Sunset on operations: an RAF Chinook transits through the Hombori mountains in Mali in 2021. Image: Defence Imagery / OGL v3.0
As Russia displaces the West across West Africa, NATO members must examine how they plan to compete.
Operation Newcombe, expanded in 2019 to include the deployment of a British reconnaissance battlegroup as peacekeepers in Mali, was supposed to be at the core of a renewed UK strategy in the Sahel. Although the operation had started in 2013, the Sahel strategy sought to turn the corner of an expanding transnational terrorism threat spanning Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger.
On 22 March 2022, elements of the British reconnaissance battlegroup were laagered south of Gao when a Malian attack helicopter swung into view. To the indignation of the British peacekeepers, it unloaded a salvo of six rockets, which fortunately missed the British vehicles. The UK announced the withdrawal of its peacekeeping forces in November 2022, as two successive coups swept the Malian government from power and the country turned towards Russia for assistance. Although this change in trajectory may have appeared dramatic, the collapse of the UK Sahel Strategy reflected systemic problems in Western approaches to Africa that are likely to continue to see influence ceded to strategic competitors, with military juntas taking over four of the five countries in the Sahel in the last three years.
A Deteriorating Relationship
The second of Mali’s coups, in May 2021, saw a collapse in the country’s relationship with France. France took a harsher stance than after the first coup less than a year earlier and suspended joint operations with the Malian armed forces. Although the suspension only lasted a month, the diplomatic damage ran deep, and Mali’s transitional authorities turned to Russian mercenaries to continue their fight. Less than eight months later, the Malian junta expelled the French Ambassador and ended all military cooperation with France, forcing French troops to withdraw from the country.
During France and Mali’s public breakdown of relations in January 2022, neighbouring Burkina Faso experienced its eighth coup. Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba ousted the elected President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, citing heavy losses by the security forces in their fight against growing jihadist organisations in the country. International partners condemned the coup yet maintained security collaboration. However, security continued to deteriorate, and following Mali’s example, Burkina Faso became the second country in the region to experience two coups within a year when Captain Ibrahim Traoré took power from Colonel Damiba.
Just like in Mali, French symbols in the country were attacked as soldiers accused France of hiding ousted Colonel Damiba in one of its bases. The new military junta quickly announced their desire to seek other partners, and less than four months later, Burkina’s new junta expelled the French Ambassador and ended its military defence accord with France. Over the ensuing months, Burkina’s new junta intensified collaboration with Russia, which it now calls a ‘strategic ally’.
While the West has been proactive in degrading terrorist cells that pose a threat to Europe, it has been comfortable with a simmering political status quo on the ground
The deterioration in relations was not restricted to France. During 2022, the fraught relationship between the Malian authorities and the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA broke down over attacks by Malian armed forces against civilians, enabled by Russian mercenaries. The Malian authorities declared no-fly zones for MINUSMA while suspending troop rotations and denying UN observers access to the sites of massacres. In 2023, troop contributors started withdrawing their forces prematurely, while the junta expelled the mission’s Human Rights Director. A few months later, at the time of MINUSMA’s mandate renewal, the Malian authorities demanded an immediate departure of the UN mission, ending a decade of efforts to protect civilians and stabilise the country.
Drivers of Disillusionment
In 2015 an agreement was painstakingly brokered between Tuareg separatists and the Malian government. For the UN, this seemed like progress, but in Timbuktu local civilians were less certain. They were grateful to the peacekeepers who had shielded the town from incursions since its liberation from Al-Qa’ida in 2012. But as bandits attacked convoy after convoy, many feared that MINUSMA was also protracting the war. Enforcing the agreement also meant screening rebels from government troops. While MINUSMA protected civilians and provided employment, it also prevented anyone from being decisively defeated and kept the peace agreement on the table, but in the process left the issues at stake unresolved.
Elite frustration with Western partners stemmed from similar issues. In Bamako, the junta believed that the UN – interposing itself between their forces and rebel groups – was strangling the country’s sovereignty and preventing them from resolving the conflict. Overconfident in their own military power and disappointed in the perceived lack of progress of French and US counterterrorism operations, Malian authorities wanted to try a new external partner.
When the Russian government approached Malian officials, it did so with a pitch that appealed not only to the elites but also to a significant proportion of the Malian public. It promised to provide the military with tools to take the fight to the government’s opponents and actually change the position on the ground, without the constraints imposed by Western forces. Eventually, the Malian government concluded that it would prefer around 1,000 Russian mercenaries to 5,000 French troops. What followed were extensive attacks on civilian communities and the expansion of jihadist networks.
At the core of the West’s problem in West Africa is that while it has been proactive in degrading terrorist cells that pose a threat to Europe, it has been comfortable with a simmering political status quo on the ground.
The disillusionment with the West was arguably exacerbated by an emphasis in much Western assistance upon conflicting rather than common values. The promotion of gender equality in Mali – while supported by parts of society – sparked serious opposition from the High Islamic Council. LGBT advocacy similarly functioned as a wedge issue around which elites could mobilise public anger for their own pet causes. For elites, the dissatisfaction was built more around a perceived double standard in Western pronouncements. Compared to the money spent on – and attention given to – Ukraine by European states, for example, African leaders observed comparative indifference to conflicts in Tigray or Sudan and concluded that the hierarchy of Western interests meant there would never be the scale of investment sufficient to address their problems. As a consequence, they looked for other backers – from Turkey to Russia – initially in the pursuit of leverage, but over time as partners.
An Expanding Challenge
Much Western policy today speaks of a global competition for influence. The challenge this creates for Western policy is that prioritisation of resources has often revolved around the identification of core and peripheral interests. But in a competition, it is the incremental gains and losses over secondary interests that over time undermine or secure vital interests.
The key challenge is for the West to propose an approach that makes its partners feel in control and offers a path to conflict resolution rather than prolongation
Far from being deterred by the mutiny of Wagner mercenaries, the Kremlin is doubling down on its pursuit of influence in secondary theatres through the provision of fighters and other support. The countries targeted are opportunistic, but the strategy is systemic: to degrade Western economic leverage by building a coalition of partners that control key terrain and resources. In pursuit of this, the GRU – Russia’s military intelligence agency – is looking to build an expeditionary corps, using the remnants of Wagner as a foundation. Thus, while Western attention is fixed on Ukraine and Gaza, Russia is seeking to displace NATO on its Southern flank.
Niger is the latest state in the Sahel to fall victim to a military coup. With the country perceived as the last democratic bastion where Western troops could fight jihadist groups in the region, Niger’s coup in July 2023 took international partners by surprise and resulted in a divided response, which was quickly exploited by the junta. As French military collaboration was ended by the new authorities, US troops have remained in Niger to continue the fight against jihadists and counter intensified Russian collaboration with the junta.
In many respects the Russian offer is deceptive. The Russians may well enable their partners to fight as they would like, but there is little evidence to suggest that the petty massacres and chaotic brutality unleashed in central Mali are going to defeat rebel groups and jihadists. So far, they have had the opposite effect. At the same time, the methods Russia encourages often foreclose the West’s willingness to offer those complicit an alternative. But if the threat does not go away, and Russian support becomes indispensable to regime survival, then partners will become dependent and isolated.
The key challenge, therefore, is for the West to propose an approach that makes its partners feel in control and offers a path to conflict resolution rather than prolongation. At the same time, Western policymakers are once again going to need to explain to their publics why they must build bridges with actors now responsible for atrocities. This is a difficult path at a time when bureaucracies feel saturated by crises. But what is at stake is not just Western influence in West Africa; it is the proof of whether the West is capable of ‘competing’ in accordance with what its own security strategies prescribe.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Nina Wilén
Dr Jack Watling
Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare