A ‘New Cold War’ Looms in Africa as U.S. Pushes Against Russian Gains

NAIROBI, Kenya — Fueled by guns, gold and social media, the rivalry between Russia and the West in Africa is rapidly escalating. The latest flashpoint is Chad, a sprawling desert nation at the crossroads of the continent, now a plum target for Russia’s expanding effort.

The United States recently warned Chad’s president that Russian mercenaries were plotting to kill him and three senior aides and that Moscow was backing Chadian rebels massing in the neighboring Central African Republic. At the same time, Moscow is courting sympathizers inside Chad’s ruling elite, including cabinet ministers and a half brother of the president.

The decision by the U.S. government to share sensitive intelligence with the head of an African state — a disclosure it then leaked — reveals one way in which the Biden administration is moving more assertively in Africa and using new tactics to stymie Russian gains on the continent.

The United States is taking a page from its playbook in Ukraine, where it has used classified information to expose Russian military plans and pre-empt what it says are Chinese plans to supply Russia with new weapons.

In Africa, the more forceful American approach aims partly to shore up the crumbling position of France, which in recent years has ceded ground to Russia in former colonies like Mali and the Central African Republic. Now the Russians are looking to topple more French dominoes in central and western Africa, and the United States is responding.

A U.S. official, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss matters of national security, said the assassination plot in Chad represented “a new chapter” in efforts by Wagner, the Kremlin-backed private military force, to advance Russian interests in Africa.

Until now, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who leads Wagner, has established footholds in vulnerable African countries by sending his fighters to prop up tottering authoritarian rulers, usually in exchange for payment, or licenses to mine diamonds or gold.

The plot in Chad suggests that he is now ready to topple leaders who stand in his way. That change has prompted the United States to adopt more forward-leaning measures, like those used in Ukraine, that are intended “to slow, to curb, constrain and reverse” Mr. Prigozhin’s expansion in Africa, the official said.

“Where Wagner has been present, bad things have inevitably followed,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on a visit to Niger on Thursday.

The visit, during which Mr. Blinken pledged $150 million in aid to the Sahel region, was the fourth to Africa by a senior U.S. figure this year. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen; Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the ambassador to the United Nations, and the first lady, Jill Biden, preceded him. Vice President Kamala Harris will begin a trip to Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia this month, and President Biden has promised to visit Africa later this year.   

To many in Africa and beyond, the heightening great-power rivalry smacks of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union backed rival African leaders, including dictators. It’s a comparison the Biden administration desperately wants to avoid because its strategy in Africa, announced by Mr. Blinken to fanfare in South Africa last year, presents African countries as valued partners, not pawns in a global rivalry.

For their part, African leaders have made it clear that they do not want to be forced to choose sides.

“Africa has suffered enough from the burden of history,” Macky Sall, the African Union chairman, told the U.N. General Assembly in September. “It does not want to be the breeding ground of a new Cold War.”

Russian ties to Africa stretch back to the Soviet era, when Moscow backed sympathetic governments and independence movements, and have endured in recent years as Russia became the continent’s largest arms supplier.

But its latest drive for influence started in earnest about five years ago, when Mr. Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenaries — many Russian but also Syrian, Serbian and Lebanese — began to appear in some of the continent’s most turbulent corners.

In response to questions, Mr. Prigozhin said in a statement, “We have nothing to do with either the Chadian rebels or Mr. Hemeti,” a nickname for the deputy leader of Sudan, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, who also wields influence in Chad.

The Russian effort spans the continent but has had the greatest impact in the Sahel, the semiarid region bordering the Sahara. Wagner fighters are battling Islamist rebels in Mali, are bodyguards to the Central African Republic’s president and mine gold in several countries, including Sudan. Social media campaigns seek to burnish the image of President Vladimir V. Putin or to tap into wellsprings of anti-French resentment.

The arrival of Russian mercenaries prompted the French military to withdraw from several countries. In November, France formally ended Operation Barkhane, its eight-year military drive against Islamist insurgents in the Sahel that, at its peak, included troops from five African countries. One of them, Mali, is now firmly in the Russian orbit.

The war in Ukraine did not blunt Russia’s push into Africa. American officials say that Wagner has maintained between 3,500 and 4,500 personnel on the continent, even as the group also throws troops and prison conscripts into the “meat grinder” of Ukraine’s longest, most brutal battles.

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Instead of retracting, Russia is probing for new toeholds in Africa.

On a recent visit to Mali, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, mentioned Guinea, Burkina Faso and Chad in a speech as countries where Russia hoped to use counterterrorism to get its foot in the door. U.S. officials have detected signs of new Wagner links in Eritrea, suggesting a desire for a coast-to-coast sphere of influence from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.

Mr. Lavrov has visited seven African countries this year, seeking to capitalize on ambivalence over the war in Ukraine and openly acknowledging Russia’s link with Wagner. While 30 African countries condemned Russian aggression in a recent vote at the United Nations, 22 chose not to.

Russia has also obtained a powerful partner in General Hamdan of Sudan, whose paramilitary forces have received weapons and training from Wagner, and who travels widely across the region. Last week, he flew to Eritrea, one of a handful of countries that consistently votes in favor of Russia at the United Nations.

Experts caution against overestimating the impact of Russia’s African forays. The countries where Moscow operates are among the world’s poorest, and on the ground, its efforts often appear scattershot, poorly resourced and motivated by a desire to poke the West in the eye. Ultimately, Russia is unlikely to deliver on the grand security promises it has made to African countries, said Michelle Gavin, an Africa expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

But in the short term, its actions are proving highly disruptive, and Western powers have struggled to find a response.

In the West African nation of Burkina Faso, soon after Capt. Ibrahim Traoré, a young army officer, seized power in a coup last fall, Victoria Nuland, a senior State Department official, showed up to strongly urge Mr. Traoré not to turn to Wagner for help, a senior State Department official said.

In January, the last French troops left Burkina Faso, under orders from Captain Traoré, prompting speculation that they would be replaced by Russians.

But it was the assassination plot in Chad, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, that spurred American efforts to a new level.

Larger by area than Britain, France and Germany combined, Chad has been a key French ally for decades, used by the French military for training and as a hub of operations. In the 1980s, the C.I.A. supported its brutal leader, Hissène Habré, who was later convicted as a war criminal.

Chad’s current leader, Mahamat Idriss Déby, came to power in 2021 after his father, Chad’s autocratic leader of three decades, was killed in battle with rebels. Mr. Déby has stayed close to France, but the alliance has been frayed by a brutal crackdown on democracy protesters in October that left 128 people dead, according to Chad’s national human rights body.

Now, some members of Mr. Déby’s inner circle appear to be tilting toward Russia.

A senior Chadian official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Mr. Déby’s half brother, Seid, a former head of Chad’s state energy company, visited Moscow three times in the past year, meeting at least once with Mr. Prigozhin. On his Facebook profile, Seid Déby is pictured standing outside the Kremlin.

In January, Russia denied accusations that Wagner was seeking to topple the president and announced that Mr. Déby planned to attend the second Russia-Africa summit in July, hosted by Mr. Putin.

About four weeks later, U.S. officials presented Mr. Déby with declassified evidence of Wagner’s plans to assassinate him, the Chadian official said. Also on the hit list were Mr. Déby’s chief of staff, a minister of state and the chief of the presidential guard, he added.

Seid Déby and the spokesman for Chad’s president did not respond to requests for comment.

Washington has continued to use its usual tools against Mr. Prigozhin’s network in Africa, imposing new sanctions in January that target his business ventures and associates in several countries. The French, meanwhile, have begun to acknowledge that deep resentment toward them in their former colonies opened the door to Russian intervention.

On a recent tour of four African countries, President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged the rising wave of anti-French sentiment and promised a new era of partnership.

For some Africans, the show of humility has come too late. “The people of Chad do not want the French,” said Hallowak Haoua, 29, a street vendor in the Chadian capital, Ndjamena. “At least the Russians want to help us. With the French, it’s just for their own interests.”

Others worry that a return to Cold War-style confrontation could doom their democratic aspirations. The United States should not cozy up to authoritarians like President Déby of Chad to prevent him from tumbling into the Russian orbit, said  Succès Masra, the main opposition leader.

“It would be a big mistake for President Biden to side with Déby,” said Mr. Masra, speaking by phone from the United States, where he fled after the massacre of protesters in October. He added, “In the long run, the best way for the United States to protect its interests in Chad is to bet on democracy.”

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Mahamat Adamou from Ndjamena, Chad.