The Wagner Group in the Sahel: Russian interests in a world of great power competition

  Focus - Allegati
  02 marzo 2023
  22 minuti, 45 secondi


Over the years, the Sahel region has become increasingly exposed to hybrid and transnational threats. Such environment has demonstrated potential to alter political and economic balances in world politics, leading both African and non-African countries to develop strategies to contain and prevent such critical situation. Among the actors involved in the region, the Russian Federation has increased its efforts to improverelationships with African countries. Especially in the Sahel, Moscow emphasised its influence through the presence of the notorious private military company, the Wagner Group, which represents at the moment one of the most influential strategies adopted by the Kremlin in Sub-Saharan Africa. The current analysis aims atbetter understanding the role of the Wagner Group by focusing on one of the most unstable regions in the African continent. By analysing the case of Mali, it will be possible to draw an initial analysis on how Moscow seeks to gain much more influence in the African continent. Being the Sahel an important theatre of great power competition, the Wagner Group places itself in a region where other countries and internationalentities already tried to bring stability, without any success. However, many episodes of violence against civilians in which Wagner was involved have further destabilised the region, letting Sahelian jihadists groups gain much more support and resilience over the territory.

A cura di Giacomo Andolfatto - Senior Researcher, G.E.O. Difesa & Sicurezza


Within the African continent, the Sahel is one of its most challenging regions. In response to the growing security threats, not only given by several coup d’états and the presence of terrorist groups, but also by other issues related to illegal activities, such as human trafficking and drug sale, or conflicts based on ethnic diversity, many regional security initiatives have been deployed. However, despite the effort provided over the time, the entire region is facing a constant “fragility dilemma”, in which States are in desperate need for an external assistance, making them dependent on the aid coming from the international community and other countries’ efforts, even though they do not have enough capacity to absorb completely the assistance provided (Bøas, 2019). This sort of paradox leads to a constant state of instability in the region, as the governance of the Sahelian States is too weak to respond effectively to security challenges. With millions of people displaced (Le Monde, 2021), change of governments in an already unstable region, and increasing jihadist insurgencies threatening the States’ integrity, the Sahel keeps its position as one of the most unstable regions under a serious humanitarian crisis.

Among the actors involved in the Sahel, as well as in the rest of the African continent, the Russian Federation has increased efforts to improve its relationships with African countries. Moscow emphasised its role via a multi-layered action: from a political point of view, the Russian Federation “is likely to attempt to obtain political leverage on the European Union by taking control of the major migration route crossing the Sahel and North Africa” (Grey Dynamics, 2020); whereas from an economic perspective, Russia offers support, securing natural resources and deals on nuclear energy in exchange, especially in countries that are rich of oil, gas, or minerals, such as Burkina Faso, Mali, or Chad (Bashir, 2020, and Adibe, 2019).

Along with these engagements, the deployment of private military companies (PMCs) such as the Wagner Group represents one of the most influential strategies for the Kremlin. Even though the establishment and use of PMCs is technically considered illegal by Russia (Marten, 2019), the Wagner Group “is closely, often directly, connected to the Russian state”, as much evidence shows that the private group currently owned by the Russian oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin, “relies on Russian military infrastructure, from using a shared base to being transported by Russian military aircraft to using military health care services” (Rácz, 2020). Over the years, the Wagner Group has expanded its activities in the African continent, reaching the Sahel with its deployment in Mali in 2021. Being an essential part of the Kremlin’s hybrid warfare strategy, Russia has primarily used Prigozhin’s mercenaries to expand its geographic scope, to target resource-rich countries with an unstable governmental structure, in order to provide “military and security support for economic gains and political influence” (Katz, Jones, Doxsee, and Harrington, 2020).

The current analysis aims at better understanding the role of the Wagner Group by focusing on one of the most unstable regions in the African continent. By analysing its role in Mali, it will be possible to draw an initial analysis on how Moscow seeks to gain much more influence in the African continent, without de facto stabilising the territory in which the PMC operates. Being the Sahel an important theatre of great power competition, the Wagner Group places itself in a region where other countries and international entities already tried to bring stability, without any success. As already noted by other analysts, “Africa is becoming more strategically important to Russia, both economically and politically”, as the war in Ukraine led to the establishment of sanctions against Moscow, producing disruptive effects on the Russian economy (Stanyard, Vircoulon, and Rademeyer, 2023). And within this context, the Wagner Group represents an important channel, in which Russia might promote its interests, by presenting an alternative to what the West has tried to pursue in the territory, in order to strengthen its partnerships with countries in the southern part of the world.

Wagner's Role in Africa

According to Stanyard, Vircoulon and Rademeyer (2023), the Wagner Group applies a multilateral strategy, when it comes to operate in the African continent (with different degrees of engagement from one country to another):

  • Militarily, by the deployment of its troops in the territory “in the service of weakened autocratic governments seeking support in fighting insurgencies, rebel groups or civil wars”.
  • Politically, Wagner-linked organisations “allegedly offered political strategy and advice for leaders”, or run disinformation campaigns, which include fake polling results and campaigns aimed at dissuading demonstrators from protesting against the national government.
  • And economically, by creating networks with companies, mostly coming from the energy sector, in order to pursue commercial interests in those countries, where Wagner has provided support (ibid.).

With this multi-layered strategy, the Wagner Group has rapidly become an important tool for Moscow’s influence in the continent, which helped in replacing other countries’ efforts and expanding its influence. Even though Moscow continues to deny its relationship with Wagner (being a private organisation, and not part of the Russian state apparatus), the latter supports the Kremlin in pursuing its strategic goals (Lyammouri and Eddazi, 2020). Especially because of the war in Ukraine that led to the establishment of sanctions against the Kremlin, partnerships with African countries have become essential for the Russian economy. Indeed, many governments paid the Wagner Group “by granting them access to valuable natural resource deposits, such as gold, oil, and chromite” (Karr, 2023). Indeed, by using a private military proxy and by reaching agreements aimed at providing training and conducting operations in the territory, in exchange for access to natural resources, the Wagner Group “maintains strong, if quiet, links to the Kremlin, conducting operations that directly support Putin’s geopolitical objectives” (Clooney, Gudzowska, and Prendergast, 2022).

Another important element that needs to be considered along with the Wagner Group’s presence in the territory, is the spread of disinformation campaigns from the Russian government. As with the war in Ukraine, the spread of false information with the intent of pursuing political objectives and increasing the adversary’s internal instability represents an important element in the Russian strategy, and Africa “has been the increasingly frequent target of such campaigns” (Africa Center for Strategic Studies, 2022). Videos and cartoons praising Wagner’s mercenaries are not new in the African continent and continue to be part of an information warfare strategy, aimed at raising concerns among African populations, especially against former colonial powers, which are still involved in the continent (France being one of the main examples – RFI, 2023). By exploiting websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and Tik Tok, disinformation campaigns have an important strategy, aimed at exploiting internal divisions, as well as historical grievances, in order to gain much more support from the local population (Africa Center for Strategic Studies, 2022). Thus, it would not be surprising to see that the anti-French sentiment that constantly grows in Mali and the rest of the Sahel, due to their colonial past, helped Russian mercenaries to be much more appreciated by the local population.

The Wagner Group in Mali

The Wagner Group started its activities in Mali in 2021, following the coup that led Colonel Goïta’s military junta into power. Either because of the Malian political elite’s inability to address increasing levels of tensions coming from the extremist groups in the region, or the lack of a proper coordination with the other Sahelian countries (as Mali recently resigned its membership from the G5 Sahel coalition), the latest government in Mali saw in the Wagner Group an alternative able to provide security, training and military engagements with the jihadist militias, at the cost of a $10 million monthly fee. Being one of the latest operations of the Wagner Group, its intervention is still at an early stage, thus it is only concentrating on military support. However, it would be plausible to think that once the operation will have a stronger presence in the territory, Wagner will request access to natural resources or mining sites in exchange for its services (Stanyard, Vircoulon, and Rademeyer, 2023).

Among one of the reasons why Russia and the Wagner Group are having an important role in Mali can be found in the relationship between Mali and its previous main international security provider, France, which recently ended its main operation (Operation Barkhane), relocating all its troops in other parts of the Sahel. Indeed, the French presence in the territory was not seen positively, as protests and criticism over France’s presence in the region spread over Mali, especially because of its colonial past. Indeed, local demonstrations were held in Bamako against the French military presence, calling for other countries’ action (Rédaction Africanews, 2021). Furthermore, heads of State in the region had been unwilling to take their own responsibilities, thus irritating the French government, which threatened to withdraw the troops after the latest coup in Mali (De Fougières, 2021). With the new military junta led by Colonel Goïta, relations with France deteriorated, paving the way to a stronger relationship between Russia and Mali.

Nevertheless, being present in territory does not mean that Malian security has been finally achieved. Rather, the security scenario in Mali has deteriorated even more, following the arrival of the Wagner Group. First, as Nasr (2022) argues, despite the use of Russian propaganda to gain more support in the territory, Russian mercenaries have been unable to face the threat coming from jihadists groups, having “little experience in operating in Mali” and “far less capacity than the French to ‘find, fix, and finish’ terrorist targets”.

Secondly, since its arrival in Mali, many episodes of violence against civilians and human rights violations have been reported, which were linked to Malian armed forces and Wagner militias’ operations (Africa Center for Strategic Studies, 2023). For example, in March 2022, between 350 and 380 Malians were killed in a village in the Mopti region, during an operation carried by the Russian PMC (Peltier, Camara, and Triebert, 2022). Even if Wagner and Malian troops denied such allegations, the data that has been collected by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) clearly shows how civilians have been targeted many times in Mali, especially from Wagner troops (Serwat, Nsaibia, Carbone, and Lay, 2022). At the same time, the international community raised the issue as well, as several concerns on the Wagner Group were raised by UN advocates, about its systemic abuses and human rights violations (UN News, 2023).

Finally, as a consequence of such episodes of violence and lack of regards for civilian casualties by the Russian PMC, the situation presents a further element of instability, as the lack of confidence and legitimacy from the local population not only towards Sahelian governments, but also the Wagner Group, creates the perfect environment where terrorist and armed groups may establish their own informal governance structure, where people might radicalise even more, feeling themselves forgotten by the central government. Indeed, as Raineri (2020) argues, “indirect state abuse” perpetrated by proxies and armed groups with ties with the national government, further destabilises the environment, paving the way to the rise of extremism among local communities.

What would enhance the Russian (and Wagner's) influence in the Sahel?

According to Elbassoussy (2020), there are some factors that may contribute to Russia’s influence and expansion. First, it does not have a colonial past in the continent, as other powers already present in the region. Rather, “it has contributed to supporting national liberation movements'' (ibid.), which gave the opportunity to build trust with African States, emphasised at the same time by its “positive attitude towards African intellectuals'', and its initiatives promoting African scholarship’s development (World Economic Forum, 2019). Secondly, Russia is an important exporter of weapons in the African continent. Although the current conflict in Ukraine is having an impact on Russia’s arms deals with the African continent, it is possible to note that, between 2017 and 2021, Russia represented the largest arms supplier to Mali (Wezeman, Kuimova, and Wezeman, 2022). And especially because the Russian economy is being heavily damaged by the several packages of sanctions, as its economic interests are related mainly to arms, mining and energy, the use of the Wagner Group in pursuing these interests clearly represents an important “power-projection toolkit” (Stanyard, Vircoulon and Rademeyer, 2023), that would let the Kremlin absorb some of the damage received by sanctions.

By signing military and security bilateral agreements to offer “training, educational and medical programmes for military purposes”, supporting positions that are mining the other engagements in the region, or increasing the role of the Wagner Group, the Russian Federation is gradually enhancing its role in the Sahel by providing another alternative, exploiting at the same time “the deteriorating security situation in the African Sahel region” to increase its influence. Clearly, the Kremlin has established many measures to develop its strategic presence in the Sahel. Some examples can be seen in the support against Boko Haram; the establishment of “joint security cooperation agreements” with Burkina Faso, Chad, and Niger; or in the economic cooperation between Russian enterprises and African countries rich of natural resources (Elbassoussy, 2020); the coup in Mali in 2020, that led to the fall of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s government, in which there were rumours that some of the officials trained in Russia, before coming back to overthrow the government. Although the evidence is insufficient to determine this relationship between the Malian military and Moscow, it is clear that there are some interests in keeping solid relationships between the two countries, as demonstrated more recently by the meeting between the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, with the Malian military junta in February 2023. Furthermore, the fact that Mali abandoned its seat in the G5 Sahel, along with the withdrawal of French and Western support from the territory (Africa Center for Strategic Studies, 2023), marks again another opportunity for Russia to “fill the gap”.

At this point, following Bashir’s analysis (2020) on the possible scenarios in the Sahel with an increased role of Russia in the region, the Kremlin might develop its role in the region into two possible endings. From one hand, Russia can increase its role in the Sahel, replacing other powers already operating there, such as France. On the other, Moscow’s role would remain limited in its military assistance, due to the interests of the other actors.


Russian and Wagner’s efforts propose an alternative to those presented by other actors in the territory, making the Sahel an important scenario of great power competition. Especially with the war in Ukraine and France’s decreasing role in the region, it could represent an opportunity for Russia to gain more influence in the Global South. Obviously, the increasing role of Russian PMCs in the territory has provoked a reaction from the West. Indeed, not only there is a constant screening by the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM – Townsend, 2022) on the unstable situation in Mali and the Wagner Group’s operations, but there has been a strong reaction from the European Union too, as noted by the statement of the EU special representative for the Sahel, Emanuela Del Re, on the “unacceptable” presence of the Russian PMC in the region (Rebecchi, 2022). Similar reactions happened for example in 2018, when former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton accused Russia for its “predatory practices” in Africa, in order to gain more votes at the United Nations (Borger, 2018); or in 2020, with President Macron’s warning at the Pau Summit, against the assistance from “third countries” through mercenaries, and its subsequent increase of troops deployment in the region (Maślanka, 2020).

Even though the war in Ukraine is far away from the Sahel, it still has repercussions over the region. Currently, due to its engagement in Ukraine, priorities for the Wagner Group have changed, leaving its cell in Mali currently on a second point of order. Indeed, as General Townsend from the U.S. Africa Command stated: “We’ve seen Wagner draw down a little bit on the African continent in the call to send fighters to Ukraine” (Eversden, 2022). In addition, as sanctions against Russia are showing their effects on the economy, the Russian Federation needs to find an appeal to non-aligned countries and the developing world for support in the war and foster trade relations. Thus, the Wagner Group will play a pivotal role in increasing the Russian influence in the territory. However, the Wagner Group has further destabilised the region, as in many of its operations hundreds of civilians died because of Wagner’s “defaulting to the sort of heavy-handed tactics” (Nasr, 2022). Moreover, Wagner’s involvement in several episodes of rape, robbery, and violence against civilians, jihadist groups in the region gained further support from the local population, strengthening their network.

In the future, analysts feel that the Wagner Group will likely deploy its troops in Burkina Faso (Karr, 2023), strengthening its networks in the Sahel, along with Moscow’s interest. Keeping in mind the results in Mali, however, it would be plausible to think that the Wagner Group will likely secure the military juntas’ survival for the sake of its economic interests and the Kremlin’s strategic goals, raising the violence against civilians and letting jihadist groups to grow their own support, thus creating further instability.


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