Burkina Faso could be the next target for Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group, two U.S. intelligence officials told Foreign Policy, after a military coup in January left the West African country increasingly isolated.
The mercenary group, which is closely aligned with the Kremlin, has made inroads across Africa in recent years, shoring up the power of embattled political leaders while seeking to secure access to lucrative natural resource concessions. Burkina Faso’s gold mines, recent coup, insecurity, and the presence of Wagner fighters in neighboring Mali could make the country a prime target for the group.
The Burkinabe military seized power from then-President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré in January over frustrations with Ouagadougou’s lack of support for counterterrorism campaigns and a wave of anti-government protests, immediately dissolving the constitution.
“We assess that in the immediate to midterm, it is most likely going to be Burkina Faso that would reach out to Wagner and potentially request support,” said one senior U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing intelligence efforts.
Hundreds of Russian mercenaries were dispatched to neighboring Mali in December of last year in the wake of a military coup, despite condemnation from the country’s Western partners, which have worked closely with the Malian government to quash rising extremism in the country in a pattern that has been replicated across the continent, where the group’s foot soldiers have since been accused of human rights abuses and the murder of civilians.
U.S. officials believe that the Burkinabe have not been willing to jump on the Wagner bandwagon just yet. But the people who spoke with Foreign Policy said Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch and close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who backs the Wagner Group, also has the ability to provide support with social media, propaganda, and election engineering, services that could be attractive to the post-coup state.
Political upheaval has made it difficult for the Biden administration to wield any countervailing influence. The military government now heading up Burkina Faso, led by Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, has set a two-year transition timetable for restoring democracy after the January coup. The ouster of the Burkinabe government forced the U.S. State Department to declare the situation a military coup, halting nearly $160 million in military aid to Ouagadougou, and officials worry that U.S. influence will be legally limited as Russia tries to take advantage.
Some experts believe that Russia is deliberately trying to capitalize on rising anti-French sentiment in the Sahel, a semi-arid strap of land that stretches across Africa from Mauritania in the west to Sudan in the east. In March, a wave of regional protests against France’s military presence in the Sahel spread to a number of countries, including Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso. France has scaled down its military presence in the region that is now based out of Niger and Chad.
“There’s no question that there’s a kind of Russian influence campaign going on in these countries that serves a number of purposes,” Cameron Hudson, an expert on U.S.-Africa relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently told Foreign Policy in an interview. “It’s pro-Russia, sometimes in a pretty blatant way with the flag bearers. It’s anti-French. It’s anti-establishment of those countries, so it’s weakening leadership in those countries. I think that’s where the Russians can gain a foothold, in these countries like Sudan, for example, or Chad, where there are these transitions going on, where in the political space everything’s up for grabs. It’s sort of a game of musical chairs, and the Russians are standing at the record player.”
Hudson said while anti-French sentiment on the ground is certainly a factor, “there is a question of how much of that is being fanned by Russia.” The day after the coup in Burkina Faso, the New York Times reported that protesters took to the streets in the capital, waving the Russian flag and calling for Moscow to come to the country’s aid.
The U.S. Defense Department is particularly concerned that the Russians will target politically fragile states in West and Central Africa with natural resources as targets for Wagner forces.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has forced the Kremlin to redirect back to Europe some Wagner militants who were operating in the Central African Republic and Libya, where Russia failed to help Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar secure a foothold in the capital of Tripoli. But Russia has doubled down in Mali, where France long held a mission to counter violent extremist groups like the Islamic State and al Qaeda’s Maghreb franchise before scaling down the mission this year. And officials are worried that Russia could capitalize on instability in the region as terror spreads farther south.
But experts believe that Russia has used the Wagner Group less as a mercenary force in Africa and mostly as a way to secure access to ports, airfields, and natural resources. Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has studied the Wagner Group’s role in the Middle East and Africa, said the militants usually gain access through a simple playbook. They go into countries such as Libya, Sudan, Central African Republic, and Madagascar after high-level talks among Moscow and top national leaders to gain simplified port visits, followed by port and airfield access, before an effort to secure Wagner’s presence and follow-on Russian military visits.
“If there’s an open wound, they look for ways to pour more salt in it,” Borshchevskaya said. Russia’s ability to deploy Wagner mercenaries is facilitated by Moscow’s lack of colonial history in Africa, Borshchevskaya added, allowing the Kremlin to portray itself as “the opposite of a colonial power.”
On traditional metrics of trade, investment, and humanitarian aid, Russia’s footprint in Africa is light compared to the United States, Europe, and China. But in dispatching the Wagner Group to provide security and making itself indispensable to embattled leaders, Moscow has been able to establish outsized clout with minimal investment.
Russia has appeared to continue to make Africa a foreign-policy priority, even as the war in Ukraine has intensified. Hoping to tamp down on regional fears about food instability as Ukraine’s grain-exporting ports were largely out of action until recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov embarked on a four-country sweep of the continent this week, touring Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda, and the Republic of Congo.
Although the war in Ukraine has forced the Kremlin to reroute Wagner mercenaries from missions in Africa and the Middle East to the war’s central front in the Donbas, small groups of fighters are still a threat to influence foreign policy. U.S. officials see the Wagner Group’s presence in the Central African Republic as perhaps its greatest success, where the militants have entrenched themselves very closely with the embattled country’s president.
“It’s more than muscle. It’s more sophisticated than that,” Borshchevskaya said. “It’s more of a way in.”