Oct 13, 2022 - World

Inside the French effort to counter Russian mercenaries in Africa

The flags of Russia and Burkina Faso are raised after a coup in Ouagadougou. Photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images

A different red, white and blue striped flag has appeared during recent demonstrations in francophone West African capitals: Russia's.

Driving the news: That scene played out most recently during Burkina Faso’s Sept. 30 coup. Protesters attacked the French embassy and a French cultural center amid rumors that France was harboring the ousted president or planning to intervene militarily. That was all disinformation, French officials say. They point the finger at Russia.

  • Similar anti-France demonstrations and attacks on French missions have taken place in Mali and Chad.
  • That's left officials in Paris trying to assess just how widespread pro-Russian and anti-French sentiments are in the volatile Sahel region — and where exactly those flags are coming from.
  • Behind the scenes: 10 senior French officials, who declined to be named, briefed Axios and two other U.S. news outlets on France’s evolving strategy in Africa during meetings in Paris this week.

One name kept popping up in those meetings: Yevgeny Prigozhin, the oligarch and Putin ally who founded the Wagner Group and allegedly oversees an army of online trolls.

  • The latest French estimate is that 2,400 Wagner mercenaries are in Africa, primarily in Mali and the Central African Republic. Both countries have effectively cut ties with France in favor of Russia.
  • Wagner has also popped up, with mixed results, in Libya, Madagascar and Mozambique.

France had remained the dominant power in West Africa long after decolonization, but Russia's influence appears to be growing there despite the war in Ukraine.

  • French officials believe Prigozhin and perhaps the Kremlin itself are funding online campaigns and local NGOs that spread anti-French narratives.
  • Moscow has long denied links to Wagner, though state media has recently celebrated the shadowy group's role in Ukraine.
  • The Kremlin has also increased its overt outreach to African leaders in recent years, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov making several visits.

The French armed forces have established an information warfare unit focused on spotting and countering “information attacks” flowing from Russia.

  • That’s part of a strategy to “neutralize Wagner in Africa” by making the case that the group does not provide security, but brings “murder and exploitation,” one official says.
  • France claimed earlier this year to have thwarted an attempt by Wagner mercenaries to dig a mass grave in Mali and blame it on French troops.
  • “We’re not competing with Wagner, we’re competing with a Russian effort to expel France and the West from Africa,” the same official contends, adding: “We are really busy.”

Between the lines: Some of the anti-French sentiment that spreads online is drawn from the brutal colonial history. But one senior official says it’s mostly driven by the failure to defeat extremist groups. “We are associated with this failure.”

The backstory: French troops completed their withdrawal from Mali in August after nine years battling an Islamist insurgency there that metastasized throughout the region

  • Junta leader Assimi Goïta, who took power in a 2020 coup, pushed the French out of Mali and reportedly welcomed in Wagner, though he claims to only be working with "Russian trainers."
  • French troops continue to operate out of Niger. There were anti-French protests there last month too, also featuring Russian flags.
  • In a shift aimed at changing the narrative, French officials want to keep their military operations under the radar and focus more attention on the hundreds of millions of euros they're providing in aid and development projects.

Wagner, by contrast, is seeking to turn a profit as it establishes footholds in some of the poorest and most lawless places on earth, one French official says.

  • “Russia is not China. They have never built a bridge in Africa,” one officials says.
  • Western governments and the UN accuse the group of committing widespread human rights violations and exploiting natural resources like diamonds and timber.
  • French officials believe word of those abuses will spread, and few countries outside of failed states will have any interest in Wagner. In the meantime, they know they have a fight on their hands.
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