In a propaganda cartoon on West African social media, the Russian mercenary is muscular and heroic. Descending fearlessly from a helicopter, he races to the rescue of besieged soldiers from Mali and Burkina Faso, firing his machine gun at demonic French zombies and an evil snake in French national colours.
In the final moments of the video, the Africans tell the Russian that Ivory Coast needs him. He joins them as they rush off in a military jeep, following a road sign to their neighbour to the south, and the video ends with an Ivory Coast soldier hurling grenades at French troops. “Down with imperialism, down with France,” he shouts.
Internet sleuths have been unable to figure out whether the cartoon was produced by Russia’s propaganda units or simply by pro-Russia forces in West Africa. But its main themes – anti-French and pro-Moscow – are increasingly common on social media in the region. The Kremlin has made no secret that it has a strong interest in expanding its military influence to new territories in Africa, and any such expansion would come at France’s expense.
In a visit to Mali last month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov offered the Kremlin’s military support to a long list of West African countries facing internal security threats. Not coincidentally, he named a series of traditional French allies as potential recipients of Russian military aid – including coastal states such as Ivory Coast. “This concerns Guinea, Burkina Faso and Chad and the Sahel region generally, and even the coastal states on the Gulf of Guinea,” Mr. Lavrov told a press conference.
Wagner Group, a Russian military contractor with close links to the Kremlin, has now replaced France as the main foreign security force in the former French colonies of Mali and Central African Republic. It is reportedly seeking possible deals to do the same in Burkina Faso, Chad and Guinea. But as the propaganda cartoon hinted, the real prize for Moscow would be another long-time French military client: Ivory Coast, a fast-growing economic and trade hub with a slew of corporate headquarters and several seaports on the Gulf of Guinea.
Most analysts believe that West Africa’s coastal states have little interest in Russia’s offers of military help. Unlike Mali and Central African Republic, most of the coastal countries are relatively stable and don’t face the same insurgent threats that led others to accept Wagner Group’s mercenaries. But the mere fact that Ivory Coast is targeted in pro-Russia propaganda is a sign of Moscow’s ambitions.
A senior official in Ivory Coast’s government, whom The Globe and Mail is not naming because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said his country is a Russian target because of its extensive trade and economic links across the entire West African region. Having a presence there would be of great benefit to Russia, giving it access to three-quarters of the West African market, he told The Globe.
Russian-influence operations in Ivory Coast, he said, are already under way. He cited the example of a man from Ivory Coast – a former prisoner in Russia – who volunteered to join a Wagner Group unit at the battle front in Ukraine. His story was widely publicized in Russia. “The fact that Wagner presented him as a trophy – it shows that Ivory Coast is one of their targets,” the official said.
In Mali and other African countries where Wagner Group is active, one of the first signs of Moscow’s growing influence was the emergence of Russian flags at political demonstrations. In Ivory Coast, analysts noted that four activists at an opposition rally in February had wrapped themselves in Russian flags. They were photographed with the flags at a rally of the party of former president Laurent Gbagbo.
“We are increasingly seeing this kind of picture, illustrating that there are people supporting Russia,” said William Assanvo, a senior researcher in Ivory Coast for the Institute for Security Studies.
Code for Africa, an investigative consortium that monitors disinformation operations, found that the photos of the Russian flags at the opposition rally were amplified in late February by a co-ordinated network of 64 pro-Russian social-media accounts, operating primarily from Ivory Coast.
The flag-wearing activists were reportedly arrested by police after the rally. The charges against them are unknown, but the arrests may have been a sign of nervousness at Russia’s growing influence in the region and its reported links to Mr. Gbagbo’s party.
One of those links involves a former cabinet minister in Mr. Gbagbo’s last government, Ahoua Don Mello, who has relocated to Moscow and became a senior adviser to Mr. Putin’s government on African issues. He has maintained a senior role in Mr. Gbagbo’s party, according to media reports, fuelling speculation that Mr. Gbagbo would adopt closer relations with Moscow if he regains power.
In West Africa, the model for Russian military assistance is Mali, where an estimated 1,000 mercenaries from Wagner Group arrived early last year, soon engaging in combat with Islamist militia groups and allegedly massacring hundreds of jihadists and civilians.
The mercenary deployment has helped pull Mali into Russia’s sphere of influence. But officials in Ivory Coast are quick to cite data from researchers showing that the number of violent incidents and insurgent attacks has sharply increased in Mali since Wagner Group’s arrival.
Western governments have seized on this same data. “Wagner’s draconian operations with its partner in Mali both add to the human cost of terrorism and create more openings for terrorist groups,” said General Michael Langley, commander of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, in testimony to a Senate committee last week.
The senior Ivory Coast government official, speaking to The Globe, cited the escalating death toll in Mali as evidence of Wagner Group’s failures. The group implants itself in unstable countries and creates its own conditions for instability through their presence, he said.
Mr. Assanvo agrees that Ivory Coast will be a much more difficult target than Mali or Burkina Faso. “It won’t be easy for Russia to come here,” he told The Globe in an interview.
“Most of the countries where they’re able to establish themselves are unstable countries, which is not the case in Ivory Coast. There is a strong government and stable institutions here, so there is no entry point for them. Probably they are trying, through information campaigns, but the likelihood is low.”
Mr. Lavrov’s offer of military help to the coastal states, however, was a significant development, he said. “It illustrates that they’re really trying to spread their influence in the region. Their intention is to spread their influence beyond Mali and Burkina Faso. There is definitely a struggle for influence under way.”