Resurgence of Great Power Conflict: The UK, Wagner, and the Sahel.

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“Take Advantage of the Current Uncertainty and Seek to Disrupt the Wagner Network”


The Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the UK Parliament is a cross-party committee that examines various policies, expenditures, and other important factors of administration developed by the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO). Lately, they have discussed the implications of the Wagner groups’ return to Africa. While their in-depth analysis lends a great deal of insight into the concerns and aspirations of the UK regarding Africa, it also shines a light on a resurgent ‘great power conflict’ in Africa. This resurgence is particularly clear in the Sahel. 


Prior to 2021, the Sahel was firmly in a Western ‘camp’. A number of military operations were conducted in Mali, perhaps the foremost local power in the region, by France. Most notably, these include Operation Serval, Jan. 2013-Jul. 2014, and Operation Barkhane, Aug. 2014-Nov. 2022. The culmination of these operations saw the failure of French forces to appropriately suppress jihadists and saw France withdraw from the region. Notably, however, operation forces only withdrew following a Malian coup d’etat, in which a military junta was installed. It is also noteworthy that the Malian junta formally denied the “baseless allegations” that any “alleged deployments of elements from a private security company in Mali” took place —in reference to Wagner. The FCDO claims that with the evidence received, they have “high confidence that the Wagner Network has conducted military operations in at least seven countries since 2014”, including Mali.


It is now clear that the junta intentionally misled the international community regarding the presence of Wagner mercenaries in the region. The question remains, however: why are they there? It is true that the threat of jihadism is still of great concern in the region; however, it is equally true that the Wagner group is, as the FCDO asserts, both a direct and indirect tool of the Russian state. Professor Mark Galeotti, UCL, proposes that Wagner “shifts almost seamlessly between being an out-and-out proxy of the Kremlin and an essentially commercial organization driven by the search for profit”, making their motivations understandably difficult to grasp in any particular theater of conflict. Professor Galeotti further suggests that “there is no real Russian ‘Africa strategy’ beyond an awareness that there is a brief window of opportunity” (House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, 2023).

While there may be no rhyme or reason to the opportunism of Wagner operations in the Sahel, this is not the case for the snuffed Western coalition. Western interests in the Sahel are twofold. Firstly, in the stemming of fundamentalism, and secondly, in the securitization of supply chains. In the case of Mali, this is particularly true for extractive natural resources. Notable examples of such mines include industrial gold mines operated by AngloGold Ashanti, which is headquartered in Johannesburg and registered in the Isle of Man, and Elf Aquitaine and CIE Francaise, French-based petroleum companies with interests in the Taoudeni Basin since at least 2013.

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee has recommended to the UK government that it should “take advantage of the current uncertainty and seek to disrupt the Wagner Network. In particular, at a moment when its usual supply channels from the Russian Ministry of Defence are in doubt, the (British) Government should do all within its power to restrict the flow of arms and other military equipment to the Wagner Network, to reduce the viability of future combat operations.”