Mali Looks To Russian Mercenaries For Security

Mali’s ruling military junta is poised to sign a security deal with a supposed Russian private military contractor (PMC). The Wagner Group, to which the Russian state denies affinity, has been accused of mercenary involvement in conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, and eastern Europe. Now, the Russian PMC is set to send approximately 1,000 troops into Mali, according to Reuters.

A spokesman for the Kremlin, Dimitry Peskov, has denied that Russian military representatives are present in Mali. Yet, he inserted the caveat “[w]e are in contact – including through the military – with many countries, including the African continent.” Contact and presence certainly have semantic differences, although one does not preclude the other. In fact, France has become so concerned that on Sunday, September 19th, it sent its Armed Forces Minister to Mali’s capital, Bamako. The goal of the visit was to stress “the heavy consequences if this decision were to be taken by the Malian authorities,” and secure a commitment to return to constitutional order after President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was ousted in a 2020 coup.

Relations between France and Mali have deteriorated since the coup, with France suspending military cooperation with the sub-Saharan nation and announcing plans to draw down its troop numbers from 5,100  to below 3,000. A deal with a Russian mercenary group accused of torture and beheadings in Syria as well as a collapse in Franco-CAR relations would be a “red line” for French President Emmanuel Macron, according to Al-Jazeera. One of the consequences would likely be an evacuation of French troops from Mali’s northern region to neighboring Niger which could, theoretically, create a power vacuum and open the door to increased jihadist and insurgency violence. French forces have been fighting radical Islamic groups and separatists in Mali since 2013, after Islamic rebels captured several towns and villages.

The group being accused of mercenary involvement in Mali, known as the Wagner Group which, according to Foreign Policy, “defies the conventional definition of a private military contractor” by “instead melding mercenary activity and natural resource extraction while advancing the Kremlin’s foreign-policy objectives.” When asked about the clandestine group in 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin replied, “they are not breaking Russian law and have the right to work and promote their business interest wherever they like in the world.” First appearing in Ukraine during the Russian military annexation of Crimea in 2014, the group is allegedly financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Putin and former sausage wholesaler. He denies any attachments to the Wagner group or the Russian Defense Ministry.

Prigozhin has been the target of U.S. sanctions for his alleged role in financially backing the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a troll farm that exploited political tribalism in the 2016 US Presidential election. Additionally, he was sanctioned for attempting to subvert democratic protests in Sudan in order to maintain a natural resource extraction agreement upheld by the former authoritarian leader of the country. Kimberly Joy Marten, an expert at Columbia University, stated “I think he is the middleman; I think he is the contractor.” Marten went on to say “I’m sure he gets a huge payment off the top by being the contractor, and then he has these companies which seem to be benefiting in cases where there are minerals or oil involved.” Mercenaryism is illegal under Russian law, hence the groups ephemeral contours, and as a result the state could hypothetically distance itself from high-risk, experimental interventionism when it fails and reap the pro-Russia rewards if it succeeds.

Despite the military and security involvement of France, the UN, U.S., and various west-African nations surrounding Mali, violent attacks, reprisal killings, and terrorist activities remain a threat in the nation. The Islamic State in Greater Sahara, formerly the Islamic State in Mali, was estimated to have 425 fighters in 2018 and has claimed responsibility for over a dozen attacks – although it is estimated to be responsible for many more. A regional offshoot of Al Qaeda is also active in the north of the country. Mali’s new military junta has reshuffled the government and is seeking additional protection for senior officials and greater security and stabilization in hostile regions (including the training of the country’s dilapidated military personnel). Hence, the courting of the Wagner Group. As tensions with France flare, many in Mali have begun to view the European power’s counterterrorism efforts as a manifestation of neocolonialism. Yet, as of late France has been seeking to hand off more responsibility for the nation’s security to European partners as well as the Coalition for the Sahel which includes Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Mauritania, and Mali.

There are, of course, transnational financial and industrial layers involved in the coup and subsequent beckoning of private military contractors. In November 2019, the same year in which Mali signed a defense agreement with Russia, demonstrators in Bamako, many waving Russian flags, urged the Kremlin to aid in the thwarting of Islamic attacks in Mali – alluding to Russian involvement in Syria. More so, the leader of Mali’s political opposition, Umar Mariko, has actively courted Russian arms and technical support. From 2000-2019, Russia exported $23 million worth of weapons to Mali, yet the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has categorized Russo-Mali military cooperation as “very poor.” However, there are minerals and natural resources to be exploited, thus it is in Russia’s interest to improve military relations. Were Russia to establish a close political relationship with Mali’s military junta, the Russian nuclear energy giant Rosatom (which competes directly with Areva S. A., a French multinational group that specializes in nuclear energy, for contracts in the Sahel) could benefit given Mali’s uranium reserves. More so, Russian gold company Nordgold could expand its extraction initiatives in Mali’s gold reserves.

In conclusion, force alone will not solve the problem. The problem itself is multi-faceted. Overall, I agree with Mali Prime Minister Choguel Maiga, who asked “if partners have decided to leave certain areas, if they decide to leave tomorrow – what do we do? Should we not have a plan B?” He continued to speak of abandoned zones wherein there are inadequate troop numbers which leaves certain areas vulnerable to attack. “We can’t be stopped from sending trained people to a given country,” he added. Many areas of Mali have an anorexic state infrastructure that are incapable of providing basic public services. Education and health must go concomitantly with security and justice. Sanctions are not an effective way to build a nation’s economy and have become a bullying tactic employed by insecure Machiavellian governments. Continued financial investment in Mali from its Sahel neighbors will achieve much more stability than its former colonial overlord scolding its leaders for seeking additional safety from PMCs they disapprove of. That being said, if France truly cares about the future prosperity and liberties of Mali then it will continue to promote and incentivize the transition back to democratic civilian leadership – this way, it can gain the trust of more of Mali’s populace who are in dire need of an authoritative political voice.

Emmet McGeown

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