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Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, on Feb. 19.SPUTNIK/Reuters

While the world focuses its attention on a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has been quietly scoring victories for its military influence operations in another region: Africa.

The signs are increasingly visible. Thousands of Russian military contractors are active in Mali, Central African Republic, Libya and Sudan. Demonstrators waved Russian flags at street rallies after military coups in Burkina Faso last month and in Mali last year. The Russian navy has negotiated access to a port in Sudan. Even a rebel group in Chad has requested support from Russian mercenaries, the Chadian government alleged last week.

A decade ago, Russian military contractors and security companies had a presence in only two countries worldwide. Since then they have become active in 27 countries, including 16 in Africa, according to the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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The most dramatic gains have been by the Wagner Group, a private Russian military contractor with close connections to the Kremlin. In Libya and Central African Republic, mercenaries from Wagner have become a major fighting force, often accused of atrocities against civilians.

Their new battleground is Mali, the West African country where Wagner is expected to fill the security vacuum left by France’s withdrawal.

An estimated 1,000 mercenaries from Wagner have arrived in Mali in recent weeks, with some of them occupying a former French base near Timbuktu. Satellite photos show how Wagner troops have constructed a camp near a Malian airbase at the country’s main international airport.

Wagner is receiving a reported US$10-million a month from Mali’s military junta to provide training and security forces, officially termed “instructors” although they have reportedly engaged in combat already. Despite government claims that Wagner is a private contractor, its troops were transported to Mali on Russian military aircraft, according to media reports and security analysts.

France, angered by Mali’s military coups and its recruitment of Wagner troops, announced last week that it will withdraw its 2,400 troops from Mali over the next six months. Canada, which has sent at least 16 military flights into Mali since 2018 to transport French troops and military equipment, is also joining the withdrawal.

Mali’s military junta responded to the announcement by urging France to withdraw its troops immediately.

The French withdrawal means that the Russian mercenaries will have a clearer field in which to operate. The Russians have made gains in public support in Mali, as shown in recent rallies in the capital, Bamako, where pro-government supporters have waved Russian flags and even carried posters of the German composer Richard Wagner – a reference to the Wagner Group.

A poll in Bamako last October found that 90 per cent of residents had a favourable opinion of Russia and 79 per cent had a favourable opinion of Wagner Group, compared to just 8 per cent who had a favourable opinion of France. (The poll of 1,144 people was conducted by Malian statistician Sidiki Guindo.)

“Russia has been able, for the time being, to win the battle of communication in this war of positioning and influence in the region,” said Bakary Sambe, director of the African Center for Peace Studies at the Timbuktu Institute.

“Russia plays on history, since it didn’t have any colonial relationship with Africa, and Russia exploits the frustration of the young African generation,” Mr. Sambe told an Atlantic Council panel discussion last week.

“Russia is implementing a huge strategy of disinformation and propaganda throughout the region and especially in Mali,” he said.

Russian disinformation operations have largely focused on social media. Since 2019, Facebook has removed hundreds of African accounts alleged to be covertly operated by Russian agents, including some allegedly linked to the financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close Kremlin ally who is believed to be the main financial backer of the Wagner Group. He has denied any involvement with Wagner.

Last month, Facebook removed another Russian-connected network of accounts that had targeted several African countries.

More recently, the Russian propaganda machine in Africa has produced two Hollywood-style action movies, set in Mozambique and Central African Republic, that portray Russian mercenaries as heroic fighters against evil rebels. The films were reportedly financed by Mr. Prigozhin’s companies.

The reality is more disturbing. United Nations officials have reported for months that the estimated 3,000 Wagner troops in Central African Republic have perpetrated a wide range of atrocities against civilians.

UN experts reported last year that the Wagner atrocities in CAR included torture and mass executions. In a new report last week, UN human rights expert Yan Agbetse said he had received testimony about a long list of abuses by Russian mercenaries in CAR, including sexual violence, destruction of homes, racketeering, torture and other acts of “cruel, humiliating, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

Despite these reports, Russia has “rapidly expanded its influence” in CAR in recent years, becoming the government’s closest ally, according to an analysis by the International Crisis Group.

Elsewhere in Africa, the Russian government signed military co-operation agreements with Nigeria and Ethiopia last year. It plans to organize a summit with African leaders this year – the second in three years.

Despite its popularity in Mali, however, polls show that Africans across the continent have a more positive view of the United States or China than they do of Russia. Annual trade between Russia and Africa is only about US$20-billion annually, less than a third of Africa’s trade with the United States and far below the US$185-billion in trade between Africa and China.

But Russia has a clear lead over every other country in one key area: weapons supplies. It provides nearly half of all arms exports to Africa. That gives Russia crucial influence in the many African countries with authoritarian regimes or internal conflicts.

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The Globe and Mail

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