(Bloomberg) -- France will withdraw its military from Burkina Faso within a month following a request from the West African country’s governing junta. The removal is the latest sign of the former colonial power’s collapsing influence in the region — a development that Russia has eagerly exploited.

The end of France’s roughly 400-person mission in Burkina Faso comes ten months after its troops were kicked out of neighboring Mali, where French forces spent nearly a decade leading a losing fight against a growing jihadist insurgency, which killed thousands and displaced millions as it spread across the Sahel. In both countries, the French withdrawal occurred as government leaders strengthened their ties to the Kremlin, which has used the mercenary Wagner Group to gain a foothold in the Central African Republic, Libya and Sudan.

France has sought to maintain its close relationship with Burkina Faso, but the junta's explicit demand that the country withdraw its troops came after a series of increasingly hostile moves towards Paris, including banning French broadcaster RFI. Amid the turmoil, France stated that it would recall its ambassador to Burkina Faso while seeking clarity from authorities, and is expected to announce a revamp of its security presence in Africa. Many French troops have already relocated to Niger, which borders Mali and Burkina Faso.  

Western governments have for years warned about the threat of Russian disinformation campaigns in the Sahel, spearheaded by companies linked to Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin. “Through companies that exploit Africa’s natural resources, political operatives who undermine democratic actors, front companies posing as NGOs, and social media manipulation, Prigozhin spreads disinformation to influence African politics in Russia’s favor," the US State Department warned last May.

Relations between the Kremlin and political leaders in the Sahel have grown close as Russia is increasingly seen as an effective potential partner in the war against jihadists. During a state TV interview on Jan. 13, a journalist told Russian Ambassador Alexey Saltykov that “many Burkinabe want Russia to be the main partner in the fight against terrorism.”

“Russia wants the support of all its African allies,” Saltykov responded. “We’re looking to reinforce our efforts in the fight for a multipolar world.”‘Malian Blueprint’

France has maintained outsized influence over the politics, economies and security of Sahelian countries in the decades since they claimed their independence from the former colonial power in the 1960s. That history, alongside French troops’ failure to stop the spread of extremist activity in the region, has contributed to a growing sense of resentment.  

These dynamics created an opportunity for the Wagner Group, which Mali’s ruling military junta hired in December 2021 to assist in its counter-insurgency efforts. Burkina Faso has denied doing the same.

The UN has accused the private military company of gross human rights violations, hiring mercenaries in exchange for Russian access to gold mines. The press service for Concord Group, the catering company owned by Prigozhin, didn’t respond to questions seeking comment about its activities in Africa.

Civilian deaths have roughly quadrupled to more than 2,000 since Mali deployed Wagner mercenaries in December 2021, up from about 550 in the previous year, according to data collected by ACLED, a Washington-based group. In 2022, at least 750 civilians were killed in attacks by Wagner fighters working alongside Malian soldiers.

Wagner’s presence is also causing the slow-motion collapse of the 13,000-troop UN peacekeeping force that has operated in Mali since 2013. Late last year, Germany, the UK and the Ivory Coast announced that they were withdrawing from the mission, following Denmark and Sweden’s decision to do the same.  

Ornella Moderan, a Bamako-based research associate fellow at the Dutch Clingendael Institute, described Burkina Faso as following the “Malian blueprint.” A key step, she said, is “pushing out inconvenient partners – those who insist on human rights, erect democracy-related conditions to their military support, or citizen transitional authorities too openly.” Both countries have ejected UN officials, French diplomats, and finally, the French military, all while forging closer ties to Russia.

Dramatic Collapse

No country in the Sahel has suffered as precipitous a collapse as Burkina Faso, which just eight years ago was seen as relatively stable and a tourism destination. Now huge swathes of its territory are outside government control, thousands have died and about 2 million people – or a tenth of the population – are displaced.

As in Mali, anti-French sentiment has intensified and Russophilia has grown as the security situation has worsened. The September coup that brought Burkina Faso’s ruling junta into power was accompanied by an attack on the French Embassy and cheered on by supporters waving Russian flags.

President Emmanuel Macron has accused Moscow of using disinformation to stoke anti-French sentiment and to pursue a “predatory” strategy in Africa that serves its own interests. But the young soldiers who have taken over leadership in Mali and Burkina Faso are tapping into a rich vein of resentment and re-establishing Cold War-era links: Russia has for decades provided training and weapons to African countries, including in the Sahel.

According to Moussa Mara, who served as prime minister under Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the French-aligned president ousted in a 2020 coup, the pro-Russian tilt in Mali has little to do with “the popularity of Russia.” Rather, he said, “it is an expression of the unpopularity of France.”

--With assistance from Simon Gongo.

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.