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Chance for Russia in Africa: France Ends ‘Operation Barkhane’

On June 10, 2021, the president of France Emmanuel Macron announced the end of operation Barkhane in the Sahel region. It will be finished by the first quarter of 2022 in order to reconfigure French military engagement in Africa.

Chance for Russia in Africa: France Ends 'Operation Barkhane'

More details appeared after a virtual video summit with the leaders of the G5 Sahel (Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger). In particular, France would start closing three military bases in northern Mali by year-end. Still there would be 2,500-3,000 of French soldiers, but within the so-called Takuba European task force. France, Czech Republic, Estonia, Italy and Sweden are now involved in Takuba force. 

For many years France was the main external security (and political) power in the Sahel region. Africa (as well as the Sahel) is within the eyeshot of many international actors. Among them is Russia, famous for its involvement in non-stable, problematic countries. In light of the latest decisions of France one question topped. Will those new security conditions transform in a chance for Russia to strengthen its role in the Sahel?

Operation Barkhane: why now?

Active military involvement of France in the Sahel began in 2013 after Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaeda took control of the desert north of Mali. Firstly France announced Operation Serval, which was transformed into Barkhane a year later. It covers Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger with the involvement of 5,000 French personnel.

After all these years war against terrorism in the Sahel turned into something similar to Afghanistan for France. But its military presence has not only an altruistic goal of supporting African states. So, among main French interests in the Sahel are:

  1. Natural resources. For example, uranium in Niger, which is important for French energy sphere, especially for stage-managed Orano company, oil in Mali, where one more French company Total operates.
  2. Political image. In international politics this region was always seen as a France backyard, where France as an ex-colonial power defined the rules.
  3. Political “benefits” of African countries. They have a significant amount of voices within international organizations. Only in the UN General Assembly African states have 25% of voices. 

Earlier this year Emmanuel Macron warned that France would end its military presence if there was one more coup in Mali. Exactly, this happened at the end of May, 2021. But a second coup in Mali definitely isn’t the main reason for withdrawing the troops. 

First of all, operation Barkhane has caused significant fatigue among both the African and French people. Sahel’s people have organized demonstrations  with the demands of withdrawal troops several times. Concerning the French, only 49% of respondents support military presence in the Sahel. Death toll (56 soldiers since 2013) and its costs (costs $708 million a year) contribute to the problem.

At last, troop’s withdrawal is the chance for France to change its policy towards Africa and find other partners, not only in the West part of the continent. Also this is the way to deal with domestic French critics who blamed Paris for replacing sovereign nations in Africa. Especially in the context of future elections, planned for 2022 in France. 

Chance for an old Russian dream

Russia has already been intensifying its relations and involvement in the Sahel, especially in Mali by coup-d’etat with Russian fingertips. Moreover, there public opinion is more positive towards Russia than France. And expesially Asian country the Sahel region sees as future ally in war against terrorism. 

Chance for Russia in Africa: France Ends 'Operation Barkhane'

Russia chose Mali as a springboard in the Sahel not accidentally. This is a big country with so-called grey areas at the periphery, poorly controlled by the government. The Kremlin promises “assistance”: peace, military and political support. At the same time, Russian main interests in Africa are:  resources, political adherence at international level, new markets for weapons, new clients for state-owned mining companies. The Kremlin interpretes involvement in Africa as a way to strengthen its image as a world strong power and implements its old desire – to become a new Soviet Union. 

Moreover, African Sahel has a direct connection to the international role of Russia. There are many grey areas, related to illegal migration and narcotraffic. All these are sensitive issues for the EU. Gaining control over these areas gives Russia a significant advantage and possibility to use this “trump” in negotiation with the EU.

As always, Russia chooses weak countries to extend its influence, using old worked out instruments. They include: supply with weapons and mercenaries (well-known Wagner Group), supporting opposition groups, maintaining coup d’etats, using controlled media resources and network of NGOs. All this Russia has successfully tried in Africa many times: in Central Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar.

It’s worth considering that the Sahel is a complex region with a lot of problems – extreme poverty, clash of religions and cultures, the struggle for resources, the institutional weakness and political fragility. All this together creates an ideal environment for terrorists, a fertile ground for their slogans, to which the poor local population responds. And this is one of the reasons why terrorism is so ingrained in the region.

The Sahel is now a frontier against spreading terrorism. The regional countries themselves will not cope with this threat – they do need external support. And ending of Barkhane operation makes perfect conditions for Russia to spread its influence.



Marta Oliynyk-Domochko

Marta Oliynyk-Domochko is Ph.D. in Political Science, researcher, think-tanker, Executive Director of Global Ukraine Foundation.

As an analyst, she focuses on foreign policy, African regional cooperation and security issues, soft policy, public diplomacy and other topics.

Contact via e-mail [email protected]