X Close

Russia’s African operation is spinning out of control

Wagner's Yevgeny Prigozhin shares first video since June. Credit: YouTube

August 23, 2023 - 7:00am

After weeks of uncharacteristically gnomic silence, the latest video from Russian warlord and brief coup protagonist Yevgeny Progozhin is worthy of note. Standing in a Sahelian landscape (presumably Mali, judging from recent flight data), he promises to win Moscow new frontiers of glory in Africa. 

The recent crop of West African coups has won Russia some new allies in a region of negligible interest to the United States but of strategic significance to Europe. The publicity boost of African publics waving Russian flags is welcome to Moscow in refuting narratives of isolation, while privileged access to the region’s mineral resources is just as attractive. Yet the threatened intervention in Niger by regional ECOWAS powers, and the corresponding pledge to defend the country’s new junta by its allied military regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso, suggests that Russia may have bitten off more than it can comfortably chew.

Better at overthrowing its own governments than defending national territory, the Malian army is not a particularly effective fighting force. France’s lightning-fast 2012 intervention to defend the capital Bamako from a jihadist advance, like the decade-long counterinsurgency campaign France waged on Mali’s behalf, was after all testimony to the weakness of the Malian state. 

It is doubtful that the Malian armed forces have the capacity to defend Niger from ECOWAS intervention, and the distraction of deploying to do so risks threatening the stability of the Malian state itself. After all, the already worrisome jihadist insurgency in northern and central Mali has expanded in recent weeks, with the local al-Qaeda franchise JNIM now placing the city of Timbuktu under siege for the first time since losing control to French troops a decade ago.

On Monday, JNIM declared jihad against Wagner and the Malian state, alleging atrocities by the two forces against local civilians in their new campaign to retake the north — a not improbable claim given Wagner’s local counterinsurgency record. Both French forces and UN peacekeepers were sorely stretched by the regional jihadist insurgency, and Mali’s gamble that Russia’s scorched-earth methods will succeed where the West’s counter-insurgency strategy failed is fraught with risk. 

Yet squaring up against both JNIM and Islamic State militants and ECOWAS powers simultaneously is apparently not enough for Mali’s military junta. In a dramatic break with French policy, joint Wagner and Malian forces have now apparently extended their campaign of territorial reconquest against the CMA coalition of Tuareg separatists and secular Arab nationalists brought into a fragile truce with Bamako by French diplomacy. Joint Wagner and Malian forces seized the CMA-held village of Ber near Timbuktu this week, to exultation in the capital.

As the Sahel analyst Michael Shurkin notes, “the political question of the north has to be settled sooner or later, but the priority has to be [Mali’s central regions of] SĂ©gou, Mopti, and the fight against JNIM and IS. Mali lacks the strength to deal with everything at once.” Mali’s junta may feel confident that Russia’s support is a silver bullet against the nation’s manifold woes, but fighting three separate wars at once would be a challenge for even a far stronger country.

Bamako is risking a great deal on Wagner’s success, and Russia may have embroiled itself in a turbulent situation beyond Moscow’s control. Forcing France out of Mali may have been a PR win for the Kremlin, but it could appear a Pyrrhic victory sooner than either Putin or Prigozhin anticipated.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

arisroussinos

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

15 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
martin logan
martin logan
9 months ago

Russia and Assad’s Syrians never even confronted ISIS in Syria, except once, in a publicity stunt to take Palmyra. It’s thus doubtful that Vagner will achieve any more in Africa.
Better to let the US deal with it, while they destroyed the rebels inside Syria.
It’s thus doubtful that Vagner will have much success anywhere in Africa. They will just add more chaos to an already chaotic situation.
As Africans found out about mercs in earlier times, being in it just for the money can never create stable, prosperous states.

Alan Gore
Alan Gore
9 months ago
Reply to  martin logan

Get the US involved? A better scenario might be JNIM executing a major terrorist attack on Russia, which in turn causes Russia to stomp on the Middle East in the same way that it did in Ukraine – this time while the rest of the world stands by and quietly celebrates.

Alan Gore
Alan Gore
9 months ago
Reply to  martin logan

Get the US involved? A better scenario might be JNIM executing a major terrorist attack on Russia, which in turn causes Russia to stomp on the Middle East in the same way that it did in Ukraine – this time while the rest of the world stands by and quietly celebrates.

martin logan
martin logan
9 months ago

Russia and Assad’s Syrians never even confronted ISIS in Syria, except once, in a publicity stunt to take Palmyra. It’s thus doubtful that Vagner will achieve any more in Africa.
Better to let the US deal with it, while they destroyed the rebels inside Syria.
It’s thus doubtful that Vagner will have much success anywhere in Africa. They will just add more chaos to an already chaotic situation.
As Africans found out about mercs in earlier times, being in it just for the money can never create stable, prosperous states.

Gerard McGlynn
Gerard McGlynn
9 months ago

May I go off on what appears to be a complete tangent.Having been to India several times as a Brit. I have been overwhelmed by the apparent genuine affection, yes affection, for us Brits, nasty as we were? Victoria’s statutue all round Mumbai? I wonder whether there will be any statues ( there is one I believe ) to Wagner in Africa. Slavs please continue to waste your Roubles in the swamps!!

Gerard McGlynn
Gerard McGlynn
9 months ago

May I go off on what appears to be a complete tangent.Having been to India several times as a Brit. I have been overwhelmed by the apparent genuine affection, yes affection, for us Brits, nasty as we were? Victoria’s statutue all round Mumbai? I wonder whether there will be any statues ( there is one I believe ) to Wagner in Africa. Slavs please continue to waste your Roubles in the swamps!!

Michael Layman
Michael Layman
9 months ago

And now, Progozhin is dead at the hand of Moscow.This likely means nothing to Africa, accoustomed to cleansing.
Nonetheless, food for thought when your “liberator” vanishes.

Steve White
Steve White
9 months ago

This is how we see through things…
It seems to me that the metanarrative in Africa is that there is a desire to throw off the yoke of the old colonial powers. Russia having forgiven billions in debt to African nations, and China offering infrastructure for barter has won them over.
So, the trajectory appears to be towards that casting off, and the old bribes, threats, sanctions, lectures, and LGBT aren’t winning the day. The security that only the West once guaranteed (which is the justification for the US to have over 800 military bases and operations all over the world) is becoming more diversified.  Also the mere existence BRICS with the hope of an alternative and nations standing up to the Western hegemony and sanctions has apparently given confidence, unity, and a vision for something better.
Therefore any information and details that are presented in articles about Africa and the different actors in that which don’t align with that metanarrative are probably bunk. They are distractions, and attempts at controlling the narrative by narrowing the narrative to a controllable set of data.
So, understanding the larger picture is key, and those who always want to focus you down on little facts and then define the larger narrative from that are usually manipulating you to the mainstream establishment narrative, which as we have seen time and again is proven wrong later when the facts come out, and they all act surprised.

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve White
Peter B
Peter B
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

What exactly is your point here ?
And what exactly is a “metanarrative” ?
Afraid this does read rather like an academic paper and your point risks being lost.

Steve White
Steve White
9 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

A metanarrative is the larger narrative. The overarching truth of something. Looking back in history we can see the significant things that happened. We can often see the big picture through looking back, and yet when we’re in the midst of things going on, sometimes it’s like being in a fog, and people are grasping at bits of information trying to understand exactly what is happening in the larger picture.
This is where what the larger narrative really is can be shaped by people giving narrow windows of information that are tiny pieces of the whole, and then declaring or implying “this is what is happening”. But are they right? Is it misleading? Are they presenting true things in a way that implies something that is misleading, or feeding biases, that don’t ultimately lead to an understanding of the truth?
I used the example the other day out of the Lord of the Rings. Denethor looked into the palantier and was deceived, because Sauron showed him only what he wanted him to see, and so he concluded on his own that there was no hope, that this or that thing was inevitable, and he lost hope. That is an example of a partial narrative, a smaller truth misleading someone because they did not see and understand the larger picture.
Showing someone select information and implying, “this is what is significant”, is often the way opinions are shaped these days, and yet, they are often misleading, and too often not serving the best interest of the people themselves.
Think of Covid, think of global warming, or Ukraine, which I would argue has destroyed most EU nations futures.
These are all managed information, and therefore managed narrative issues to get a result. To get you and I, the people supposedly living in a democracy to decide on our own what is true. But I would suggest that we’re all constantly being “Denethored”. We think we’re being informed, but really much is held back, much is not said, and what is said is often colored, and misleading, and then there is our own wills and biases like a Hollywood movie thinking black hat/ white hat wanting our chosen team/tribe (our chosen team is always the white hats) to win something.
Which, I am assuming that people here are like you are like me, and that they are not just a bunch of “useful idiots” wanting to be controlled, but since we are on a site called “Unherd”, who’s stated mission is: “to push back against the herd mentality with new and bold thinking, and to provide a platform for otherwise unheard ideas, people and places.”, we are looking for truth that might not have been heard in the establishment narrative driven/nudged circles. 
I would argue that that Africa has a much bigger narrative going on, and Wagner is one little piece. Understanding Africa and what is going on in the larger global environment after the sanctioning of Russia is important to understanding what Wagner is doing, and how they are being used in Africa.
To take the old Western hegemonic view that all there is super-powers trying to gain control of resources is only a part of a larger narrative. African nations have a will of their own, and complete independence and national sovereignty without threats of sanctions or meddling are a driving factor of the geopolitical future of Africa and the Global South. 
So, I would argue that the Wagner group, presented and talked about without the larger narrative, is a misperception waiting to happen. They are bit players in a much bigger production. Which is a tectonic shift in global power to a multipolar world. 
If we don’t understand that, then we’re just going to be religated to small-ball thinking where we get misled and used.

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve White
Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

A good clarification. I’m not always sure it’s conscious misdirection. I guess it’s easier for a journalist to describe a tree than a wood.

Last edited 9 months ago by Martin Bollis
Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

There’s only one piece of information needed to “understand Africa”: all the political leaders are corrupt. Once you know that, everything else falls into place.

Steve White
Steve White
9 months ago

You may be right as all mankind are somewhat corrupt and very corruptible, but what would be really bad is if a greater power from outside came in and helped facilitate corruption, bribing, threatening, extorting, and propping-up and using the corrupted and compromised for an outside agenda… One might argue that in global politics, this is the norm. Chaos, and corruption are great environments for looting on an industrial scale.

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve White
Peter B
Peter B
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

Sounds like you’re describing the Wagner group right there.
Whereas British colonization of Africa also involved introducing education and rule of law and building schools and hospitals.

Steve White
Steve White
9 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

I am neither for or against GB, but that sounds like super convenient white hat / black hat thinking that the establishment counts on you and I having so they can fill our heads with simple narratives. However, check out what Prime Minister Meloni said 9 months ago about France in Africa here: 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-C8ogD6E8c

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve White
Steve White
Steve White
9 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

I am neither for or against GB, but that sounds like super convenient white hat / black hat thinking that the establishment counts on you and I having so they can fill our heads with simple narratives. However, check out what Prime Minister Meloni said 9 months ago about France in Africa here: 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-C8ogD6E8c

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve White
Peter B
Peter B
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

Sounds like you’re describing the Wagner group right there.
Whereas British colonization of Africa also involved introducing education and rule of law and building schools and hospitals.

Steve White
Steve White
9 months ago

You may be right as all mankind are somewhat corrupt and very corruptible, but what would be really bad is if a greater power from outside came in and helped facilitate corruption, bribing, threatening, extorting, and propping-up and using the corrupted and compromised for an outside agenda… One might argue that in global politics, this is the norm. Chaos, and corruption are great environments for looting on an industrial scale.

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve White
Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

That’s an excellent analysis of how information can be controlled, and to take that one step further, even the best of us can be deceived by the limitations of our own perceptions. Like Plato’s prisoners in the cave watching shadows on the wall, we’re all guessing to some extent, and our ruling class has made some very poor guesses indeed. The multipolar world that we are moving towards has been shaped by the failures of globalism, a mirage produced by the unipolar moment of complete American hegemony after the Cold War a phenomenon that has proved unsustainable. A lot of the mistakes that led us here, such as trusting trade would democratize China, trying to reform the governments of the Middle East, and ignoring Russia while expanding NATO, seem to fall somewhere between ill-advised and completely ridiculous in hindsight, being products of a far too optimistic worldview. At least many are letting go of globalism. Not enough and not quickly enough, but we’re at least moving slowly in the right direction.

Andrew F
Andrew F
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

Moronic word salad by Russian stooge.
Without the West, most of Africa would starve.
These low IQ savages only overpopulate because of Western science, engineering and medicine.
Vodka fueled shithole like Russia has nothing to offer humanity apart from poverty and violence as we are seeing in Ukraine.
With China demographics, they will be barely able to support aging population, so they need to steal as much of Africa as possible.
Complaining about former Western imperialism while supporting genocidal dictatorships like China and Russia marks you out as despicable lowlife.

Last edited 9 months ago by Andrew F
Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

A good clarification. I’m not always sure it’s conscious misdirection. I guess it’s easier for a journalist to describe a tree than a wood.

Last edited 9 months ago by Martin Bollis
Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

There’s only one piece of information needed to “understand Africa”: all the political leaders are corrupt. Once you know that, everything else falls into place.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

That’s an excellent analysis of how information can be controlled, and to take that one step further, even the best of us can be deceived by the limitations of our own perceptions. Like Plato’s prisoners in the cave watching shadows on the wall, we’re all guessing to some extent, and our ruling class has made some very poor guesses indeed. The multipolar world that we are moving towards has been shaped by the failures of globalism, a mirage produced by the unipolar moment of complete American hegemony after the Cold War a phenomenon that has proved unsustainable. A lot of the mistakes that led us here, such as trusting trade would democratize China, trying to reform the governments of the Middle East, and ignoring Russia while expanding NATO, seem to fall somewhere between ill-advised and completely ridiculous in hindsight, being products of a far too optimistic worldview. At least many are letting go of globalism. Not enough and not quickly enough, but we’re at least moving slowly in the right direction.

Andrew F
Andrew F
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

Moronic word salad by Russian stooge.
Without the West, most of Africa would starve.
These low IQ savages only overpopulate because of Western science, engineering and medicine.
Vodka fueled shithole like Russia has nothing to offer humanity apart from poverty and violence as we are seeing in Ukraine.
With China demographics, they will be barely able to support aging population, so they need to steal as much of Africa as possible.
Complaining about former Western imperialism while supporting genocidal dictatorships like China and Russia marks you out as despicable lowlife.

Last edited 9 months ago by Andrew F
Steve White
Steve White
9 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

A metanarrative is the larger narrative. The overarching truth of something. Looking back in history we can see the significant things that happened. We can often see the big picture through looking back, and yet when we’re in the midst of things going on, sometimes it’s like being in a fog, and people are grasping at bits of information trying to understand exactly what is happening in the larger picture.
This is where what the larger narrative really is can be shaped by people giving narrow windows of information that are tiny pieces of the whole, and then declaring or implying “this is what is happening”. But are they right? Is it misleading? Are they presenting true things in a way that implies something that is misleading, or feeding biases, that don’t ultimately lead to an understanding of the truth?
I used the example the other day out of the Lord of the Rings. Denethor looked into the palantier and was deceived, because Sauron showed him only what he wanted him to see, and so he concluded on his own that there was no hope, that this or that thing was inevitable, and he lost hope. That is an example of a partial narrative, a smaller truth misleading someone because they did not see and understand the larger picture.
Showing someone select information and implying, “this is what is significant”, is often the way opinions are shaped these days, and yet, they are often misleading, and too often not serving the best interest of the people themselves.
Think of Covid, think of global warming, or Ukraine, which I would argue has destroyed most EU nations futures.
These are all managed information, and therefore managed narrative issues to get a result. To get you and I, the people supposedly living in a democracy to decide on our own what is true. But I would suggest that we’re all constantly being “Denethored”. We think we’re being informed, but really much is held back, much is not said, and what is said is often colored, and misleading, and then there is our own wills and biases like a Hollywood movie thinking black hat/ white hat wanting our chosen team/tribe (our chosen team is always the white hats) to win something.
Which, I am assuming that people here are like you are like me, and that they are not just a bunch of “useful idiots” wanting to be controlled, but since we are on a site called “Unherd”, who’s stated mission is: “to push back against the herd mentality with new and bold thinking, and to provide a platform for otherwise unheard ideas, people and places.”, we are looking for truth that might not have been heard in the establishment narrative driven/nudged circles. 
I would argue that that Africa has a much bigger narrative going on, and Wagner is one little piece. Understanding Africa and what is going on in the larger global environment after the sanctioning of Russia is important to understanding what Wagner is doing, and how they are being used in Africa.
To take the old Western hegemonic view that all there is super-powers trying to gain control of resources is only a part of a larger narrative. African nations have a will of their own, and complete independence and national sovereignty without threats of sanctions or meddling are a driving factor of the geopolitical future of Africa and the Global South. 
So, I would argue that the Wagner group, presented and talked about without the larger narrative, is a misperception waiting to happen. They are bit players in a much bigger production. Which is a tectonic shift in global power to a multipolar world. 
If we don’t understand that, then we’re just going to be religated to small-ball thinking where we get misled and used.

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve White
Andrew F
Andrew F
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

Still crying out after Prighozin you Russian stooge?
Africa is a basket case because low IQ savages can not do any better.
The idea that corrupt Russia and China provide better future for Africa is for the birds.
It provides better future for African dictators while stealing nations resources.
Then fan of genocidal dictatorships like you has no problem with that of course.
Tell us as well while all these Africans are trying to go to Western Europe or USA and not to Russia or China?
Is it:
A) because both countries are racists towards immigrants?
B) because are not providing immigrants with freebies?

Peter B
Peter B
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

What exactly is your point here ?
And what exactly is a “metanarrative” ?
Afraid this does read rather like an academic paper and your point risks being lost.

Andrew F
Andrew F
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve White

Still crying out after Prighozin you Russian stooge?
Africa is a basket case because low IQ savages can not do any better.
The idea that corrupt Russia and China provide better future for Africa is for the birds.
It provides better future for African dictators while stealing nations resources.
Then fan of genocidal dictatorships like you has no problem with that of course.
Tell us as well while all these Africans are trying to go to Western Europe or USA and not to Russia or China?
Is it:
A) because both countries are racists towards immigrants?
B) because are not providing immigrants with freebies?

Steve White
Steve White
9 months ago

This is how we see through things…
It seems to me that the metanarrative in Africa is that there is a desire to throw off the yoke of the old colonial powers. Russia having forgiven billions in debt to African nations, and China offering infrastructure for barter has won them over.
So, the trajectory appears to be towards that casting off, and the old bribes, threats, sanctions, lectures, and LGBT aren’t winning the day. The security that only the West once guaranteed (which is the justification for the US to have over 800 military bases and operations all over the world) is becoming more diversified.  Also the mere existence BRICS with the hope of an alternative and nations standing up to the Western hegemony and sanctions has apparently given confidence, unity, and a vision for something better.
Therefore any information and details that are presented in articles about Africa and the different actors in that which don’t align with that metanarrative are probably bunk. They are distractions, and attempts at controlling the narrative by narrowing the narrative to a controllable set of data.
So, understanding the larger picture is key, and those who always want to focus you down on little facts and then define the larger narrative from that are usually manipulating you to the mainstream establishment narrative, which as we have seen time and again is proven wrong later when the facts come out, and they all act surprised.

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve White