Mali Fears Afghanistan’s Fate: With France’s Exit From Sahel, Russia is Set to Move In

Written by | Wednesday, September 15th, 2021

A deal is close that would allow Russian mercenaries into Mali, extending Russian influence over security affairs in West Africa and triggering opposition from former colonial power France, according to diplomatic and security sources. Russian mercenary firm Wagner could send up to 1,000 fighters to Mali to train soldiers and protect VIPs under a new deal with its military junta, which could jeopardize the France’s 5,000-man strong counter-terrorist mission in the region, which was to involve more EU states. “Public opinion in Mali is in favour of more cooperation with Russia,” a spokesman for the country’s defence ministry said. Paris has reportedly just begun a diplomatic drive to prevent the military junta in Mali enacting the deal, which would permit the Russian private military contractors to operate in the former French colony.
At least 1,000 mercenaries could be involved, according to a European source who tracks West Africa and a security source in the region. Other sources said the Wagner Group would be paid about US$10.8 million a month for its services. One security source working in the region said the mercenaries would train Malian military and provide protection for senior officials. The Wagner Group could not be reached for comment and Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has been linked to the Wagner Group by some media outlets, denies any connection to the firm. Meanwhile, France’s diplomatic offensive is underway, which includes enlisting the help of partners including the United States to persuade Mali’s junta not to press ahead with the deal, and sending senior diplomats to Moscow and Mali for talks. Paris’ main concern is that the arrival of Russian mercenaries would undermine its decade-old counter-terrorism operation against al Qaeda and Islamic State-linked insurgents in the Sahel region of West Africa at a time when it is seeking to draw down its 5,000-strong Barkhane mission to reshape it with more European partners, the diplomatic sources said.
Another Western army is leaving a fragile, landlocked region. But whereas the US has pulled its troops out of one country, Afghanistan, France is walking away from five, Faisal Al Yafai from the Abu Dhabi-based Syndication Bureau, a media company, argued recently. France has had troops in the Sahel, a belt of countries stretching along the edge of the Sahara, for over eight years. Without French troops, the Sahel might resemble another Western war: this time, Libya, an invasion that ended with foreign influence flooding in. That already appears to be the case, with the familiar figure of Russia waiting in the wings to step in and protect Sahel governments from militants. What is certain is that, quietly, Russia has expanded its relations in the region over the past four years, inking military cooperation deals with three Sahel countries. Russia’s Wagner Group also operate in Libya and the Central African Republic, countries bordering Chad north and south. When French troops finally leave, the Sahel governments, still fragile, and in Mali and Chad even more fragile than before, will still need foreign troops to protect their tenuous hold on power. How long before they look south to the CAR and seek the help of Moscow? As in Afghanistan, the exit of Western troops will just open the door for the Russians.

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