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Prigozhin's African Empire Offers an Alternative to Kremlin Largesse

The 2011 NATO-led military intervention that toppled Muammar al-Qaddafi enflamed Islamist insurgencies across Western Africa as jihadist groups obtained much of the Libyan military's ordnance. These insurgencies particularly threatened Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. France launched Operation Barkhane in 2014 to help West African countries fight terrorism, deploying 5,500 French soldiers at its peak. Smaller US and European contingents reinforced the French-led operation. Dissatisfied with Barkhane's progress, military juntas deposed democratic governments in Mali (2020) and Burkina Faso (2022), ended military cooperation with France, and sought Russian military support.

Russian foreign military interventions predominantly rely on private military companies (PMCs) with PMC Wagner emerging in recent years as the most powerful. Mali's new government retained Wagner at a cost of $10 million per month, probably paid in kind with natural resources. Wagner's owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, transformed his PMC into Moscow's unofficial foreign legion and became Russia's most powerful oligarch. By 2023, Putin so feared Prigozhin's power, that he prioritized containing Wagner's business over expanding Russian influence in Africa. Moscow's and Yevgeny Prigozhin's contradictory reactions to Niger's July 26 coup best illustrates this.

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