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Nuclear Energy: Russia’s Trojan Horse in the Sahel

On June 5th, on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF-2024) held across the 5th-8th, Burkina Faso’s Minister of Mines, Energy and Quarries Yacouba Zabre Gouna signed three Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with the Russian state-owned energy corporation Rosatom. The MOUs sought to ‘support the development of a national program to support the peaceful use of nuclear energy’ in the country, and covered training and education programs as well as activities aimed at fostering positive public opinion on nuclear energy.

Across July 2-3rd, Rosatom’s Deputy Director General for International Relations, Nikolay Spassky, also signed three MOUs with Mali’s Minister of Economy and Finance, the Minister of Energy and Water, and the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, regarding areas of cooperation in the development of Mali’s nuclear and solar energy capacities as well as geological exploration.

“Particular attention was given to the prospect of launching a strategic project to build a Russia-designed low power nuclear power plant in Mali,” Rosatom’s press service said.

While immediate questions are drummed up around the security of the potential plant, as the Malian military junta under Assimi Goita attempts to wage a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign against multiple armed groups in the country, other questions around Russia’s more hidden objectives in the region arise as well.

Is a Nuclear Power Plant in Mali Feasible?

Rosatom’s proposal to build a small nuclear power plant (NPP), otherwise known as a small modular reactor (SMR) appears prima facie unrealistic. Currently, according to the latest available statistics from the World Bank, Mali’s total installed electricity grid capacity, for its population of 22 million, is 772 megawatts. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) states that a ‘single power plant should represent no more than 10 percent of the installed grid capacity.’

The average SMR produces 300 megawatts of energy, which if implemented in Mali, would constitute 28 percent of the country’s installed grid capacity; almost three times more than recommended by the IAEA.

Outside of capacity concerns is Mali’s ongoing fight against multiple armed groups with competing objectives, including Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM)—an umbrella group of Islamic militant organizations such as Ansar al-Din, al-Mourabitoun (MUJAO), Katiba Macina, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)—the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel (ISGS), and the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), an umbrella group of Tuareg separatist movements.

The threat of attack on such a power plant is high, given Mali’s poor record of effectively countering the many armed groups which operate on its territory.

However, as seen in Ukraine at the Zaporizhzhia power plant, which was captured by Russian forces in 2022, and the change over of authority facilitated by Rosatom officials, such plants can act as both as ‘spear’ and a ‘shield’ in regards to Russian objectives. Upon the Russian occupation of the plant, Rosatom’s foreign revenues jumped, pointing towards a link between the corporation and a wider Russian ‘sanction-busting’ policy.

The Zaporizhzhia plant, although no longer supplying energy for the Ukrainian grid, is guarded by Russian military personnel, and as aforementioned staffed by Rosatom officials.

A Malian plant would likely require a similar arrangement, which enables Russia ample reason to put ‘more boots on the ground’ and solidify relationships with the junta’s top officials.

Russia’s Trojan Horse

Rosatom, which is portrayed as a civilian-run state-owned entity, is the perfect vehicle for furthering Russian interests in the region as it is in essence immune to international sanctions, despite being closely interconnected with the Russian military industrial complex.

Not only are there 18 Russian-designed nuclear power plants in the European Union, including Hungary, which relies on nuclear power for more than 40 percent of its energy, but there are also Russian-designed plants in India, Turkey, Egypt, Belarus, Bangladesh, Iran, and China. A Foreign Policy report on the matter has additionally outlined that “US operators of nuclear power plants purchase approximately $1 billion in nuclear fuel from Rosatom annually- or about 20 percent of US demand for enriched uranium.”

Paul Dorfman, Chairman of the Nuclear Consulting Group claims that it is this “Russian doll of interlocking dependencies” that have made sanctioning the corporation difficult.

As such, Rosatom has become Russia’s ‘trojan horse,’ particularly in the third world, as Russia has worked to portray itself as an ally of former colonies, seeking to push the West out through lucrative military cooperation agreements and complex disinformation campaigns.

In terms of the corporations links to the Russian military industrial complex, a letter written by Rosatom’s Department Chief early last year, and obtained by Ukrainian intelligence and later The Washington Post, illustrated the corporation’s offer to provide goods to Russian military units as well as sanctioned Russian weapons manufacturers.

The sanctioned entities included NPK Tekhmash, manufacturer of unguided bombs and multiple missile launch systems, Almaz-Antey, producer of missile systems, NPO Splav, producer of Uragan rocket launchers and fire cluster bombs, and Vysokotochniye Kompleksy, a producer of Iskander missiles.

So, What Now?

As illustrated, Rosatom corporation and its subsidiaries, such as Renera, which imported an approximate $1 million in lithium-ion battery components from South Korea between early 2022 and early 2023 despite the export of lithium batteries to Russia being restricted through a series of sanction packages, have enabled the Russian state to effectively ‘sanction-bust’ and further fuel its war in Ukraine.

The corporation’s entry into Africa is a development which must be noted, particularly as the continent boasts vast caches of natural resources, and regionally, Niger, despite not having yet signed an agreement with Rosatom, holds two significant uranium mines which produce an estimated five percent of the world’s uranium.

Additionally, a potential Malian nuclear power plant would provide legitimate reasoning for Russian military personnel to station in the country, further solidifying Mali into the Russian sphere of influence.

However, a logical requirement of the potential entry of additional Russian troops into the country would be additional Russian resources provided to the Malian government in order to aid in the wider fight against the many armed groups active in the territory.

Bianca Bridger
Bianca Bridger
Bianca holds a degree in Political Science from the University of Otago, New Zealand. As the Africa Desk Chief for Atlas, her expertise spans conflict, politics, and history. She is also the Editor for The ModernInsurgent and has interests in yoga and meditation.

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