Russian Missile Strike on French Contractor Base in Ukraine Highlights Heated Franco-Russian Cold War

The Russian Armed Forces on the evening of January 16 were reported to have launched a missile strike targeting the headquarters of predominantly French European foreign fighters in Ukraine. Russian sources subsequently reported that the personnel targeted were military contractors, and that the strike caused at least 80 casualties 60 or more of which were killed. Russian state media reported that these personnel were “highly trained specialists who work on specific weapons systems too complex for the average Ukrainian conscripts,” which “put some of the most lethal and long-range weapons in the Ukrainian arsenal out of service until more specialists are found” to replace them. These claims align with a strong consensus among analysts that in order to allow the Ukrainian Armed Forces to absorb very large quantities of complex Western weaponry, much of which takes several years of training to operate, contractors from across the Western world have played a significant role in operating this hardware. A key example has been the American MIM-104 Patriot air defence system, which Ukrainian personnel were considered unable to operate before 2024 at the earliest, but which began to operate in the country in early 2023. This was difficult to explain other than with the presence of foreign personnel.

Foreign fighters have bene particularly targeted by Russian forces since the escalation of Russian-Ukrainian hostilities to full scale war in February 2022. An early example was the targeting on March 13, 2022 of a military training base in Yavoriv under 15km from the Polish border where close to 1000 foreign fighters were based, killing an estimated 180 personnel. Another was the precision strike launched by Iskander-M ballistic missile systems on Georgian Legion foreign fighters in late April 2023, destroying 15 vehicles, killing up to 60 personnel and seriously wounding more than 20 more. As Ukraine faces increasingly serious personnel shortages, Russian sources have reported that an influx of “high quality mercenaries with special skill sets” from late 2023 to replace the significant number of Ukrainian specialists killed in failed months long offensives against Russian forces which began in June 2023. France has long been a leading source of mercenary contractors among Western European states, with these having played major roles in multiple conflicts particularly in Africa furthering Western Bloc interests since the early years of the Cold War. 

As the United States has suspended further military assistance to Ukraine due to Republican opposition to further spending on the war effort, while Germany has struggled to gain domestic approval for the donation of new cruise missiles to the Ukrainian Air Force, France has played an increasingly prominent role in the conflict. This has included escalated transfers of SCALP cruise missiles and “several hundred” bombs which will be delivered in the coming week, with French President Emanuel Macron indicating that Paris could provide formal security guarantees to Kiev as the war effort looks increasingly unfavourable for Western interests. Russia has notably played a central role in undermining French influence its most critical foreign sphere, namely West and Central Africa, through its support for new military governments in former French colonies after a series of coups across the region. This has included not only an expansion of economic ties, but also support of arms, training and security through the presence of Russian contractors which has seriously limited France’s ability to assert its influence or forcefully restore Francophone governments in the region. With French ties to former colonies in Africa being of existential importance to the country’s economic health, an outsized French commitment to the war effort in Ukraine has been interpreted by a number of analysts in the context of the particularly poor relations Paris has with Moscow as a result of their strategic competition in Africa.