Russia on the Move in the Sahel

Russia on the Move in the Sahel

During a recent visit to Mali, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia would continue delivering military support, in addition to development assistance and humanitarian aid, to Mali. Lavrov also indicated that Russia would extend counterterrorism assistance to Guinea, Burkina Faso, Chad, and other countries in the broader Sahel region. 

The visit to Mali was Lavrov’s third trip to the African continent in eight months. Although Russia often couches its relations with Sahelian countries in military terms, it is capitalizing politically on the antipathy of Sahelian post-coup governments towards France and the United States as the latter two countries have distanced themselves from these governments.

After acting as the Sahel’s regional security guarantor for decades, France announced that it would withdraw much of its support. So, the Malian military junta has hired the Wagner Group to train and operate alongside its own soldiers fighting al-Qaeda and ISIS-aligned jihadists in the country. Russia also delivered fighter jets and helicopters to Mali in 2021. In late January, a group of UN-appointed experts called for an investigation into massacres of “several hundred people” allegedly carried out by Malian and Wagner forces in March 2022. 

With French forces removed from both Mali and Burkina Faso amid a heightened jihadist threat, the Sahel’s security situation is only likely to deteriorate.

The Situation in the Sahel (a/k/a Sub-Saharan Africa)

Conflicts that began in Syria and other parts of Southwest Asia are spreading even further south and west to one of the most vital and vulnerable regions of a vital and vulnerable continent.

The Sahel includes parts of northern Senegal, southern Mauritania, central Mali, northern Burkina Faso, the extreme south of Algeria, Niger, the extreme north of Nigeria, Cameroon and Central African Republic, central Chad, central and southern Sudan, the extreme north of South Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.

The dry, harsh climate causes frequent food and water shortages. These shortages don’t affect the birth rate in these countries. In fact, Niger has the world’s highest fertility rate.

The combination of a high birth rate and frequent shortages leads to internal unrest. Jihadist insurgent groups, including Boko Haram, Islamic State, and al-Qaeda, feed off such unrest. These and other groups frequently carry out major attacks in this region.

Climactically, the Sahel has a short rainy season and a long dry season. Furthermore, it’s hot. A typical “winter” day in the Sahel is a low of about 65 and a high of about 85. You can just imagine what the summer is like. Technically, the Sahel is a steppe and not a desert, but there’s not much of a difference between these two categories. 

For about a thousand years, several Sahelian kingdoms controlled the lucrative trans-Saharan trade routes. In the late 1800s, the French took most of the western Sahel, and the British conquered most of the east. Decolonization began in about 1960.

This decolonization coincided with a record rainfall in the northern Sahel. So, many governments encouraged people to move north. But the rains stopped, leaving these people in dire straits. 

A severe 2010 famine may have been the coup de grace. Niger may have been the hardest-hit country. Crops failed, and temperatures neared 120 degrees, just short of the Sahara’s record-high temperature. Diarrhea, gastroenteritis, malnutrition, starvation, and respiratory diseases sickened or killed many children. 

More recently, Boko Haram, ISIL, al-Qaeda, and other groups have greatly exacerbated the violence, extremism, and instability of the region. In March 2020, the United States sent special envoy Peter Pham to the Sahel region to combat increasing violence from terrorist groups.

But terrorism isn’t the only problem. Climate change, land degradation, and rapid population growth have escalated the violent herder–farmer conflicts in Nigeria, Mali, Sudan, and other countries in the Sahel region. Droughts and food shortages have also been linked to the Mali War.

The combination may be too much. In March 2022, Islamic and other militants began expanding and spreading out south of the Sahel.

Contractors vs. Mercenaries

The Russian mercenaries who intervene in the Sahel are much different from American private military contractors who fought in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Human Rights

In the fog of war, private military contractors sometimes go too far, as was the case in the 2007 Nisour Square massacre in Iraq. But to the Wagner Group, such events are practically an everyday occurrence.

Wagner Group mercenaries operate outside the law. They are not Russian soldiers, and Russia has not signed key international agreements that control mercenaries. The examples of Wagner Group mercenaries going off the chain are far too numerous to list here.

American private military contractors, on the other hand, are subject to U.S. law. The protracted legal battle related to the Nisour Square incident clearly made that point. As outlined below, there is a difference between contractors and mercenaries. The U.S. has not signed those key international agreements either. International oversight is unnecessary in this area.

In fact, American private military contractors do not just respect human rights. They work to improve them. Contractors in Haiti are a good example.

Instability and supply problems are two of the biggest issues in this island nation. Contractors address both needs, in Haiti and elsewhere.

Contractors deter violence. A few armed contractors in a street market are a powerful deterrent, even if they do not fire a shot or even make eye contact with people. Furthermore, contractors oversee international aid distribution. They help ensure that these vital supplies arrive where they are supposed to go.


Mercenaries fight for whoever writes the biggest check. They basically do not care about anything else. The Hessians who fought for the British in the American Revolution probably could not speak English and could not find America on a map. 

Mercenaries wreck countries and private military contractors build countries. They only fight when absolutely necessary.

Most contractors are morale officers, mechanics, IT people, and other individuals who may not even carry guns. They work behind the scenes so regular servicemembers can better do their jobs. That is partly because of preference and partly because of U.S. law in this area. Contractors cannot engage in offensive operations.

Furthermore, contractors build government security forces. The aforementioned mechanics maintain sophisticated weapons systems that give government forces an edge over insurgents. Contractors also train government soldiers. Contractors know from experience what it takes to battle insurgents. They gladly pass that experience on to others.

Finally, when the fighting ends, mercenaries leave in search of the next paycheck. Contractors stay behind to help rebuild power plants, roads, bridges, and other vital infrastructure. This role is especially important in the Sahel. As mentioned, terrorism is only part of the problem. If you beat the terrorists because of the economic, religious, and other instability, they will be back. So, contractors work to defeat the terrorists as well as build a better world for the people of the Sahel.

For more information about the injury compensation available in Haiti and elsewhere, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A.