While Russia is suffering bitter setbacks in the Ukraine war, it is successfully expanding its influence in Africa. With Burkina Faso, Moscow has succeeded in detaching another country from the French sphere of influence. The Kremlin was not only motivated by security policy, but also by digging into the resources available.
Experience shows that the number of well-wishers after coups d'état is close to zero.
The situation is different for Burkina Faso's new military ruler, Ibrahim Traoré. Although he received the expected condemnation for his September 30 coup from the United Nations, the African Union, the European Union and the West African confederation Ecowas, he also received benevolent words — from Russia.
They came from Russian oligarch Yevgini Prigozhin, founder of the Kremlin-affiliated mercenary group Wagner.
"I congratulate and support Captain Ibrahim Traoré," the Putin loyalist announced just hours after the coup, when the whole world was still puzzling over who exactly is this soldier, who is just 34 years old and has emerged from the middle ranks of the army hierarchy.
He is "a truly worthy and courageous son of his homeland," Prigozhin explained.
Russia's friend in Ouagadougou
The Kremlin apparently sees in Africa's youngest head of state the ally it had hoped for in the person of Traoré's predecessor earlier this year. At that time, Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, a far better-known military leader, seized power.
Unlike Traoré, he brought down a democratically elected president at the time. Unlike the military in neighboring Mali, however, he did not steer his country toward Russian spheres of influence to the extent Moscow had hoped.
The "epidemic of coups d'état" that has occurred primarily in Africa over the past two years continues
That is more likely to be the case under Traoré. Russian flags could be seen in pictures of his supporters, and journalists reported pro-Russian chants. And Traoré hastily spoke of Russia as a possible new partner. Like his predecessor Damiba, he has justified his intervention by citing failure to fight terrorist groups, some of which have loose ties to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
In Burkina Faso, many citizens attribute this failure to France. The former colonial power has a base on the outskirts of the capital, Ouagadougou, and provides the country with military support.
One of Traoré's henchmen sparked attacks by protesters against the French embassy, stores and a cultural center when he claimed the former colonial power was hiding the ousted Damiba — something France promptly denied. It is now clear that Damiba has fled to Togo.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and Burkina Faso's Foreign Minister Alpha Barry (R) during a meeting on the sidelines of the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters.
Why is France losing influence in Africa?
Burkina Faso has experienced the most rapid deterioration of the security situation of all the Sahel states this year. With 3,252 deaths, it is already far above last year's figure (2,359) and almost on a par with Mali. The government now controls only a good half of the country. More than two million people have had to flee. That is one in ten of the total population.
With the second coup within eight months in Burkina Faso, the "epidemic of coups d'état" that has occurred primarily in Africa over the past two years continues. "The extent to which Russia is behind the new coup is still unclear," says Ulf Laessing, the head of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung's Sahel regional program.
The Kremlin has been courting military cooperation with Burkina Faso for some time, as it has long done in Mali. "At least parts of the military government have sympathies for Russia," says Laessing, "the new government will not be able to ignore the pro-Russian sentiment."
Burkina Faso is also of interest to the Kremlin economically
This has been systematically built up for years. Burkina Faso is one of the most successful markets for Russian foreign broadcaster Sputnik, and Russia Today has also massively expanded its French-language propaganda offerings here. In addition, the Prigozhin troll factory "Internet Research Agency" continues to heat up the mood against the former colonial power France in social media.
This benefits Russia's geopolitical interests, which, after the Central African Republic and Mali, is trying to detach another country from France's sphere of influence in Africa. Moreover, the crisis in Burkina Faso could worsen security in neighboring Côte d'Ivoire — France's most important ally in West Africa.
Geopolitical dependence on the Kremlin
But Burkina Faso is also of interest to the Kremlin economically. The structurally weak country is the fourth largest gold producer on the continent. "Several Russian mining companies are already digging for gold there," says Laessing, "so the payment of possible Wagner mercenaries could also be settled quickly."
That's because Wagner has its services paid for with mining concessions, the terms of which are handled confidentially. That's what happened in Sudan, the Central African Republic and, most recently, Mali — all of which are among the continent's more resource-rich countries.
To make this possible in the long term, Prigozhin helps autocratic regimes maintain power — and incidentally creates an existential geopolitical dependence on the Kremlin.
So far, however, the Kremlin mercenaries have not had any real successes in the fight against terrorism. In Mali, the number of attacks continued to rise after France's withdrawal. And in Mozambique, after massive losses, several hundred terrorists were already defeated in 2019. After just a few weeks.