How Russia is winning in Africa: Wave of military coups gains Putin new allies

At least seven coups in formerly pro-Western African countries have opened doors for Russian intervention

Published May 11, 2024 5:30AM (EDT)

Protesters wave Nigerien and Russian flags as they gather during a rally in support of Niger's junta in Niamey on July 30, 2023. (AFP via Getty Images)
Protesters wave Nigerien and Russian flags as they gather during a rally in support of Niger's junta in Niamey on July 30, 2023. (AFP via Getty Images)

Russia's deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, recently visited Sudan, where he met Gen. Abdul-Fattah Burhan, commander of the Sudanese armed forces and ruler of the country, to conveyed Russia's support. Burhan badly needs it. 

This was one recent example of Russia’s newfound strategy of intervention in Africa: Military “druzhba,” or friendship.

By most accounts, there have been at least seven military coups in West and Central Africa since 2020, in Gabon, Niger, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Guinea, Chad and Mali. The Russians have been eager to exploit almost all of them, not merely because the Kremlin regime knows how to deal with dictators, but, also because almost all the civilian governments that were toppled had been friendly with the U.S. and other Western nations. Indeed, some in West Africa offered military bases Western powers like France and the U.S. in exchange for aid in their wars against violent Islamists.

For more than a year, Burhan’s army in Sudan has been fighting a rival militia led by Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, who was formerly Burhan's deputy and ally. Hemedti's forces have established control over almost half the country, including the capital, Khartoum, forcing Burhan and his generals to flee to Port Sudan — which was where Bogdanov flew to meet him.  

Russia’s support for Burhan represents a change in policy. For several years, Moscow appeared to support Hemedti, mostly through the Wagner Group, the infamous private militia partially funded by the Russian government. That is, until last year, when President Vladimir Putin broke with Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner’s leader, who launched a short-lived rebellion sparked by conflicts over Russia’s war strategy in Ukraine.

In an ironic parallel, both Burhan and Putin abruptly broke with militia leaders that each had supported and supplied.

Soon after Prigozhin attempted rebellion against Putin, he was killed in a mysterious plane explosion that most assume was the work of Russian military intelligence. Burhan likely would have had Hemedti killed, but the latter's forces overpowered him, forcing Burhan and his officers to flee Khartoum. 

Putin’s new policy seems to be pursuing direct military intervention in Africa, without using the disgraced Wagner Group as an intermediary. But there's no question that Wagner served Putin well in Africa for the previous five years or so. 

In Mali, for instance, Wagner allied with a military regime that toppled an elected civilian government in 2020. Russian soldiers and arms arrived, replacing French forces in a country whose historical, cultural and military ties to France go back to the colonial era. In neighboring Burkina Faso, another former French colony, Wagner arrived after a military coup in 2022 that toppled another civilian government.

We need your help to stay independent

Last year, a third military coup took place in neighboring Niger, toppling another elected civilian government. This time, the stakes were considerably higher because of a decade-long U.S. military presence. Despite a flurry of visits from U.S. officials, including Molly Phee, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and Gen. Michael Langley, chief of the U.S. Africa Command, the Nigerien junta forced American troops to leave the country this March. In April, Russian troops arrived.

In Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, special port facilities were awarded to the Russian navy, and Wagner troops participated in years-long government efforts to crush an Islamist insurgence.

In the nearby island state of Madagascar, a former French colony, Wagner's involvement accompanied efforts by Russian companies to gain access to important minerals such as chromium. Another important mineral, uranium, is known to be abundant in Niger, a likely reason for Russia's intense interest in the country. 

Communism is long gone, and the new Russian strategy has a more straightforward ideological goal in its battle with the West: Tearing down elected civilian governments.

Last April, a report by the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute warned that “the withdrawal of the U.S. from Niger would not only be a disaster for its counter-terrorism initiatives in the region but would also hinder its efforts to counter the rise of powers like Russia and China, who are striving to expand their influence in the region, across the continent, and globally.”

Russia's intervention in Africa is largely not financial. Chinese business in Africa since 2005 amounts to more than $2 trillion, and Beijing has $300 billion in current African investments. Russia simply cannot compete, since every day of the war in Ukraine costs the Russian government about $500 million.

Nor is the intervention ideological. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, with its global ambitions, is long gone. In the mid-20th century, Sudan’s Communist Party was the strongest in Africa, and it still commands some support. But it has long been an enemy of the Sudanese military, and cannot have welcomed Bogdanov's visit. 

The new Russian strategy, that military “druzhba,” has a more straightforward ideological goal in its battle with the West: Tearing down elected civilian governments.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

A week before Bogdanov arrived in Sudan, the French arranged a conference, largely for Western countries, which agreed to donate about $2 billion to help the Sudanese as they enter the second year of fierce fighting between Burhan's military and Hemedti's militia. The conflict has killed hundreds of civilians, destroyed many cities, forced millions to leave their homes and threatened tens of millions with starvation.

France refused to invite the Sudanese military government, declaring it illegitimate for toppling a partially civilian government in 2021 (while declared the above-mentioned military governments illegitimate as well). A week later, Bogdanov was in Port Sudan to offer Russia’s support to Burhan.

Russia's next step is expected to be a call for “solidarnost" or solidarity, suggesting that its African military allies should work together to challenge the nearby civilian governments that oppose them. Indeed, this has already begun to happen: In February, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger left the Economic Community of West African States, known as Ecowas, in response to criticism from the group's civilian governments.

By Mohammad Ali Salih

Mohammad Ali Salih has been a Washington correspondent for Arabic-language publications in the Middle East since 1980.

MORE FROM Mohammad Ali Salih

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Africa Analysis Burkina Faso Mali Military Niger Russia Sudan Ukraine Vladimir Putin War