Arrival of Russian mercenaries in Burkina Faso intensifies conflict in Sahel region

Military cooperation with Russia raises criticisms, fears of exploitation and possible escalation of conflict
Esta fotografía sin fecha entregada por el ejército francés muestra a tres mercenarios rusos, a la derecha, en el norte de Mali - PHOTO/EJÉRCITO FRANCÉS via AP
This undated photo released by the French army shows three Russian mercenaries, right, in northern Mali - PHOTO/FRENCH ARMY via AP
  1. Tension with France grows, TV5Monde news channel suspended for six months

The growing influence of mercenary and terrorist groups in the Sahel region is increasing. Recent attacks by the Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) terrorist group in Burkina Faso have expanded its territory and increased its ability to attack government forces and civilians. 

The country's military junta, led by Captain Ibrahim Traoré, took power in 2022 with a promise to eliminate JNIM and other terrorist groups, but has so far failed to do so. The situation in the country is dire. 

El presidente de Rusia, Vladimir Putin, y el presidente interino de Burkina Faso, Ibrahim Traore, se reúnen después de la cumbre Rusia-África en San Petersburgo, Rusia, el 29 de julio de 2023 - PHOTO/ Alexander Ryumin/TASS Host Photo Agency vía REUTERS
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Burkina Faso's interim President Ibrahim Traore meet after the Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, 29 July 2023 - PHOTO/ Alexander Ryumin/TASS Host Photo Agency vía REUTERS

According to the latest data, more than 2,000 people were killed in terrorism-related incidents in more than 258 attacks during 2023. Moreover, the Global Terrorism Index ranked Burkina Faso as the "undisputed leader" in the table as the country most affected by terrorism worldwide. 

Burkina Faso has been hit by jihadist attacks for almost ten years, leaving more than 20,000 dead and two million displaced.

The emergence of terrorist groups has increased since the arrival of the Russian mercenary group Wagner Group in the region. This group is not legally recognised in Russia because it is illegal in Russia to contract military services: the group "does not exist" legally.

The country's coup leaders turned to Russia for military assistance after seizing power in September 2022. The Russian instructors arrived in two rotations of aircraft from neighbouring Mali, another nation led by a military junta that has forged close ties with Moscow.

Dozens of Russian military instructors arrived in insurgency-ravaged Burkina Faso after a jihadist attack in the north of the country. The authorities have kept quiet about the attack, but the arrival of Russian military personnel has been an open secret since Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Burkina Faso in May and confirmed that the number of Russian military instructors in the region "will increase". 

El ministro de Asuntos Exteriores ruso, Sergey Lavrov (I), posando con el ministro de Asuntos Exteriores de Burkina Fasos, Jean Marie Karamoko Traore, en Uagadugú - AFP PHOTO /MINISTERIO DE ASUNTOS EXTERIORES DE RUSIA
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (l) posing with Burkina Faso's Foreign Minister Jean Marie Karamoko Traore in Ouagadougou - AFP PHOTO /MINISTERIO DE ASUNTOS EXTERIORES DE RUSIA

The Russian mercenary group has repeatedly been accused of committing massacres, torture, rape, executions and robberies across Africa. Despite this, some governments in the so-called Sahel G5 group (Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Mauritania and Mali) have not fully investigated the cases brought against the Wagner Group. This has led to alliances between autocrats in the Sahel countries, Central Africa and Russia. 

Experts estimate that at least 1,800 civilians have been killed since 2017 in Africa. In recent years, terrorism in the region has become the main problem and its consequences are hurting more and more people. Let us remember that the Sahel region is one of the areas whose birth rate leads the world with an average of 5.4 children per mother, which aggravates the situation even more. 


According to a 2022 report by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), terrorism in the Sahel left at least 6,000 people dead and wounded between 2015 and 2022. According to the EU report on the security situation in the Sahel in 2022, 2,500 people were killed and injured as a result of terrorist attacks. This figure represents a significant increase compared to previous years, demonstrating that terrorism in the Sahel region remains a serious problem. 

3 of the 5 Sahel countries are among the 10 countries most affected by terrorism, according to the Global Terrorism Index (GTI)

Experts say Russia's military partnership on the continent is aimed at protecting authoritarian regimes, not addressing the insecurity faced by civilians.

The Kremlin has described its military and economic engagements in Africa as a 'regime survival package' in exchange for access to strategic natural resources. Russian analysts believe that the brutal approach used by the Africa Corps may keep the government secure in the short term, but is unlikely to guarantee peace in the host country. 

It warns that Russia is perpetuating a vicious cycle of insecurity, leading to the radicalisation of more violent extremists, and reiterates the need for a military junta, mercenaries and Russian arms sales. 

Manifestantes sostienen pancartas con las banderas chadianas y rusas mientras animan fuera del aeropuerto internacional de Yamena mientras esperan la llegada del ministro de Asuntos Exteriores ruso, Sergey Lavrov, el 5 de junio de 2024 - AFP/DENIS SASSOU GUEIPEUR
Protesters hold banners with Chadian and Russian flags as they cheer outside N'Djamena International Airport while awaiting the arrival of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on 5 June 2024 - AFP/DENIS SASSOU GUEIPEUR

Tension with France grows, TV5Monde news channel suspended for six months

The French media sharply criticised Traoré and his policy of cutting ties with France and moving closer to emerging powers such as Russia, China, Turkey and Japan. They noted that Traoré's military strategy was unsuccessful and that his silence provoked anxiety and unrest among the people. 

On the basis of these French means they created an atmosphere of constant intimidation around Traoré's presidency, convincing the people that his power had been suspended. They recount complex events and jihadist attacks, systematically linking them to growing military protests and coup attempts. 


Traoré's sovereign stance of limiting Western influence and strengthening ties with partners such as Russia and Turkey did not please Paris. The Burkina Faso government suspended TV5 Monde for six months following an interview with Newton Ahmed Barry, former president of the Independent Electoral Commission. 

Many Africans see France's opposition to Traoré's policies as a form of neo-colonialism aimed at maintaining influence over its former colony despite its stated desire to chart its own course.