Editor’s note: This article was written by Ana Maria Baloi and originally published on Grey Dynamics.

This report examines the likelihood of a Russian power projection in West Africa, based on the country’s ambitions, military doctrine and previous and current actions in other parts of the continent

Key Judgements

KJ-1: Russia’s interest in Africa is nothing new, with (troops) already present in Libya, Central African Republic (CAR), and Mozambique. There is a real possibility that Russia will challenge the Western military presence in the Sahel in the next 5 years, by supporting the region’s military efforts against Islamic extremism.

KJ-2: U.S. involvement in the fight against jihadism in West Africa is likely to decrease. The U.S. is rethinking its strategic goals; troop withdrawals from West Africa are expected later in 2020, as the U.S.’s current strategic priority is China.

KJ-3: The vacuum of power is highly likely to encourage terrorist groups to advance their agenda, while the flow of refugees into North Africa and Europe is likely to peak.

KJ-4: Modest military equipment, remote access to key areas, and limited personnel are likely to determine some of the West African governments to seek further military and logistic support from other interested parties.


This year, the jihadist threat is higher than ever in West Africa. Despite the presence of 5,100 French troops and a 13,000 U.N. peacekeeping force, violent extremist attacks in the region have skyrocketed in the last 18 months. In 2019 alone, 2,600 fatalities resulted from 800 attacks—a number which has nearly doubled every year since 2015. Burkina Faso is now the new epicenter of violence, primarily from groups linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Mali, eastern Mauritania, Niger, southern Algeria, northern Nigeria, Niger, and Chad still represent safe havens for the extremists.

At the same time, a new “scramble for Africa” seems to emerge as Russia, China and Turkey increase their soft and hard powers on the continent. While the US is planning its withdrawal, the revisionist powers are orchestrating their expansion. If China is now Africa’s largest trade partner, Russia appeals to more overt means for projecting its force – such as deploying intelligence officers, mercenaries, and weapons to their focus areas.

As part of the Gerasimov doctrine, Russia has adapted its capabilities to the concept of “modern warfare.”

The use of mercenaries, troll farms, and military assistance boosts the country’s influence in Libya, CAR, Mozambique, Madagascar, and other parts of Africa. As regional outposts of the Russian “back office” (the political wing of the Russian expansionist policies) are already active across the Gulf of Guinea, a power projection into the Sahel (a bordering region) it is not improbable. Adding to Russia’s anti-Western agenda, vast natural resources across the Sahel are likely to draw the curtain for a new “Russian theatre.”

What Makes Russia’s Expansion in West Africa Plausible?

Political Driver: The new US Defence Strategy

The U.S. seeks to reorganize its troops across the Globe. Its foreign policy focus is shifting from radical non-state actors in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the Sahel to state actors – primarily China and Russia. The US Department of Defense (DoD) is now focussed on preparing for a potential future conflict with China or Russia, a concept the Pentagon calls “great power competition.” A new objective for American foreign policy is that the forces sent abroad to limit their efforts only to fight terror groups that have the capabilities to attack U.S. soil. According to DoD, none of the extremist groups in West Africa possesses such capabilities.

No definitive decision has been made so far. U.S. Secretary of Defence Mark Esper is yet to establish whether the U.S. will completely withdraw their troops from the region or whether major cuts in personnel will become effective this year.

Economic Driver: West Africa’s Resources

Cameroon, Chad, and Nigeria are rich in oil and gas. Mali and Burkina Faso have abundant gold mines, while Niger is rich in uranium. These are highly valuable resources any power would be interested in monopolizing. Many of Mali’s gold mines are currently controlled and exploited by local jihadists as a means of funding. This could represent an opportunity window for Russia to offer its military assistance in exchange for natural resources.

Economic Driver: China’s Investments in Africa

American strategy in North Africa

Read Next: American strategy in North Africa

U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) head Gen. Stephen J. Townsend signaled Africa’s need for US forces on its territory, due to increased Chinese and Russian economic and military influence. A US withdrawal will highly likely create a power vacuum for revisionist actors seeking to expand their regional advantage.

For both Russia and China, their influence in Africa means greater access to natural resources, fuelling their economy. They are also interested in challenging the current world order while trying to export their own vision of the international system. China is traditionally relying on soft power to gain influence and resources. In West Africa, China is already the region’s major investor, with many regimes depending on its funded infrastructure projects.

The country is rarely engaging in military action abroad. Beijing is contributing with infantry to the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Mali and Sudan while taking part in counter-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden. In 2017, China also built a military base in Djibouti, its first such facility overseas. China’s increasing presence in Africa is highly likely to fuel Russia’s ambitions to take the same path.

However, Russia’s economy does not allow it to grant huge loans to countries in need. The limited Chinese military presence in the Sahel represents an opportunity for Russia who traditionally relies on exerting hard power. Therefore, the latter is likely to offer military assistance to governments in Africa, in exchange for access to natural resources.

Military Driver: US’s Decreasing Military Presence in the Sahel

As for now, the US has around 1,200 US personnel (including military personnel, civilians, and contractors) in all of West Africa, the majority in the country of Niger. They are assisting regional governments and other foreign missions in the fight against jihadism. The recently US built $110 million drone base in Agadez, Niger is being used for a number of regional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations. Under the UN mandate, the US is supporting French troops facing the expansion of terror groups in the Sahel. According to assessments made by the State Department, regional governments and international forces keep losing ground to jihadists.

Military Driver: France’s Weak Performance in the Fight Against Jihadism

Another important international force in the region in France. The country deployed approximately 5,100 troops under Operation Barkhane in West Africa who struggle to defeat extremist fighters. French troops rely heavily on American provided intelligence, as well as logistical support and aerial refueling.

For France to stay capable of countering the West African jihadists, the country will likely have to push for a more aggressive European strategy against terrorism. Tensions are expected to rise due to the European Union’s reluctance to deploy troops. The block is already struggling with spending the US requested 2% of the national GDP for defense within NATO. The costs for the US support in West Africa are estimated $45 million a year, money the US Defense Department is no longer interested in spending for missions considered to be out of the US’s strategic focus. Despite France’s deployments, the Islamist insurgency is expanding.

What Future Strategies is Russia Likely to Employ?

Political Means: Supporting the Anti-French Rhetoric by Using Pan-Africanism

Most of the West African countries are former French colonies. Although France has 5,100 troops stationed across the Sahel, its influence in the region is shaking. In Mali, civilians protest the French military presence (called the “French occupation”), revealing increasing anti-French sentiments. Russia already has a grand strategy for Africa, aimed at decreasing Western influence. It uses Pan-Africanism to increase anti-Western sentiments, while in turn increasing its influence on the continent.

Russia sponsors Kemi Seba, a popular figure for his views on Pan-Africanism, mixed with anti-Westernism and anti-imperialism. His ideas generate an increasingly negative public opinion of the French influence. By reducing the French influence in Western Africa, Russia could increase its own, enabling increased arms export, mining, oil and gas concessions, infrastructure projects, as well as military cooperation.

Political Means: Seizing Control of the Migrant Routes

As part of its anti-Western agenda, Russia 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. Many refugees from the Sahel conflict-torn areas are traversing the Saharan desert to reach the Libyan shores from where they sail to Europe. A surge in the number of migrants is highly likely to cause a new migration crisis, accentuating political tensions inside the EU.

Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s forces already control most of Southern Libya bordering Chad, as well as key ports such as Benghazi and Tobruk. These areas are pivotal to control the migration traffic. Haftar’s dependency upon Russia’s military support allows the later to influence his willingness to enforce restrictions on migration. Russia can use this leverage to cause political turmoil in the EU by creating a migration crisis or it can keep it as a means of blackmail for fulfilling other goals within the Russia-EU dialogue (such as securing a favorable gas deal).

Economic Means: Securing the Natural Resources

Through the use of military private contractors such as the Wagner Group, Russia is likely to try taking control of the vast natural resources in the Sahel. Abundant gold ores are found in Mali and Burkina Faso, while Niger is rich in uranium. Many reserves are yet to be exploited. In most cases, extraction sites fall under the control of jihadists, as local governments lack the capabilities to secure them. As for now, French companies are the main foreign stakeholders in local mining projects. However, it is highly likely that Russia’s military support will be conditioned by a share of the countries’ natural resources.

This tactic has been previously used by Russia in Libya and Mozambique. At the beginning of 2019, Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) gained control of two-thirds of Libya – including most onshore oil fields. The LNA commander reportedly promised the Russians lucrative oil export contracts since 2018. According to their unofficial agreement, Russia is set to collect oil from the Sirte-Ras Lanuf region.

In Mozambique, a fast-expanding Islamist insurgency threatens Russia’s investment in the country’s natural gas reserves, estimated to be worth billions of dollars. In August 2019, Presidents Putin and Nyusi signed agreements on mineral resources, energy, defense and security. Mercenaries under the Wagner Group umbrella are aiding the Mozambiquan army to counter the jihadist threat.

Military Means: Joint exercises

Every February, hundreds of international special operations forces gather in West Africa for Flintlock, a US-led exercise that provides training for regional militaries struggling to counter terrorist activity in the Sahel.

With Russia-sent political strategists already operating in many countries in the Gulf of Guinea, Russia already has the potential to project force in the Sahel. One method to do so would be organizing a military training exercise with West African countries, a technique Russia is also known for.

Russia’s return to Africa is characterized by the presence of private military groups such as Wagner. They are held accountable for meddling in Madagascar’s elections, as well as signing arms and mining deals with countries such as Sudan and Central African CAR. They also offer assistance to Haftar’s LNA.

What If I’m Wrong

As the French still rely heavily on US support (intelligence, logistics, refueling), the Defence department might consider a cut in the number of troops stationed in West Africa, rather than a total withdrawal.

Indicators that the US is not likely to pull out from West Africa

  • Recently, the US added a logistics hub in Ghana and is close to completing a drone base in Niger
  • Members of Congress such as Donald Trump’s staunch ally Senator Graham strongly oppose the US’s withdrawal from West Africa
  • Russia and China’s increasingly assertive policies in Africa might trigger a new power competition, determining the US to enhance its presence on the continent