A Coup in Africa and a Poisoning in Russia Are Politics as Usual

// Soldiers trained by the France, Germany, Russia and the U.S. have seized power in Mali and Putin eliminates the competition (probably) with a little poison (again)

Hello and welcome to the Information War, Angry Planet’s (War College’s) weekly catalogue of a world in conflict. Every week Jason, Kevin, and Matthew watch the news and sort through the signal and noise so you don’t have to.

As always, it was a busy week in the world of conflict. We’d like to start by talking about Africa. 

Wait, no, don’t close the newsletter!

Matthew, Kevin, and the Warzone’s Joseph Trevithick often talk about Africa in private and share the stories that we know will never see print. The sad truth of the defense news business is that readers don’t read about Africa and editors don’t publish stories about Africa. At War Is Boring, we had a standing policy of not putting the word “Africa” in the headline of any story that discussed the continent because we knew no one would click and no one would read.

That’s a shame because Africa is one of the most important defense stories of the 21st century. The United States, Russia, Europe, and China are all operating in Africa. Djibouti is the site of China’s first foreign military base. The continent’s got rare earth minerals you won’t find anywhere else on the planet, a bizarre and brutal legacy of colonial violence, and odd characters like Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army. (Remember him?) It’s also a huge and diverse continent with a mix of cultures and peoples. Algeria is different from South Africa which is vastly different from Eritrea, and too often we lump everything together when talking about the vast landmass.

With that in mind, let’s talk about Mali. Then, I promise, we’ll talk about a former Green Beret who’s super into Russian identity politics and the Kremlin’s history of poisoning.

Coup, Extremists, and a History of U.S. Counter-terrorism Training

A coup in the West African country of Mali has deposed president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) and installed a military junta. Colonel Assimi Goita has declared himself the leader of that junta and has been meeting with regional leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to discuss a return to constitutional order.

The first thing to understand is that IBK sucked. He took power in an election in 2013 and was reelected in 2018 with his term set to end in 2023. He spent much of his time in office sending the military to fight against extremist forces in the north and living a lavish lifestyle at public expense. Goita was one of those soldiers fighting for him. One of IBK’s first scandals to go international was the purchase of a $40 million dollar presidential jet. IBK’s son Karim is famous for living off the largesse of the people and video of him partying on a yacht helped fuel a protest movement that’s rocked the country over the past few months.

Anti-IBK sentiment has roiled the country and citizens have taken to the streets to express their displeasure. It’s called the June 5th Movement or M5, and Mali’s security forces have killed people during clashes in the streets. Karim resigned his parliament seat and IBK attempted negotiations, but it wasn’t enough. He “resigned” on Wednesday and remains in custody. The United States condemned the coup, calling it a mutiny, and promised to cut off aid to the country.

This is the second coup in Mali in eight years.

Complicating matters is Mali’s history of fighting Islamic extremists in its north. The United States, France, Germany and other countries have poured tens of millions of dollars into the country to help it fight Islamic State and al Qaeda-backed militants. Goita spent time in America training with U.S Special Operations Forces counter-terrorism experts. According to The Daily Beast, two other soldiers involved in the coup had recently returned from Russia where they had been receiving training from the Kremlin’s military

And speaking of Russia ...

The Old Poisoner’s Handbook

It can be slow, it can be quick. It can be fatal, it can be debilitating. It can leave you disfigured. And the Kremlin appears to be expert in all its uses.

What is it? Poison, of course.

Since Boris Nemtsov was gunned down in the streets of Moscow, in 2015, by a crew tied to Vladimir Putin’s hand-picked leader in Chechnya, Russia’s signature opposition leader has been Alexei Navalny, a journalist. He has been arrested many times, he’s been attacked with a green dye that left one eye permanently damaged. Now, by all appearances, he has joined the list of Putin opponents who have mysteriously—and suddenly—become “ill”. 

Navalny was on a flight after a trip to Siberia when it happened, and all he’d had for breakfast was tea. He may have been under government surveillance while he was in Siberia, too. He is now in a hospital in Berlin and it’s unclear if he’ll survive.

Navalny has been a pain in Putin’s ass for years, so why poison him now? It could all be part of the end of Russia’s status quo as Putin settles into the presidency for life, one author writes. 

Other alleged targets include politicians, journalists and former spies. Exotic poisons used include the radioactive polonium-210 and the chemical weapon Novichok. 

Angry Planet

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Here’s 40 minutes of previously unreleased footage of the Soviet Union’s Tsar Bomba tests—the largest nuclear weapon ever developed.

top image: a member of the Mali Defense Force stands guard in 2012. U.S. Army photo