At the heart of the French effort to counter Russian mercenaries in Africa

The flags of Russia and Burkina Faso are raised after a coup in Ouagadougou. Photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images

Another flag with red, white and blue stripes has appeared during recent demonstrations in the French-speaking capitals of West Africa: that of Russia.

Driving the news: This scene played out more recently during the September 30 coup in Burkina Faso. Protesters attacked the French embassy and a French cultural center amid rumors that France was hosting the ousted president or planning to intervene militarily. It was all misinformation, French officials say. They are pointing the finger at Russia.

  • Similar anti-France protests and attacks on French missions took place in Mali and Chad.
  • That has left officials in Paris trying to gauge just how widespread pro-Russian and anti-French sentiment is in the volatile Sahel region – and where exactly those flags are coming from.
  • In the wings: 10 senior French officials, who declined to be named, briefed Axios and two other US media outlets on the evolution of France’s strategy in Africa during meetings in Paris this week.

A name kept popping up at these meetings: Yevgeny Prigozhin, the oligarch and Putin ally who founded the Wagner Group and allegedly oversees an army of online trolls.

  • The latest French estimate is that 2,400 Wagnerian mercenaries are in Africa, mainly in Mali and the Central African Republic. The two countries have effectively cut ties with France in favor of Russia.
  • Wagner also made an appearance, with mixed results, in Libya, Madagascar and Mozambique.

France had remained the dominant power in West Africa long after decolonization, but Russian influence there seems to be growing despite the war in Ukraine.

  • French officials believe that Prigozhin and possibly the Kremlin itself are funding online campaigns and local NGOs that spread anti-French narratives.
  • Moscow has long denied any connection to Wagner, although state media has recently celebrated the shadowy group’s role in Ukraine.
  • The Kremlin has also increased its open contact with African leaders in recent years, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov making several visits.

French armies created an information warfare unit focused on detecting and countering “information attacks” from Russia.

  • It is part of a strategy to “neutralize Wagner in Africa” ​​by arguing that the group does not provide security, but brings “murder and exploitation”, an official said.
  • France claimed earlier this year that it had foiled an attempt by Wagnerian mercenaries to dig a mass grave in Mali and throw it back at French troops.
  • “We are not in competition with Wagner, we are in competition with a Russian effort to expel France and the West from Africa”, asserts the same official, adding: “We are really busy”.

Between the lines: Some of the anti-French sentiment spreading online is drawn from brutal colonial history. But a senior official says this is mainly driven by the failure to defeat extremist groups. “We are associated with this failure.”

The backstory: French troops completed their withdrawal from Mali in August after nine years of fighting an Islamist insurgency that has metastasized across the region

  • Junta leader Assimi Goïta, who seized power in a 2020 coup, drove the French out of Mali and reportedly took in Wagner, despite claiming to only work with ‘Russian trainers’ .
  • French troops continue to operate from Niger. There were also anti-French demonstrations last month, also with Russian flags.
  • In a shift aimed at changing the narrative, French officials want to keep their military operations under the radar and focus more on the hundreds of millions of euros they provide in aid and development projects.

Wagner, on the contrary, seeks to make a profit by setting up shop in some of the poorest and most lawless places on the planet, a French official has said.

  • “Russia is not China. They have never built a bridge in Africa,” an official says.
  • Western governments and the UN accuse the group of committing widespread human rights abuses and exploiting natural resources like diamonds and timber.
  • French officials believe that news of these abuses will spread and that few countries outside of failed states will take an interest in Wagner. In the meantime, they know they have a fight to fight.

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