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France has recently been losing influence in Africa, particularly in the Sahel, with Mali and Burkina Faso rejecting French military support. Africa has been an area of priority for French policy, partly because of its colonial past. Part of the reason why France has seen its influence waning is because of Russian influence and propaganda operations. However, Russia has also been losing influence – and possibly to a much greater extent – in other parts of the world, particularly in South Caucasus and Central Asia, some of its traditional spheres of influence.
This should be seen as an opportunity for the French Republic to strike back and expand its influence in other regions which are not part of its traditional areas of operations. This article will first describe how Moscow gained and lost influence in Africa, South Caucasus, and Central Asia, respectively, before analysing how France could use this situation as an opportunity.
Russian influence in Africa, Central Asia, and South Caucasus
Russia’s influence expansion in Africa is now clearly visible. It has successfully displaced or reduced French influence in several African countries, such as Mali or Central African Republic, where French troops left room for Wagner operatives. Russia has been doing so through several means, such as disinformation, closer diplomatic support,1 and increased military cooperation. Indeed, it is in this arena that the Russian thrust is the most visible: Russia only concluded seven military cooperation agreements on the continent between 2010 and 2017. Twenty were signed between 2017 and 2021.2 As of February 2023, the number rose to 30 – including in countries traditionally part of the French sphere of influence such as Niger, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic.
Compared to other countries interested in the continent, Russia’s advantage does not lie in economics or investments. In this arena, Russia does not have the means to compete with the European Union, China, or the United States. However, Russia offers an approach that seduces the leadership of the countries it courts by positioning itself as what has been coined a “crisis proof partner of authoritarian regimes.” The Kremlin does not concern itself with the lack of democratic elements within such countries, and to deflect reputational costs attached to supporting authoritarian regimes, it claims to advance “multipolarity in a world dominated by the West, supporting African solutions for African problems, and resisting neo-colonialism.” As a matter of fact, autocratic states, particularly those with weak governance, have seen Russian political and economic engagement intensifying.3
Russian influence has been the most proactive in Africa and probably yielded the most results. However, this contrasts largely with what happened in areas traditionally part of Russia’s sphere of influence.
Central Asia has shown signs of wavering power. Indeed, the war in Ukraine has affected Russian ties with the region, and since the start of the aggression, the five Central Asian countries have been increasingly standing up to Moscow. Russian integration projects became “irredeemably” unattractive because of the conflict. According to polls, most people in the region blame the current economic issues on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, government-sanctioned anti-war protests happened in Almaty; some entertainment venues are refusing to host Russian stars, and the popularity of the Russian language is in decline. Furthermore, some Central Asian media outlets have been blocked in Russia for trying to cover the war in Ukraine objectively.4
Central Asia moving away (to a certain extent) from Moscow is a natural process. The region is as self-sufficient as ever, and the locals demand a lot from their leadership, including foreign policy issues. Furthermore, the Central Asian countries have a new-found leverage against Russia, which is looking to their markets and trade routes to circumvent Western sanctions.
Yet a clear sign of influence loss is the removal of Russian troops in the region. In the past, the deployment of Russian troops (or the threat to do so) used, to some extent, to tamp down conflicts. This was partially because Central Asian leaders were products of the Soviet system, which made Moscow the arbiter of internal and interstate issues.
But the war in Ukraine has changed the influence the Russian military used to have in the region. The lack of impact of Russian soldiers and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO – a collective security organization of which Russia and former Soviet states are members), just like in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, can be seen through the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan one. Indeed, 1,500 Russian soldiers left Tajikistan to be redeployed to Ukraine; Kyrgyzstan cancelled CSTO exercises; and both countries ignored attempts by CSTO officials to mediate a solution to the conflict.
Furthermore, Russian influence in Central Asia has existed mainly because of the relationship of trust between the country’s political leadership. And not only does the youth tend not to view Russia through the same lens as their older leaders, but even the latter changed their behaviour towards Moscow. For instance, Tajik President Emomali Rahom publicly berated Putin for treating the Central Asian states as if they were still “part of the former Soviet Union“; Putin had to wait alone for Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japorov to show up at the 2022 Shangai Cooperation Organization summit; and at the same event – but this time with Uzbekistan – it was not the country’s president who greeted him, but “only” his second-in-command.
South Caucasus is a region where Russian influence has been visibly waning since the start of the war in Ukraine. This can be seen through the ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Indeed, Russia – which traditionally appeared as the security guarantor or at least mediator of the region – failed to contain the conflict, especially since its aggression against Ukraine. Indeed, Russian efforts to solve the situation proved unsuccessful following the September 2022 clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This led the former to openly criticise the CSTO.
This whole affair led to a series of criticism from the Armenian government. Indeed, the lack of concrete action from Moscow, including the absence of a CSTO military intervention, led Armenia to refuse to host CSTO exercises and to criticise the work of the Russian peacekeepers in the area. Furthermore, Armenian analysts and politicians are now more vocal in condemning Russia, emphasising the need to reconsider Armenia’s basic strategy. Quite dramatically, the Armenian Constitutional Court deemed the Rome Statute – which established the International Criminal Court (ICC) – compatible with the country’s constitution, paving the way for a parliamentary ratification of the treaty, which would render the ICC’s jurisdiction fully applicable to Armenia. This dramatic decision came a week after the ICC issued an arrest warrant against Putin for the war crime of deportation and transfer of children. Furthermore, Russia failed – willingly or not – to deliver weapons to Armenia. It led the latter to seek other arms suppliers, such as India.
Russia has been losing power in two of its traditional spheres of influence and in a fashion that might be even more dramatic than the loss of French influence in Africa. This should be seen as an opportunity by Paris.
The French Opportunity
The French Government should not lament its loss of influence in Africa too much. It is always an issue for any country, especially one that desperately tries to remain relevant on the international stage in a world primarily dominated by the United States and China. However, the Russian thrust in Africa against the French should be put into perspective.
The French presence in the Sahel was primarily due to security reasons. Indeed, it was notably after the Malian crisis in 2013 that France re-established a strong footprint in the region.5 It is from this angle that Russian influence constitutes an issue. The presence of Wagner will very likely result in excessive violence against the locals, thus creating even more terrorists in the long run. Indeed, the Russian state’s ethos is not exactly known for caring about civilian casualties or its good treatment of prisoners – and it is exactly the kind of behaviour that fuels terrorism. Furthermore, it is likely that Wagner will only protect its interests in the region, essentially its economic stakes (such as mining) and ensure that the regime that favours them remains in place, acting as a de facto palace guard.
France must find ways to ensure its security and accept Russian involvement, at least for now. Wagner’s presence constitutes an indirect security risk for France, but Paris cannot kick them out of Africa. France must find new ways to protect its territory and interests. Indeed, simply insisting that France is a better partner or desperately trying to cling to the soft power it used to have in the region might be a mistake. Anti-French sentiment had been growing for a time now, and merely trying to stay might upset the population even more. As a matter of fact, France has been revising its policy in Africa, emphasising equal partnership and rejecting the idea of (military) competition in the region. President Emmanuel Macron also believes that the African countries which chose to trust Wagner will eventually get tired of it.
And this is likely a good path to follow: the point is not to withdraw French involvement in Africa or the Sahel. France is a country which has global ambitions and, as such, needs to be present on all continents anyway. The point is that France should let African countries that want to be closer to Russia – as opposed to Paris – do so. Their people might soon realise that only a few will benefit from Russian support, and that the population will not benefit from it. In traditional Russian fashion, and as seen in Ukraine, Wagner will likely commit violent repression towards civilians, inevitably creating more destabilisation and terrorists.
Desperately clinging to its former influence would be a mistake and might antagonise Africans. Just like the French President is currently doing, France should let them decide their own path, be there as a potential, respectful partner, and let them realise it is a mistake to put their safety in the hands of Russian mercenaries. Should they get tired of it, they would likely be more willing to partner with Paris in the long run. Furthermore, other countries in Africa might be more relevant to invest in. Sahelian countries are some of the poorest on Earth and lack infrastructure and the capacities to implement strong socio-economic policies. Even if France were the preferred partner there, it would require a very long time and many resources to assist these countries efficiently. Other areas would likely prove more rewarding in a quicker fashion for France, such as the Gulf of Guinea.
Consequently, France should only spend a few resources to maintain a presence and influence in the Sahel and African countries if it is not wanted there in the first place, especially since its presence is welcome in other regions, mainly Central Asia.
Indeed, this area, especially Kazakhstan, would yield interesting results for France. For instance, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan provide two-thirds of the French needs in uranium and are much more politically stable than Niger, France’s leading supplier. Uranium is essential to maintain the French energy policy, and dealing with a supplier that is located in a stable area is key. Central Asia matches such a requirement more than Niger, especially since Mali and Burkina Faso, two neighbouring countries, are ruled by military juntas that toppled the previous regime. Creating new avenues of cooperation and reinforcing current ties with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan could prove beneficial since both countries make up for most of the Central Asian population and economic production.
Kazakhstan has abundant mineral resources. Trade could be developed between France and this country, and then in the whole region, as well as cultural links. This is especially relevant since Kazakhstan pursues what has been called a multi-vector foreign policy. To avoid being trapped between the two giants Russia and China, Astana seeks multiple partners, which includes the European Union. Consequently, France creating stronger ties with Kazakhstan – where French presence is in demand – would be welcome. As another example, Uzbekistan has a powerful economic dynamic, which saw little to no impact either from the COVID pandemic or the war in Ukraine. It possesses a diversified economy and a good macroeconomic situation. Moreover, the war in Ukraine is also pushing Uzbekistan to find other partners.
Furthermore, the location of Central Asia – between Russia and China – could also be a strategic asset to French policy. Although it is not traditionally part of its areas of interest or spheres of influence, getting more involved in the region could be beneficial in the long term, especially as a complementary tool to accomplishing the French strategy in the Indopacific – and more generally speaking, being a “puissance d’équilibre” (power of balance). Indeed, if France wants to become such a power, it has to be present in areas it usually has a lighter footprint in, and Central Asia is relevant given the “shift to Asia” the world has been seeing for years now.
In this regard, efforts from the European Union have already been made and should continue. In October 2022, Charles Michel, the head of the European Council, the entity comprising all of the leaders of the European Union, visited Kazakhstan and held the first high-level meeting with the leaders of the five Central Asian countries. The following month in November, Josep Borrell, the representative of the European Union’s diplomacy, visited both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and attended a conference to promote new links between Europe and Central Asia. Borrell advocated for stronger cooperation between different partners instead of sticking to just one, in a barely veiled allusion to Russia. France needs to use these efforts to support its own in the region.
Similarly, France should use the loss of Russian influence in South Caucasus to its advantage. France already has strong ties with Armenia partially due to a relatively high number of Armenians and French citizens of Armenian descent living in France. Paris could have several options in the area. It could, for instance, reinforce its presence there even more by attempting to help Armenia reform its armed forces should Yerevan seek foreign assistance in this regard. However, France would then be seen in an even harsher fashion by Azerbaijan, which considers France to be biased towards its neighbour, and to lack impartiality and fairness.
Which leads to the second option. France could take advantage of the Russian loss of influence to appear as a proper mediator and court Azerbaijan by posing itself as a genuine, fair, and impartial third party, despite having strong ties with Armenia. The European Union is already on the ground, and Charles Michel is also attempting to solve the conflict. Just like in Central Asia, France should use these efforts as support for its own in the region.
The French loss of influence in some African countries can legitimately be considered a setback, but, as demonstrated above, it is not necessarily a huge issue. The main concern is the region’s security, and the presence of Wagner constitutes a high risk likely to boost terrorism in the area. Therefore, France must find ways to mitigate the security risk. However, beyond this aspect, the loss of influence in the region should be seen as an opportunity and put into a global perspective.
This is not to say that the Sahel or Africa should be disregarded. Of course not. Africa is a very promising continent. It has many natural resources, is developing, has a vast population, and is geostrategically vital for France and Europe. It is the world’s largest free trade area, with a 1.2 billion-person market, and is projected to become the largest workforce globally. It also has other advantages, such as solid biodiversity. Consequently, France needs to keep working to develop a positive image there. But it should focus on areas where it is welcome.
Importantly, if France wants to be an international power, it must show it will punch back whenever it takes a hit. Paris took one in the Sahel and consequently needs to strike back where it hurts Russia: in its former spheres of influence, especially Central Asia, where there currently is a substantial opportunity. France is already making efforts in this regard. Let it continue so, and even harder.
Lorris Beverelli is a French national who holds a Master of Arts in Security Studies with a concentration in Military Operations from Georgetown University. He was published by The Strategy Bridge, Small Wars Journal, RealClearDefense, The National Interest and the Georgetown Security Studies Review (The Forum). He created the military history blog War Writers (https://warwriters.com/).
- Sarah Daily, Russia’s Influence in Africa, a Security Perspective, Atlantic Council, Policy Center for the New South, 2023, 4-5.
- Abdelhak Bassou, Military Relations Between Russia and Africa, Before and After the War in Ukraine, Atlantic Council, Policy Center for the New South, 2023, 6.
- Julia Stanyard, Thierry Vircoulon, Julian Rademeyer, The Grey Zone: Russia’s military, mercenary and criminal engagement in Africa, Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, 2023, 44.
- Temur Umarov, “Russia and Central Asia: Never Closer, or Drifting Apart?,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2022, https://carnegieendowment.org/politika/88698.
- Michel Goya, Le Temps des Guépards : La guerre mondiale de la France de 1961 à nos jours, Tallandier: 2022, 243-280.