From Mali and Burkina Faso via the Central African Republic to Ethiopia, a huge swathe of sub-Saharan Africa is tilting towards Moscow says Mark Almond for the Telegraph.
“Stop thief” is what a pickpocket shouts to distract his victim. As fingers fish a wallet out of a jacket, the criminal points wildly in the opposite direction with his other arm. All eyes follow that signal missing the crime in full view.
Is Russia using its undoubted military build-up around Ukraine, at least in part, to draw Western attention away from its surging influence in sub-Saharan Africa?
Timbuktu has long been a by-word for an impossibly remote location. Despite a decade of French-led military intervention in Mali against IS-linked jihadis, it is fair to say that the Sahel region of Africa is as beyond most Europeans’ ken as it was in the days of Beau Geste.
Everyone is familiar with maps of Russian deployments around Ukraine, but the little-noticed emergence of the Wagner Group of Russian mercenaries as a big player in Francophone Africa. This poses serious challenges to Europe too.
From its intervention in the mineral-rich Central African Republic to its contract with the military junta in Mali, the Russian mercenary Wagner Group is usurping the traditional terrain of the French Foreign Legion.
President Macron is winding up France’s military role in the anti-IS campaign because Mali’s military is cooperating with the Russians and ignoring the West’s calls for a return to civilian government.
From Mali and Burkina Faso via the Central African Republic to Ethiopia a huge swathe of sub-Saharan Africa is tilting towards Moscow.
This matters because with the Wagner Group acting as a deniable arms-length instrument of the Kremlin’s military influence, Europe loses its capacity to influence governance in this huge unstable region.
Radical Islamist terrorists, most notoriously the Manchester bomber, have been infiltrated into Europe from North Africa. The Russians may not like IS, but if its terrorism is directed against Europe it could be a useful distraction of the West from the Ukrainian crisis.
As the French-led Nato forces are pulled out of Mali partly to re-deploy to Nato’s eastern flank, the risk is that a vast swathe of Africa from Mali to Libya becomes either ungoverned or ruled by regimes hostile to Europe.
Mass migration across the Mediterranean is destabilising for European politics. Just think how all four plausible candidates for the French presidential election in April, including the favourite President Macron, have made immigration control a key theme.
Remember how last autumn, Moscow’s ally in Belarus manufactured a refugee crisis on its borders with Poland. President Lukashenko let thousands of would-be immigrant to the EU fly visa-free to his country. Then he pushed them towards the frontier with the EU.
What if a Malian or Libyan “Lukashenko” is prodded by Moscow to facilitate a similar migrant crisis for Italy and Spain?
Let’s face it in north-west Africa there is a genuine population pressure pushing countless young men especially to head north to try their luck in the EU. Growing numbers of teenagers with no job prospects across the Sahel region south of the Sahara creates a natural reservoir of would-be migrants.
But they need states to open their borders to their transit and turn a blind eye to the people smugglers shipping them over the Mediterranean.
Releasing waves of young Muslims who might be tempted to join the radical jihadis at home to flood northwards is a safety valve for the military regimes in the Sahel. They know that the Wagner Group is hardly more likely to suppress insurrection at home than the French. But France and the EU wanted them to block migration. Moscow will welcome its impact on the EU.
While Europe looks east at the genuine threat of war over Ukraine, its soft Mediterranean underbelly looks less secure by the day. A sudden disruptive surge of mass immigration from North Africa could cause internal destabilisation in Nato’s European allies, including France. This gives Moscow an opportunity to raise the stakes in Eastern Europe suddenly if Western attention suddenly swings back south.
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Mark Almond is a British author, and was a lecturer in Modern History at Oriel College, Oxford. Almond holds a master's degree (M.A.), and was the Chair of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group (which despite its name was not affiliated with the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights).