Russia inherits Prigozhin’s African odyssey

This is tantamount to a security guarantee for Burkina Faso at a crucial juncture when it has vowed to support Niger’s defence against any Western-backed military intervention in Niger.

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Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister Colonel-General Yunus-bek Yevkurov (L) presents a pistol as gift to Libyan military commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (C), Benghazi, Libya, August 24, 2023

Africa, especially west Africa, has a strong sense of collective identity. Trends in one country have a way of spreading across the continent. Therefore, It might or might not be a coincidence that the military takeover in Gabon on Wednesday came just a day after French President Emmanuel Macron took a tough stance vis-a-vis the generals in power in Niger.

Macron not only scoffed at the generals’ demand seeking removal of the French envoy in Niamey and the French troops numbering 1500 personnel in that country but threatened to attack Niger. 

Apparently, Macron meant business. AFP had reported last week the stern warning by the spokesman for the French general staff, Colonel Pierre Gaudillière, that “French military forces are ready to respond to any resurgence of tension that would undermine French military and diplomatic bases in Niger” and that “measures have been taken to protect these bases”.

But the generals in Niamey hit back despatching a communication to the French foreign ministry that Macron’s envoy, Ambassador Sylvain Itté “no longer enjoys the privileges and immunities attached to his status as a member of the diplomatic staff of the French Embassy”; his “diplomatic cards and visas” and those of his family members “are cancelled”; and, the Niger police “have been instructed to proceed with the expulsion” of Itté. 

It is a humiliating rebuff to Macron. He has no option now but to dial back his threat. A bloodbath in Niger to vent his anger at the deportation of his ambassador will be disastrous for France’s international standing. 

Besides, a “known unknown” factor also comes into play which will make Paris (and Washington) think twice — the ghost of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. This needs explaining. 

Although no credible source has linked Russia to the coup in Niger, its strong connection with interventions in African countries — Central African Republic, Sudan, Mali and Libya — through the Wagner group leaves unanswered questions. This of course brings up the circumstances of the plane crash of Prigozhin in mysterious circumstances, which Russian investigators now estimate as an act of sabotage. 

There is no question that Prigozhin was an obstacle to the US/NATO plans in Africa. John Varoli, former foreign correspondent for New York Times, Bloomberg and Reuters TV (who was based in Moscow from 1992 to 2013 and was “trained as a US foreign policy expert with a focus on Russia and Ukraine”) wrote a riveting blog in Substack recently where he concluded on the following lines: 

“More than anyone, the CIA and Kiev had a score to settle and wanted Prigozhin dead… Projecting Russian influence into Africa is a crucial part of Putin’s foreign policy, and Wagner is the key to this success. Relations with African leaders are built on Prigozhin’s personal charisma… Likewise, by eliminating Prigozhin and his top officers, NATO has dealt a blow to the Kremlin’s ambitions in Africa… Like with any high-profile assassination, we will never know the full truth. But one thing is for certain — the U.S., certain NATO members and Ukraine benefit the most from Prigozhin’s demise, while the Kremlin gains absolutely nothing. All available information points to Western involvement and guilt.” 

The US-led proxy war in Ukraine has entered a new phase where terrorism is increasingly becoming a weapon for the Americans to weaken Russia. It is no secret that the Ukrainian drone strikes deep inside Russia are backed by US technology and satellite data. The CIA Director has publicly boasted about a robust programme to recruit Russian citizens to work for his agency. 

All indications are that Russians are getting their act together to reorganise the Wagner fighters following Prigozhin’s assassination. For the first time, a Russian military delegation paid an official visit to Libya on August 22, according to a Defence Ministry statement in Moscow. The delegation was led by deputy defence minister Col. Gen. Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, who is known to have been the point person for Prigozhin. 

Interestingly, the general’s visit was at the invitation of Libyan National Army (LNA) commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar who is closely associated with Wagner group, which is thought to be guarding much of Libya’s  military and oil infrastructure.

In retrospect, it was Wagner’s presence which effectively derailed the original US/ NATO plans to expand the alliance’s foot prints  to the African continent via the Libyan gateway in the downstream of the gruesome murder of Muammar Gadafi and the regime change in 2011, with the alibi of fighting terrorism in the Sahel region.  

Suffice to say, Wagner played a key role in the great game in Africa. If the Western intention behind the assassination of Prigozhin was to decapitate Wagner by destroying the top command structure of the group and thereby vanquish the Russian influence in Africa, that is not going to happen. Moscow is doubling down and, interestingly, not hiding it, either. 

Last Tuesday, Russia’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN in  New York Dmitry Polyansky told Tass news agency that Russia will continue to extend comprehensive assistance to Mali and other African countries who are interested in it. He expected “more evidence” of Russian-Malian security cooperation. 

Indeed, from Libya, the Russian military delegation led by Col. Gen. Yunus-Bek Yevkurov travelled to Burkina Faso where it was received by President Ibrahim Traore. The Tass reported, “The sides discussed bilateral military and defence cooperation, including its present state and future prospects. They also addressed other issues raised during the meeting between the presidents of Russia and Burkina Faso on the sidelines of the Second Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg in late July.

“The head of the Russian delegation assured Traore of Russia’s support for the transitional period in Burkina Faso. He also said that Russia stood by the country’s people in all areas of potential development.” [Emphasis added.] 

This is tantamount to a security guarantee for Burkina Faso at a crucial juncture when it has vowed to support Niger’s defence against any Western-backed military intervention in Niger.

Again, earlier in August, Assimi Goïta, the Interim President of Mali — yet another country which has contracted Wagner to replace the French troops —  telephoned Putin to discuss security issues following the assassination of Prigozhin (who was believed to have visited Mali shortly before his death.) The Kremlin readout said that “Assimi Goïta described in detail the processes taking place in Mali and told the Russian President about the efforts of the national leaders to stabilise the situation and wage an uncompromising battle against terrorist groups.”

All these developments taken together, the formation of a military alliance between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger last week needs to be put in perspective. Niger has authorised the armed forces of Mali and Burkina Faso to intervene on Nigerien territory in case of an external attack, according to a joint statement by the three countries. 

Plainly put, the pact allows Mali and Burkina Faso to provide military assistance to Niger in the event of a military intervention by ECOWAS or France.  Matters are inching toward the coup leaders in Niamey seeking help from  Wagner if push comes to shove. 

Against this dramatic backdrop, on Thursday, Nigerian President Bola Tinubu who heads the Economic Community of West African States [ECOWAS] floated a compromise formula on Niger’s return to democratic rule similar to the nine-month period his country underwent in the late 1990s. The ECOWAS had so far insisted that it wanted the ousted President Mohamed Bazoum back in power right away. That was also Macron’s demand. But Tinubu is apparently having second thoughts. 

M. K. Bhadrakumar

M. K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat by profession. Roughly half of the 3 decades of his diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. He writes mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

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