Niger’s democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum was replaced by General Abdourahamane Tchiani of the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (NCSP) on July 28. While the US and European Union (EU) swiftly condemned the coup, Russia viewed Tchiani’s takeover more positively.
The Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin hailed the coup as a strike against neocolonialism and offered the services of his company to the junta. On Telegram, the fascist philosopher Alexander Dugin declared “Niger is ours! The last puppet of France-Afrique is overthrown during the Russia-Africa Forum. Niger to Nigeriens!”
Officially, Russia has expressed solidarity with the junta and echoed its claims, but refrained from providing material support. An August 11 Russian Foreign Ministry statement warned that any military effort by 11 states in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) would lead to a “protracted confrontation” in Niger and “a sharp destabilization of the situation in the Sahara-Sahel region as a whole.” Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated this message in an August 15 call with Mali’s junta leader, Assimi Goita.
Russia’s disinformation machinery has also amplified the junta’s claims that rising insecurity prompted the coup. On August 5, Prigozhin accused the US, Britain, and the EU of creating terrorist groups in Niger to plunder uranium reserves. To justify his contention, Prigozhin claimed that France pays Niger just $11 for every $218 earned from its uranium reserves.
RIA Novosti columnist Sergey Savchuk declared that “Paris is sucking all the juice out of Niger” and argued that it is a “textbook example of the colonial structure of which Western ostentatious prosperity is built.” Russia’s anti-Western messaging was assisted by synergistic coverage of the Niger coup by Chinese media outlets that highlighted France’s links to Bazoum, and by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who framed Niger’s suspension of uranium sales to France as a response to oppression.
These narratives have received enthusiastic support in Niger. Inspired by Kemi Seba, a Prigozhin-funded social media influencer who has been compared by fans to the US civil rights activist Malcolm X, the Nigerien public has rallied around the junta and its Russian allies. The M62 movement, a coalition of activists and civil society organizations formed in August 2022, has held rallies in Niamey waving Russian flags. The junta’s actions received 79% support in a recent poll and if external interference transpires, 53% of Nigeriens want it to be led by Russia, and only 6% back the threatened ECOWAS intervention.
Despite this, Russia has little intention of economically aiding Niger’s sanctioned junta. Gennady Petrov, a columnist for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, stated that Nigerien Prime Minister Ali Lamine Zeine courted Russian investment to overcome Western sanctions, but admitted that the “Russian trace” in Niger was confined to flags.
The Foreign Ministry’s openness to an ECOWAS-brokered diplomatic solution to the Niger crisis and support for Bazoum’s release from house arrest underscores the limits of its political solidarity with the junta. Russian media outlets explain this restraint by highlighting the uncertain duration of Tchiani’s power grab, which was triggered by Bazoum’s crackdown on loyalists to his predecessor Mohammed Issoufou.
Wagner is also unlikely to enter Niger for two reasons. First, Russia has very limited extant economic or security links with Niger. In 2021, it exported just $154,000 in goods to Russia and imported only $4.58m in goods. It signed a military-technical agreement with Russia in August 2017, which extended to the counterterrorism sphere, but security cooperation between the two militaries is extremely limited.
Rossiya-1 propagandist Vladimir Solovyov’s claims that the Nigerien military is prepared to use Russian air defense systems do not conform to reality. Wagner lacks meaningful access to Niger’s uranium mines, so it cannot self-finance its operations as it has in the Central African Republic and Sudan.
Second, the Wagner Group’s prospects for military success in Niger are slim. Since Wagner’s arrival in Mali in late 2021, civilian casualties have increased by 270% and the al-Qaeda-aligned Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) militia has tightened its hold on northeastern and central Mali.
Over the past year, Wagner has lost access to logistical support and heavy equipment for its Mali operations. Russia’s overarching focus on its Ukraine war and the fallout from Prigozhin’s insurrection may limit Wagner’s weapons stocks in the Sahel to guns and ammunition. This makes Wagner of limited usefulness for Niger’s junta. Russia will also seek to avoid a military confrontation with ECOWAS, and its biggest member, since it is seeking to expand commercial ties with Niger in the energy and aluminum fields.
For these reasons, a Burkina Faso-style scenario where the junta strengthens ties with Russia’s state-owned companies and accepts Russian instructors for training purposes is much more plausible than a Mali-style Wagner intervention.
Russia’s propaganda about entering Niger fails to acknowledge the risks caused by intra-elite rivalries, the rivalries that propelled Gen. Tchiani to power; it also ignores Wagner’s fragility as a counterterrorism force in the Sahel.
Dr. Samuel Ramani is a tutor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford, where he received his doctorate in March 2021. He is also a geopolitical analyst and commentator, and an Associate Fellow at RUSI.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.