NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania -- Mauritania's assumption of leadership of the "G5 Sahel" group of countries at the end of the February 20 summit in Chad is an important step towards the continuation of the group's work, experts say.
This is especially significant in light of recent rifts among G5 Sahel members -- Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger -- including Mail's withdrawal last summer and the non-attendance of Burkina Faso's transitional president.
Discussion among the attending presidents was dominated by how to bring Mali back into the fold and prevent the emergence of new rifts among the remaining members.
Leaders also discussed the security challenges most of the group face -- with the exception of Mauritania -- and the search for radical solutions to these challenges, which have become more vexing over the past two years.
These include a number of coups, the French withdrawal, the escalation of violent incidents as a result of the ethnic conflict and a wave of displacement.
They also include the intervention of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, and Russia's attempts to forge political alliances in the region.
The G5 Sahel countries already suffer from poor infrastructure and a high poverty rate, in addition to food insecurity and the threat of famine.
Add to this "a new security challenge posed by the activities of Wagner elements, and Russia's attempt to export its crises to the region", terrorism researcher Mohamed Bouchikhi told Al-Mashareq.
"Russia is trying to exploit the spread of terrorism in the Sahel countries and the inability of Western strategies to contain it, in addition to the prevailing state of tension between a number of regimes in the region and France," he said.
It is trying to capitalise on "a growing sense of rejection of the French presence in popular circles, in order to portray itself to public opinion and the ruling elite in these countries as an alternative to the West", he explained.
But "Russia will not be able to challenge the West's policy in the region at the economic and diplomatic levels, and so the most it can do is provide military support to countries that accept partnership with it", he said.
Exacerbating regional problems
Wagner Group mercenaries have provided support for armed groups in Chad to implement a plot to overthrow the Chadian transitional president, Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, the Wall Street Journal reported February 23.
The United States briefed the Chadian authorities on intelligence reports that Wagner Group founder and owner Yevgeny Prigozhin is financially and operationally supporting Chadian militants so they can implement a plan to destabilise the transitional authority.
This plot would exacerbate regional rifts, as it signals that Russia "does not seek to serve the interests of the countries of the region", said Mohammed el-Amine al-Dah, a specialist in the security of the Sahel region.
"Rather it has become clear that its first and last goal is to serve its own agenda," he said, which includes opening "new markets for the export of Russian weapons".
As for the recent diplomatic activity in the region spearheaded by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, he said, this aims "to end the diplomatic isolation that Russia is suffering from as a result of its aggression against Ukraine".
Some Sahel countries' rush into Russia's arms may "further increase their isolation", al-Dah warned, pointing to Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea.
A cautionary sign of this is "the actions taken by the United Nations (UN) and the African Union (AU) with regard to the peacekeeping forces in Mali and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Group forces", he said.
"The economic support and military aid that Russia provides to these countries does not provide a solution to the structural problems afflicting these countries," he added.
"It should be noted that the regimes that succumbed to Russian temptations are mainly of a military nature and have come to power through military coups," Bouchikhi said.
"Their choice of Russia stems from their desire to associate with a partner that does not demand political reforms from them and does not care about the human rights situation, in contrast to Western countries," he said.