Countries in Africa's Sahel region where Russia is boosting its influence.

Countries in Africa's Sahel region where Russia is boosting its influence. Forecast International

Russia exploits Western vacuum in Africa’s Sahel

Niger’s rejection of democratic ties coincides starkly with its embrace of Russian military assistance since the July 2023 military coup.

Tension flared after a U.S. delegation visited Niger in March, prompting the country's military junta to terminate a pivotal military agreement with the United States. That followed Niger's earlier cancellation of two military contracts with the European Union that aimed to quell extremist violence in the Sahel region.

Niger’s rejection of democratic ties coincides starkly with its embrace of Russian military assistance since the July 2023 military coup. This drastic shift away from traditional allies like the U.S. and France toward Russia and China echoes actions by fellow North African states Mali and Burkina Faso. As yet another major player in the Sahel succumbs to military rule and Russian influence, Niger’s actions signal a profound geopolitical transformation, potentially reshaping the balance of power and stability in West Africa.

Six coups, three reasons

The Sahel region has witnessed six successful coups since 2020: in Gabon (August 2023); Mali (2020, 2021), Burkina Faso (Jan. 2022, Sept. 2022), Guinea (2021), and Niger (July 2023). In each case, economic stagnation, violent attacks, and distrust in civilian leaders were cited as primary reasons for the military’s intervention. Anti-French sentiments also played a unifying role across these incidents.

In the case of Niger, the coup of July 2023, and the subsequent expulsion of French troops in December 2023, brought an end to nearly a decade of democratic advances and drew widespread international condemnation. While the European Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) openly criticized the coup, neighboring countries like Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali—each having distanced themselves from France—expressed support for Niger’s military regime. Burkina Faso and Mali escalated tensions further by declaring that any foreign military intervention would be considered an act of war.

Decades of support and intervention from the former colonial power yielded little result in economic or political advancement nor in curbing extremist violence in these regions; the issues were further exacerbated post-COVID-19 as France wrestled with its own financial and security struggles, paving the way for new geopolitical partnerships.

Russian and Chinese engagement

Unlike the United States and France, which often attach political and moral stipulations to their military aid, Russia has adopted a strategy of non-interference in domestic affairs, providing food, security and weapons without the familiar Western preconditions. Similarly, China, the region’s largest foreign investor, offers fast cash and promises of infrastructure in exchange for future resource rights – a tempting proposition for unstable regimes looking to centralize power.

Russia has strategically capitalized on failed peacekeeping missions and military withdrawals by Western powers, stepping in to offer diplomatic support, security assistance, and anti-terror aid to countries like Mali and Burkina Faso, and now, Niger. These new alliances and access to resources have proven particularly useful as Russia faces scrutiny for its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

In Mali, following a military coup in late 2021, Russian military advisors and the Wagner Group—now rebranded as the African Corps—deployed L-39 jets, Sukhoi-25 fighters, and Mi-24P helicopter gunships, alongside a contingent of 400 mercenaries aimed at combating jihadist insurgencies to the region. Despite these reinforcements, the security situation in Mali has worsened. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project reports that over 2,000 civilians have been killed since December 2021, a significant increase from the previous year. Notably, a substantial portion of these recent fatalities have been linked to operations involving the Wagner Group.

Burkina Faso has experienced similar security issues coinciding with Russian support. Since January 2024, a shipment of Russian arms and a team of 100 paramilitary fighters have arrived, with an additional 200 troops expected soon. However, despite these reinforcements, violence continues to escalate dramatically. Currently, over 2.1 million people are displaced due to ongoing conflict, and nearly a quarter of the country’s schools are inoperative. The African Center for Strategic Studies forecasts that militant Islamist groups will be responsible for approximately 8,600 deaths in Burkina Faso this year, marking a staggering 137-percent increase from the previous year’s 3,627 fatalities. The ongoing violence underscores the complex and evolving geopolitical dynamics in the Sahel, highlighting the mixed results of foreign military interventions in the region.

Security implications

Before the July 2023 coup in Niger, the U.S. maintained a significant presence with over 1,000 troops and two drone bases: Air Base 101 in Niamey and Air Base 201 near Agadez, used for counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in West Africa.

After the coup, France agreed to pull 1,500 troops from Niger by year’s end. That followed its complete withdrawal from Mali in August 2022 and the cessation of military cooperation with Burkina Faso in February, despite escalating attacks from Islamist insurgents in those countries.

This geopolitical vacuum has provided Russia and China opportunities to extend their influence by offering rapid support to the new regimes without the stringent conditions typically imposed by Western powers. However, their involvement fails to address the underlying issues critical to long-term stability, including armed group proliferation, government corruption, and persistent poverty. This oversight suggests that merely replacing Western influence with Eastern may not rectify the core problems plaguing the Sahel.

The transition from Western to Eastern alliances in the Sahel poses questions about the future of regional security and the management of local resources. It remains uncertain whether this shift will mitigate the extremist violence that has destabilized the region for years. As the West seemingly retreats, adopting a more passive role, it watches as the Sahel navigates this new geopolitical reality, potentially ushering in a period of continued unrest and strategic realignment.