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Why Russia is cheering on the Burkina Faso coup

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Image source, AFP

The latest coup in Burkina Faso saw young people waving Russian flags in the streets of the capital, Ouagadougou – something that must have warmed hearts in the Kremlin.

Although fairly small in number, it has prompted speculation that there may have been some Russian involvement in the events that saw Captain Ibrahim Traoré seize power in a nation beset by growing jihadist violence.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the founder of the Wagner Group – a shadowy mercenary organisation active in several African countries – congratulated the young junta leader, describing him as “a truly worthy and courageous son of his motherland”.

“The people of Burkina Faso were under the yoke of the colonialists, who robbed the people as well as played their vile games, trained, supported gangs of bandits and caused much grief to the local population.”

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Here he is referring to former colonial power France – and those welcoming the coup in the West African nation not only waved Russian flags but attacked French institutions, including the embassy.

The violence sent shockwaves across the region, once more demonstrating the strength of anti-French resentment in many of France’s former colonies in Africa.

For nearly a decade France has been trying to help armies in the Sahel region – a strip of semi-arid land south of the Sahara Desert that includes Burkina Faso – to tackle jihadist militants, some of whom are linked to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State group.

But it has recently withdrawn from neighbouring Mali, also a former colony, following a breakdown in relations with the military junta there, which has been accused of increasingly turning to Russia for aid to fight the militants.

Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser, has been more forthright in his observations: “Our people helped the new leader [of Burkina Faso].

“Another African country will move from co-operation with France to an alliance with Russia.”

For geopolitical analyst Dr Samuel Ramani, this marks a departure from Russia’s usual responses to political instability in the region.

“In previous coups Russia has tried to position itself as an accidental beneficiary of regime changes,” says Dr Ramanai from the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), a defence and security think-tank, and author of Russia in Africa.

“This time around Russia is a lot more proactive in support for the coup, and that has led to speculation that Russia has played a co-ordinating role.”

This points to the Wagner Group, though Russia has consistently denied that the mercenaries have any connection to the state and there is no evidence of direct Russian involvement.

Shortly after taking power, Capt Traoré made it clear he wanted to work with new international partners to push back Islamist militant groups that have been active in the country since 2015.

Many assumed he meant the Russians.

A Russian security guard pictured in Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR) - 27 December 2020

Image source, AFP

But with his focus being on defeating the jihadists, he says he is also open to working with the US or any other country willing to help improve security in the country.

The US organises a big annual counter-terrorism training exercise for countries in West Africa – though this year both Mali and Burkina Faso were absent from Operation Flintlock.

“I think that Burkina Faso wants to avoid the trap that Mali got into,” says Dr Ramani, noting that Mali’s junta was very hostile towards the Europeans and the Americans since they took power in 2020.

“They’re now completely dependent and captured by the Russian state,” he says.

“Once the Russians come into these theatres they can’t get them out. The same thing happened in the Central African Republic (CAR).”

The Wagner Group has been active in the CAR since 2018 and its operatives have been accused of human rights violations, including mass killings, torture, enforced disappearances and rape.

Holding groups like Wagner accountable can be difficult, says Dr Sorcha MacLeod, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen and chair of the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries.

“When you’ve got these mercenary proxies there, then the state can be involved in an armed conflict, without being an official party to the conflict.

“And then you’ve got plausible deniability… and of course that has huge implications when it comes to responsibility and accountability.”

On top of that their very presence can prove counter-productive, she says.

“When these kinds of actors are inserted into armed conflicts, the conflict is prolonged and there is a greater risk of war crimes.

“The reality is these organisations have no incentive in bringing a conflict to an end. They are financially motivated.”

Linda Thomas-Greenfield

GETTY
Wagner exploits client states who pay for their heavy-handed security services in gold, diamonds, timber… this is part of Wagner Group’s business model”
Linda Thomas-Greenfield
US ambassador to the UN

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The US agrees, saying the Russian mercenaries are exploiting natural resources in the CAR, Mali and Sudan to fund Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

In a starkly worded warning last week, the US ambassador to the UN said it was a heavy price for Africa to pay.

“Rather than being a transparent partner and improving security, Wagner exploits client states who pay for their heavy-handed security services in gold, diamonds, timber, and other natural resources – this is part of Wagner Group’s business model,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield told a UN Security Council briefing.

“We know these ill-gotten gains are used to fund Moscow’s war machine in Africa, the Middle East, and Ukraine.”

This may all explain Capt Traoré’s reluctance to put all of his eggs into Russia’s basket.

“I think that Traoré is trying to hedge his bets and show that he can try to balance all sides,” says Dr Ramani.

“But of course any co-operation with Russia will almost certainly be a death knell for France and for the West. The Americans and the French won’t co-exist with the Russians.

“That’s the dilemma for Traoré – does he side all the way with Russia? Or does he hedge, and risk having no real external backer.”

Yet the anger demonstrated by young Burnikabés shows that dealing with the jihadist threat must be the new junta leader’s priority.

One regional leader observed this week that Burkina Faso had been “on the brink of collapse” because of the insecurity.

Nonetheless there are questions about how effective Wagner fighters would be in Burkina Faso.

Map of the Sahel region in North Africa with an indication of which Jihadist groups operate in each country

Although operatives from the group have been active in Mali for less than a year, early signs are not looking good as jihadist attacks are increasing and they have been accused of human rights abuses.

The country is regaining its place as the epicentre of the Sahel crisis, recording the highest number of fatalities from militant attacks so far in 2022.

“Wagner is good at creating chaos. But as a fighting force it struggles, particularly in new and hostile terrain,” says Dr Ramani.

Still he believes that juntas in the Sahel region may choose to work with Russian mercenaries given France’s failure to stop the spread of the violence.

Plus Russia is a much less demanding foreign ally.

“Russia is seen as a partner that doesn’t meddle in terms of human rights and democracy,” says Dr Ramani.

“Nor does it try to impose its way of life on you – and that’s seen as very desirable for would-be autocrats and kleptocrats.”

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