Russia, Wagner Group, and Mali: How European Fears Weaken European Policy

Written by | Tuesday, December 14th, 2021

Europeans reacted sharply to the news of Russian private military company Wagner Group’s
interest in Mali – and interviews suggest the company has been present in the country.
Since the news emerged in September that the government of Mali was negotiating a
contract with Wagner Group, France and other European states have made the issue a focus
of their diplomatic activity. The United States has also expressed its concern. But European
states and the European Union still remain the dominant security and development player in
the Sahel.
Mali’s transitional authorities – the result of two coups since August 2020 – appeared to
have negotiated for up to 1,000 Russian mercenaries to arrive in Mali to conduct training,
close protection, and counterterrorism operations (though there is no independent
confirmation of this figure). This extensive presence would reportedly be paid for by
concessions to Wagner Group or related companies on several mines, for
an estimated minimum of €10m a month, although the actual cost could be much higher. In
response, France, Germany, and the EU all made their displeasure plain, issuing strong
statements condemning the move. The EU has laid the groundwork for sanctions against
Wagner Group and those working with it if it officially begins operations in Mali.
This follows sanctions last year against alleged Wagner Group funder and leader Yevgeny
Prigozhin over the organisation’s activities in Libya.
The subject came up frequently during my trip to Mali’s capital, Bamako, in
October. Although European observers and diplomats generally opposed Wagner’s possible presence in Mali, some felt France ’ s aggressive pushback had been counterproductive. Its response has played into populist appeals to “sovereignty” –against ongoing French influence as the former colonial power – made by transitional prime minister Choguel Maiga and his government. It also likely
exaggerated the real possibilities for Wagner Group to operate in Mali given the costs and
difficulties associated with creating a security presence in the country. Mines and other
mineral resources are, moreover, not as easily exploitable as those in other countries where
Wagner Group has operated.
It transpires – based on interviews in Bamako – that a deal between Mali’s transitional
government and Wagner Group was prepared, but never signed. Although international
pressure may have helped deter Mali’s government from going ahead, other factors,
including Wagner’s grotesque behaviour in countries such as Central African Republic (CAR)
and a lack of interest from Wagner in Mali’s mineral offerings, may have also played a
role. The Soviet Union and later Russia maintained enduring defence, educational, and
other relationships with Mali, including training and equipment programmes, supply and
maintenance contracts for weapons systems, and scholarships (such as that under which
Maiga studied for his PhD and two of the five members of the junta also received training in
More recently, in 2019, Russia and Mali’s then government signed a contract for four attack
helicopters, which were recently delivered to Bamako along with ammunition, supplies, and
training staff and other personnel. After the August 2020 coup, the first foreign delegation the
new junta received was the Russian ambassador to Mali. And at the end of
September, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov defended Mali’s possible talks with
Wagner Group at the United Nations, before receiving Malian foreign minister Abdoulaye
Diop in Moscow last month. There, Diop echoed Maiga’s statements about Mali’s sovereign
right to pursue security partnerships beyond those existing with France and the EU.
He even encouraged Russia to pursue mineral extraction and other business opportunities in
Russia has also cultivated ties with activists, civil society, and student movements. This
is complemented by the spread of official outlets such as Sputnik and Russia Today (which
has a large following in Mali and on Malian social media). European officials often also
highlight Russia’s likely use of trolls, astroturfed protesters, and the manufacture and spread
of fake news and misinformation, all of which is a genuine and frequent problem on Sahelian
social media. These civil society ties also extend to neighbouring countries. In Mali, one of
the most vocal pro-Russia movements has been that of Yéréwolo, which is close to
the COPA/BF movement (Coalition of Patriots of Burkina Faso) and that has organised
protests against France’s presence in the region, and also called for Russian intervention in
Burkina Faso’s own worsening security environment.
Interviews in Bamako and European capitals confirm that Wagner delegations
have indeed been in Mali, and that they surveyed both possible areas of operations and
mining sites that they could exploit as part of their compensation. Wagner is also not the only
Russian private military corporation, and others may be interested or involved in Mali and the
Sahel, with the support of different parts of Russia’s government and business elites. Yet
Mali is not as permissive an operating environment as CAR for several reasons. Where the
government remains in control, mineral mines are subject to laws and regulations
that may not be easily overcome by pressure from private companies, even those as
powerful as Wagner Group. Moreover, artisanal mines controlled by armed groups in
northern Mali would be difficult to exploit.
For example, the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad, one such coalition of armed
groups and a sign at o r y p a r t y t o the 2015 peace accords signed in Algiers, expressed its opposition to the arrival of Russian mercenaries. It was likely concerned that Mali’s government might use Wagner mercenaries to target it instead of jihadist forces. Moreover, Western diplomats in Bamako suggest that output from the mines Wagner emissaries inspected proved insufficient to pay for the group’s services, a reminder of the economic motive behind some Russian power projection as well as its limits. It is also unlikely that Russia would seek to supplant the large-scale European or Europeansupported security and development architecture that exists in the Sahel in the form of the
Coalition for the Sahel, the G5 Sahel, Task Force Takuba, and more.
Still, the sharp international reaction suited Russia’s overall foreign policy
aims by causing tension and further disagreement between France, the EU, and Mali’s
government. At the same time this reaction allowed Russia to present itself with minimal
actual effort as a steady partner to Mali militarily, economically, and politically. It helped
bolster the prime minister’s populist critiques of France at a moment when the transitional
government is seeking to delay promised elections and secure its own position against
an increasingly hostile regional and international community.
A further risk that comes from overestimating Russia’s potential impact in the Sahel is failing
to see other problems in the region. Although Russian influence and support for anti-French
movements appears clear, it would also be a serious mistake to reduce all anti-French
sentiment in the Sahel to Russian disinformation and agitation. Yet this is largely what some
senior officials, such as French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, have done. Denying this
reality ignores the complexity of political contestation and popular opinion in the region.
It places Europe in a position of opposition to Russia that forecloses more creative and
subtle ways to respond to the country’s influence. It prevents Europeans
from better explaining their presence and policies in the Sahel to Sahelian
citizens directly, and from using evidence of Russian abuses against civilians and religious
leaders in countries such as CAR to show how dangerous Wagner Group or similar entities
could be in Mali or Burkina Faso.
There may not be as coherent a Russian Africa strategy at play in Mali as some outside
observers believe; as an ECFR-based expert Kadri Liik points out, Russian foreign policy is
adaptive but also sometimes reactive, securing short-term advantage where possible, and
seeking as much to disrupt adversaries as anything else. Moreover, Russia and Wagner
Group are not one and the same. They represent diverse and sometimes competing
interests within the Russian state and among an array of private companies active in conflict
zones and tied to different parts of the Russian defence and political establishment. In Mali
as well as elsewhere, it would be a major error to overreact to Russian provocation or even
its mere presence, and to see a bogeyman in the Sahel instead of the much more
complicated reality.
‘Russia, Wagner Group, and Mali: How European Fears Weaken European Policy’ —
Commentary by Andrew Lebovich — European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.

The Commentary can be downloaded here

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