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Examining Russia's influence on the most recent coup in Burkina Faso

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Burkina Faso has gone through two coups in a year. The latest military ruler is an army captain who's just 34 and took power the other day. He took charge of a landlocked country in West Africa with a population of around 20 million. And after this month's coup, something else happened there - people waved Russian flags. U.S. State Department spokesman Vedant Patel later issued a warning.

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VEDANT PATEL: We have spoken clearly about the destabilizing impact of both rampant disinformation but also the Wagner Group's activities globally. Countries where the group has been deployed find themselves weaker and less secure, and we've seen that in a number of cases in Africa alone.

INSKEEP: Russia? Disinformation? Wagner Group? What's going on in West Africa? Rinaldo Depagne is the deputy Africa director at the International Crisis Group and will help us figure it out. Good morning.

RINALDO DEPAGNE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Did Russia have something to do with this change of power in West Africa?

DEPAGNE: This is very difficult to say and to prove. But Russia is certainly closer to now cut a deal with Burkina than ever and certainly that Russia was with president - former President Damiba, and this for several reasons. First one is President Traore's statement. And President Traore, eight days ago, said that it could solicit diversified military assistance without naming Russia, but everyone was thinking about Russia. Second reason, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner PMC Enterprise, offered to work with Traore. Third reason, we have now a legal act, and according to this act, the president negotiates and ratifies international treaty himself. So it opened the door for him to decide whether he will work with Russia or not.

INSKEEP: You mentioned Ibrahim Traore, who's the army captain, the 34-year-old now claiming to be in charge of Burkina Faso. And you mentioned the Wagner Group, which is this Russian paramilitary organization, kind of a mercenary organization. So I can see why he might want them on his side. But why does Russia care about Burkina Faso? What would their interest be?

DEPAGNE: Because it's close to Mali and because if they catch Burkina, then they will have two neighboring countries in their asset or pocket. They offered a very attractive package, meaning fighting rebellion, protect the president with - providing him with a personal guard and deliver quickly weapons and military gear. And some countries on the continent are really seduced by this easy package.

INSKEEP: So let's come back to Burkina Faso. What is there of value in Burkina Faso?

DEPAGNE: Gold. And you have currently 17 industrial mining operations working in Burkina. And one of them is under Russian control, but 16 of them are under Western control, many Canadian miners or mining companies.

INSKEEP: And so now there could be some contention there. Thanks so much for the insights. Really appreciate it.

DEPAGNE: OK. Thank you. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Rinaldo Depagne is the deputy Africa director for the International Crisis Group. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.