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Mercenaries in the Sahel: Russia’s BEARS in Burkina Faso

On December 3rd, 2023, four months after the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, “Putin’s Chef” and head of notorious Private Military Company (PMC) Wagner Group, a message appeared in a Telegram channel with the name “81 SPECIAL FORCES BRIGADE “BEARS”, stating, “the BEAR Expeditionary Force continues to recruit for long-distance destinations, we require warriors with a foreign passport, vaccinations, and preferable knowledge of the English language. We are also recruiting translators to work in the green zone, girls are also possible. All candidates are required to undergo testing and coordination in Crimea.”

This message, from one of the many ‘BEAR’-linked Telegram channels, likely marked the beginning of the Russian Ministry of Defense’s program to replace Wagner members with other, more controllable personnel in Africa, while maintaining the same level of plausible deniability afforded to it by Prigozhin’s Wagner Group.

Who Are the BEARS?

Between late May and mid-June 2024, the first images of the ‘BEARS’ headquarters in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, meters away from the President’s Ministry of State building, appeared in another channel named “BEARS 81st Brigade.”

BEAR headquarters, near the Ministry of State building in Ouagadougou

OBSPN BEAR, with OBSPN referring to Russian special task forces or Spetsnaz, is but one ‘private’ military company operating in Ukraine and abroad under the command of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU). The unit’s entry into Burkina Faso is particularly noteworthy, as the image of the ‘BEARS’ headquarters, posted on June 12th, followed what is believed to have been a coup attempt against the country’s military junta, headed by Captain Ibrahim Traore. Russia, through Wagner and PMCs like it, has contributed to the establishment and consolidation of regimes in Africa that rely on violence and human rights violations to take or maintain power and suppress dissidents and discontent.

On June 11th, approximately 112 Burkinabe soldiers were killed in an Islamic militant attack on a military outpost in Mansila. Survivors were taken hostage, and their pleas for rescue posted online by the perpetrators of the attack, the al-Qaeda-linked Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM). The attack, and the lack of a government response led to a ‘tense situation’ between the nation’s military junta and the army, leading to a series of flights made between Gao in Mali—where Russia also has a presence through various PMCs such as Wagner—and Ouagadougou in the days following. The flight carrier, Abukan Air, was subsequently sanctioned by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) on June 14th for “conducting arms deliveries on behalf of Russia’s defense industrial base” while transporting “other Russian military equipment.”

It is widely thought that contingents of BEAR personnel were transported via the several Abukan Air flights chartered between Mali and Burkina Faso in the days after the Mansila incident, in a move to cushion the Traore regime from potential attack. Since then, and according to a Le Monde report, BEAR and other Russian military personnel have been assigned to the Presidency Corps, a Presidential protection unit, while others were assigned to the National Reconnaissance Agency (NRA) to “keep tabs on civilian and military opponents.” Kremlin mercenaries have in the past been deployed to conflict-ridden sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahel in this transactional way for the stabilization of authoritarian regimes, usually in exchange for resources, not cash.

BEAR personnel are tasked with bolstering the Traore regime as well as conducting counterinsurgency operations against the likes of JNIM, Ansarul Islam, and to a lesser extent the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). At the same time, BEAR personnel often receive payment from the regime in resources, such as gold, in which Burkina Faso is rich. Gold payments enable the BEARs patron, Gennady Timchenko—a Russian oligarch with close ties to Putin—to circumvent Western sanctions brought on through the Russian invasion of Ukraine and further fuel Russia’s ‘Africa Corps’ war machine.

So, How Did We Get Here?

The first mention of ‘BEAR’ was found in the creation of a Telegram channel of the same name, on February 22nd, 2023. Less than a month later, on March 18th, in the same channel an advertisement was launched:

“In OBSPN ‘BEARS,’ soldiers of various specialties are required for military service. Decent salary from 220 tr. [220k rubles per month] and compensation. Contract 6 months. Age from 22 to 50 years. Arrive in Crimea, Simferopol. We dress, we train. The journey is paid upon presentation of tickets.”

On April 5th, that same year, images surfaced on the channel of Sergey Aksyonov, head of the Republic of Crimea, and Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister, at a BEAR training ground in occupied Crimea.

This is of particular importance, as Wagner’s Africa Branch was rebranded in December 2023 as the ‘Africa Corps’ under the authority of Yevkurov.

Throughout this time, the unit’s PR manager’ Rybin Evenij Evgenevich, callsign “Prince,” marketed the unit as a volunteer unit in need of donations from boots to medicine and patches. However, the presence of Yevkurov signaled early on that ‘BEAR’ was far removed from the classical definition of a private military company. This was confirmed on May 30th, when ‘BEAR’ became the 81st Special Purpose Volunteer Brigade, with the Russian state making use of the word ‘volunteer’ to refer to irregular combat units.

Rybin Evenij Evgenevich, callsign ‘prince’

“Prince” has been and continues to be instrumental to the media campaign of ‘BEAR.’ Having been employed for 19 years at Russian state-owned media ‘TV Center,’ Prince leverages his knowledge of media to attract new recruits and secure extra supplies. Additionally, Prince maintains a special relationship with Nikita Vasiliev, a current TV Center correspondent, to highlight the work of the BEARS through Russian media.

While Prince appears as the face of BEAR in terms of the media, in terms of control, Vitalij Nikolaevich Ermolaev, callsign “Jedi” appears to hold the reins. BEAR is also referred to as the ‘BEAR Jedi Corps’ as seen on the group’s flag, which highlights Jedi’s level of authority within the unit.

Vitalij Nikolaevich Ermolaev, callsign ‘jedi’
BEAR personnel with the unit flag

According to Le Monde, it was around this time, when the unit became a special purpose brigade, that it began to draw closer to PMC Redut. PMC Redut is a private military company owned by Major Konstantin Mirzayants, a former Russian paratrooper investigated for his involvement in the murder of journalist Dmitry Kholodov in the 1990s as Kholodov was investigating mafia ties to the Russian military.

PMC Redut?

There are multiple origin stories for Russia’s Redut mercenary group, with academic Andreas Heinemann-Gruder claiming that originally, a PMC ‘Schit’—which provided security for Gennady Timchenko’s Stroytransgaz company in Syria—evolved into PMC Redut in 2019. The Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS) has stated that Redut replaced Wagner personnel in Syria, while a joint report by Insider, Der Speigel, and Bellingcat found that the concept of Redut was drawn up by the Deputy Head of the GRU, Vladimir Alekseyev, who placed his alleged relative, Anatoly Karaziy, in command. The joint report claims that recruitment for the new PMC began in mid-2021.

While the company has various origin stories, what is known is that PMC Redut is tightly intertwined with the Russian military intelligence apparatus as well as with Russian oligarchs.

A June 5th report by Global Guardian illustrated the strings connecting the unit to various oligarchs, military officials, and Putin himself.

Source: Global Guardian
Source: Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty

PMC Redut is subordinate to the GRU’s 78th Intelligence Center and its Unit 35555, of which BEAR is under, and operates under the cover of the 17th Command Brigade of the Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don. According to Ukrainian open-source investigators Valentina Samar and Vladyslav Marchenko, the company does not have a single command and is not a legal entity either, enabling it to evade sanctions and further Russian interests in Ukraine and abroad with little fallout.

What About Africa?

According to the 2022 Global Terrorism Index, 48 percent of all terrorism deaths worldwide occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, with three of the countries with the largest increase in terror-related deaths being Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Prior to his failed mutiny in June 2023, Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Priogzhin had implanted Wagner personnel in several African countries, including Mali, Niger, Sudan, Libya, the Central African Republic, and Mozambique. Prigozhin’s authority within the group and autonomy outside of the group, which was highlighted through his attempted mutiny, forced the Russian Ministry of Defense to begin incorporating Wagner personnel under the directive of the MOD to have a “tighter leash” on the group’s activities in Africa. By November 2nd, 2023, after the death of Prigozhin, Andrei Kartapolov, Chairman of the State Duma’s Defense Committee, stated that “Wagner has been definitively disbanded,” with reports surfacing at the time of Wagner personnel being told to join Redut, the GRU’s pseudo-PMC, or enter under the direct command of the MOD.

The use of Redut as a pseudo-PMC is particularly ingenious, as it appears attractive to prospective members who do not wish to “enter the meat grinder” and directly join the Russian military. Like Wagner, Redut also provides the Russian state plausible deniability, having utilized various measures to conceal its connection with the GRU.

What About Burkina Faso?

The entry of the ‘BEARS’ into Burkina Faso signals a wider, regional shift in the Sahel towards the Russian sphere of influence, with Africa Corps personnel initially deploying to Burkina Faso in late January, with the Corps’ Telegram releasing a statement outlining, “a Russian contingent of 100 people will ensure the safety of the country’s leader, Ibrahim Traoré, and the Burkinabe people from terrorist attacks.”

Landlocked, and bordered by Mali in the northwest, Niger to the northeast, Benin to the southeast, and Ghana, Togo, and the Cote d’Ivoire to the south, Burkina Faso since 2015, has struggled to contain an ever-expanding terrorist threat, even with assistance from French special forces under Operation Barkhane, which withdrew from Burkina Faso in February at the request of the Burkinabe government, who expressed their wish to “defend itself.” Currently, Burkinabe forces control approximately 60 percent of the national territory, while the remaining 40 percent remains contested by the aforementioned armed groups.

On April 12th, 100 Africa Corps personnel deployed to Niger, while Wagner personnel deployed to Mali in December 2021.

As the three Sahelian nations shift ever closer to Russia, through a finely crafted web of legitimate military personnel, PMC personnel, and disinformation campaigns, access to the country wanes—not just for Western forces and diplomats, but even the regional bloc Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), from which all three nations withdrew from in January 2024, solidifying their own alliance, which they created in September 2023. As seen through the entry of Wagner into the Central African Republic in 2018, press and internet freedom is often limited, essentially blocking the flow of information to the outside world. This enables atrocities against civilians to occur without reprisal, as seen in the Malian Moura massacre, in which elements of the Malian armed forces and Russian personnel killed an estimated 300 civilians in the pursuit of Islamic militants. In a report released in early 2023, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali “documented violations of international humanitarian and human rights law allegedly committed during military operations by Malian armed forces, accompanied by foreign security personnel”—likely referring to Wagner, and highlighting just how opaque identifying PMC operations in Africa can be.

The ‘Russian playbook’ in Africa does not tend to cover humanitarian or economic initiatives and instead focuses on military cooperation agreements coupled with grain donations, which negatively affects the civilian population. Human rights abuses alleged to have been perpetrated by the Wagner group and its subsidiaries are also likely to further contribute to discontent among the local populations. Since the states in which the PMCs are operating are likely to have weak judicial systems, the PMCs lack an incentive to adhere to international humanitarian norms.

Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso are all facing increasing attacks from multiple Islamic militant groups as well as other armed groups such as the Tuaregs in Mali, with the Russian military oftentimes portrayed as key to making ground against said groups. However, results are often minimal.

As stated by Andreas Heinemann-Gruder, “violent conflicts always provide ample opportunities for enrichment, exploitation and the exercise of covert influence. In these contexts, mercenary and irregular armed groups are frequently deployed either on behalf of states or with their tacit permission. Thus, while states outsource the organization and conduct of violence, they remain the main contractors of such groups, rendering the designation of the private military company (PMC) something of a misnomer.”

Further, literature on lessons learned from countering insurgencies suggests that the ‘Russian playbook’ in Africa is likely to further destabilize the countries in which it operates, rather than securing them. Historically, a laser focus on kinetic operations against insurgencies has, more often than not, prolonged conflicts rather than quelling them.

The emphasis on leader-to-leader cooperation, with most Russian activities in Africa focusing on bolstering autocratic regimes in order to access resources, highlights Russia’s resemblance to the colonial regimes of the 18th century’s ‘scramble for Africa.’

Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, attributed the shifts in junta-led governments and anti-Western disinformation campaigns to malicious actors in Russia. Despite posturing itself as an ally of the third world, who seeks to aid the beleaguered global south in its fight against the evils of neocolonialism, Russia, like the colonial regimes before it, seeks to enrich itself on Africa’s resources while caring little for the civilian population in the nations in which it operates.

As demonstrated by the recent and ongoing withdrawals of Western military forces from Burkina Faso and Niger—both negotiated at the request of the respective African governments—it is unlikely that Russian gains in the region and wider Africa are to be easily reversed in the coming years as the US is losing the geopolitical battle for influence on the continent.

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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