Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to Mali’s military leader about the recent coup in Niger on Tuesday, a call likely to cause concern among Western governments that fear growing Russian influence in West Africa’s Sahel region.
Putin “stressed the importance of a peaceful resolution of the situation for a more stable Sahel,” Mali’s interim President Assimi Goita said on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.
The Kremlin said in a statement that the call was initiated by Mali. “The parties specifically focused on the current situation in the Sahara-Sahel region and emphasized, in particular, the importance of settling the situation in the Republic of Niger solely through peaceful political and diplomatic means,” it said.
Niger has strategic significance for the United States, China, Europe and Russia due to its uranium and oil resources and its role as a hub for foreign forces fighting a regional Islamist insurgency.
Western powers and democratic African governments have called for the coup leaders to reinstate ousted President Mohamed Bazoum, who they have detained since July 26, but the junta has refused and rejected attempts at negotiation.
West African army chiefs will meet on Thursday and Friday in Ghana to prepare for a possible military intervention, which the main regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has threatened to launch if diplomacy fails.
Any military intervention could further destabilize the impoverished Sahel, where the insurgency by groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State has displaced millions over the past decade and fuelled a hunger crisis.
Russian influence there has grown while the West’s has waned since a string of coups in the last three years. Military leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso have kicked out troops from former colonial power France and strengthened ties with Moscow.
In Mali, the army government also brought in mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner group, who have been accused of executing civilians and committing other grave human rights abuses.
Under Bazoum, Niger remained a Western ally. The U.S., France, Germany and Italy have troops stationed there under agreements with the now deposed civilian government.
Putin has called for a return to constitutional order in Niger, while Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin welcomed the army takeover and offered his services.
Support for Russia has appeared to surge in Niger since the coup, with junta supporters waving Russian flags at rallies and calling for France to disengage.
Niger’s coup leaders have revoked a raft of military agreements with France, although Paris shrugged this off by saying that it did not recognize them as legitimate authorities.