 and deposed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, while detaining most of the government leaders. The military junta was led by Colonel Assimi Goita. They installed an interim government and promised new elections in 18 months.
The interim government shuffled cabinet posts and began to remove many of the military members from high-level cabinet posts. In May of 2021, the military conducted another coup and arrested interim President Bah N’daw, Prime Minister Moctar Ouane and Minister of Defense Souleymane Doucouré.
The promised elections were postponed for five years according to Goita who had now assumed the presidency. Macron and the French government were outraged and the UN which has been running a large peace-keeping mission (MINUSMA), condemned the coup along with the US, UK, and the African Union. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) suspended Mali and closed their borders to trade. But there were other factors involved.
Russian Disinformation Operations in Africa:
There has been a steady influx of Russian disinformation programs running in Mali and in Africa for some time. After crippling sanctions by the West after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Russians have turned their eyes to Africa.
The continent is rich with minerals, the opportunities to strike trade agreements were a great chance for the Russian economy to thrive. So, they began in December 2019, a massive social media disinformation operation that took in about 30 countries, promoting a global anti-cybercrime treaty that rights groups argue could place severe limits onfree speech and access to information.
In October of 2019, Facebook removed 73 fake pages that produced 48,000 pieces of content that was beneficial to Russian interests over 18 months that drew in about 1.7 million users and generating 9.7 million total interactions. All of the pages were traced back to companies tied to Russian financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, a member of President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle who’d previously bankrolled the infamous Internet Research Agency, a troll farm in St. Petersburg at the forefront of Russian efforts to undermine US democracy.
Russian disinformation is one of the primary tools of the Gerasimov Doctrine. The results in Mali have been extremely effective. The anti-French and Western propaganda is clear to see while people were seen in the streets holding pre-printed placards calling for more Russian influence, while waving Russian flags during the 2020 coup. Prior to the coup, Russia had next to no bilateral, cultural, or historical ties with Mali.
With an economy the size of Spain’s and manufacturing industries that have little benefit to Malians, Russia in actuality has little to offer. Russian disinformation programs also began massive anti-French messaging in the Central African Republic (CAR), and Madagascar.
But by promising cheap military contracts and supporting isolated leaders and proxies that will do Moscow’s bidding they have been successful.
Wagner Group, Independent Military Contractors or Russian Government?
The shadowy Wagner Group that is ostensibly owned by Prigozhin, works cheaply, much more so than Western military companies. And cash-strapped African nations lured by the Russian disinformation programs and in need of military assistance fall for the lure of inexpensive assistance.
Besides Mali, where Wagner Group mercs are currently working, the Russians have contractors in Sudan, South Sudan, Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR), Madagascar and Mozambique, as well as in Botswana, Burundi, Chad, the Comoros, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Nigeria and Zimbabwe according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
But in the case of inexpensive (cheap) military assistance, you generally get what you pay for. In almost every country where Wagner has operated in, human rights abuses have followed them. The Russians don’t care about fixing political situations as long as the leaders friendly to Moscow remain in power and the mineral rights keep the money flowing to Russia.
They’ve failed in Mozambique, as in Mali, with little language capability, cultural awareness, and familiarity with the terrain, they’ve been pushed backwards by members of ISIS. They’ve been routed in Libya and took horrendous casualties when they attempted to attack a US base in Syria along with a Syrian militia.
However, Moscow has a built-in plausible deniability to any of the mercs heavy-handedness, including extrajudicial killings that Wagner Group operatives commit. But make no mistake, the Russian government calls the shots. Wagner contractors are trained on Russian military bases and are transported to and from assignments on Russian military aircraft.
Are they in fact “contractors” or just Russian military personnel working in a deniable role free of diplomatic constraints?
The Wagner Group does not officially exist, with no company registration, tax returns or organizational chart to be found, and the group’s size and finances are as shadowy as Prigozhin himself.
It has all had an effect. Mali is now restricting flights of Western military aircraft that are there supporting efforts to stem the flow of the jihadist insurgency. The Mali junta ordered the removal of a Danish Special Forces unit that was part of the Takuba Task Force. This week they ordered the expulsion of the French Ambassador.
This is having an effect on the EU’s efforts in the country. Germany is contemplating pulling its troops out of the country as the military junta won’t allow the German’s Israeli-made reconnaissance drones fly without 36-hour notice. Norway, who has one of the best Special Operations units in Europe is now canceling its troop deployment to Takuba.
And now even France is mulling whether to remain helping its former colony, now that their ambassador was kicked out.
“We are discussing with partners the number of troops we’d need to keep in order to continue the fight against terrorism,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in an interview with the public broadcaster France 2. “The situation cannot remain as it is.”
Mali’s actions are premeditated to get Western European nations out. Russia will immediately step in to fill the gaps of their security. But be careful what you ask for. If Mali’s ruling junta takes a good look around at where the Russians have been, it wouldn’t be a cause for optimism.
Authored by SOFX Contributing Editor, Steve Balestrieri