Report

Russia Flounders in Ukraine but Doubles Down in Mali

Russian mercenaries fill Mali vacuum as European powers pursue an exit.

A man sits near a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin during a demonstration in Bamako, Mali, on Feb. 19 celebrating France’s announcement that it will withdraw its troops from the country.
A man sits near a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin during a demonstration in Bamako, Mali, on Feb. 19 celebrating France’s announcement that it will withdraw its troops from the country.
A man sits near a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin during a demonstration in Bamako, Mali, on Feb. 19 celebrating France’s announcement that it will withdraw its troops from the country. FLORENT VERGNES/AFP via Getty Images
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On March 30, as Russian forces continued their struggle to conquer Ukrainian cities, Russian arms suppliers delivered a pair of menacing Mi-35M attack helicopters and an advanced air radar system thousands of miles away in West Africa to the Malian capital of Bamako.

Despite the Kremlin calling back an international network of national and foreign mercenaries to fight in Ukraine, some of whom are leaving battlefields in Syria and Africa to do so, Russia has largely maintained its presence in Mali, where a force of about 1,000 Russian officials and instructors from the Russian mercenary outfit, popularly known as the Wagner Group, is deployed, according to United Nations-based diplomats. Some 200 Malian service members and nine police officers are currently receiving training in Russia, a Russian diplomat recently told the U.N. Security Council.

The development suggests that despite its military reversals in Ukraine, Russia is seeking to preserve its growing diplomatic and military interests in Africa, where irregular Russian forces have been supplying training and fighting forces to governments and rebel movements from the Central African Republic to Libya. It is positioning itself to fill a political vacuum in Mali, as French and European forces and trainers begin withdrawing from the country, ending a nearly decadelong French effort in its former colony to contain the spread of terrorism and pave the way for a peace deal uniting the politically divided country. For Mali, the arrangement provides the military junta with a partner capable of battling the country’s anti-government Islamist movements, without having to endure demands from the West to respect human rights and pursue a democratic power-sharing arrangement with the country’s Tuareg minority in the north.

A man sits near a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin during a demonstration in Bamako, Mali, on Feb. 19 celebrating France’s announcement that it will withdraw its troops from the country.
A man sits near a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin during a demonstration in Bamako, Mali, on Feb. 19 celebrating France’s announcement that it will withdraw its troops from the country.

A man sits near a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin during a demonstration in Bamako, Mali, on Feb. 19, celebrating France’s announcement that it will withdraw its troops from the country. FLORENT VERGNES/AFP via Getty Images

On March 30, as Russian forces continued their struggle to conquer Ukrainian cities, Russian arms suppliers delivered a pair of menacing Mi-35M attack helicopters and an advanced air radar system thousands of miles away in West Africa to the Malian capital of Bamako.

Despite the Kremlin calling back an international network of national and foreign mercenaries to fight in Ukraine, some of whom are leaving battlefields in Syria and Africa to do so, Russia has largely maintained its presence in Mali, where a force of about 1,000 Russian officials and instructors from the Russian mercenary outfit, popularly known as the Wagner Group, is deployed, according to United Nations-based diplomats. Some 200 Malian service members and nine police officers are currently receiving training in Russia, a Russian diplomat recently told the U.N. Security Council.

The development suggests that despite its military reversals in Ukraine, Russia is seeking to preserve its growing diplomatic and military interests in Africa, where irregular Russian forces have been supplying training and fighting forces to governments and rebel movements from the Central African Republic to Libya. It is positioning itself to fill a political vacuum in Mali, as French and European forces and trainers begin withdrawing from the country, ending a nearly decadelong French effort in its former colony to contain the spread of terrorism and pave the way for a peace deal uniting the politically divided country. For Mali, the arrangement provides the military junta with a partner capable of battling the country’s anti-government Islamist movements, without having to endure demands from the West to respect human rights and pursue a democratic power-sharing arrangement with the country’s Tuareg minority in the north.

“Russia has considerable interests in Africa, which [Russian President Vladimir] Putin uses,” said J. Peter Pham, the former U.S. special envoy for the Sahel region during the Trump administration. “It’s not a major part of Russian foreign policy, but it’s like many things that Putin has done throughout his 20 years in power, which is to use things opportunistically.”

The Malian government entered into discussions with the Wagner Group late last year, triggering a warning to Mali’s military rulers from the French government to reconsider the partnership, according to an account from a U.N.-based diplomat familiar with Russia’s role in Mali. Paris, the diplomat noted, warned that France would have to reconsider its commitment to continue Operation Barkhane, the French military mission headquartered in Chad that has led the fight against Islamist extremists throughout the Sahel, if the Russians were invited. In late December 2021, Wagner Group military instructors began deploying in Mali.

In February, France announced that it would begin the process of winding down its presence and would be gone in six months. European military trainers, detached to the Takuba Task Force—which serves under French command and provides advice and assistance to the Malian Armed Forces and a regional counterterrorism force, known as the G5 Sahel—are also set to leave. Without the support of France, which serves as a kind of security guarantor for European and U.N. peacekeepers in Mali, the French-led anti-terror coalition risks unraveling.

Russia’s supply of attack helicopters and advanced radar risks undermining European control of the skies in Mali, exposing U.N. blue helmets to greater danger in the field. The United Nations has already been unsuccessfully trying to acquire attack helicopters. For the time being, France is prepared to fly aircraft from a base in neighboring Niger to deter attacks on U.N. peacekeepers, but it remains unclear whether Mali will continue to grant air access to the French after their troops withdraw from the country.

The Wagner Group defies conventional definitions of a private military contractor. As far as experts can tell, there is no single registered corporate entity called the Wagner Group. Rather, it has become a shorthand, bound up in mythology, to describe a network of companies and groups of mercenaries that Western governments regard to be closely enmeshed with the Russian state.

Having cut their teeth during the fighting in Ukraine in 2014, Wagner operatives have been dispatched to several countries around the world, often melding mercenary activity with natural resource extraction. Their shadowy nature has enabled the Kremlin to deny any connection to the group.

“Wagner is not a counterterrorism force. Wagner is a tool of the Russian government to try and advance its foreign-policy goals,” said Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. “They’re there to keep the junta in power because the junta serves Moscow’s interests in displacing France and the EU.”

Although government officials in Mali have described the Russians as instructors, Western officials and human rights monitors fear that their activities will extend far beyond training. Hundreds of Russians associated with the Wagner Group were dispatched to the Central African Republic in 2017 under the guise of a training mission approved by the U.N. Security Council, alleging that they were unarmed. U.N. experts have documented a string of damning allegations against the group, including indiscriminate killings, rape, and sexual violence.

The prospect of a French withdrawal from Mali has alarmed the United States, which has sought to persuade the French to remain in Mali. But another Western diplomat said there is no sense of urgency that “we get Wagner out of Mali because of what is happening in Ukraine.” Alarmed by Russia’s presence, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Michele Sison recently traveled to Mali to assess the viability of the U.N. mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, after the French leave.

“They came back from the mission very worried,” said one U.N.-based diplomat. The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the United States is concerned that the U.N. mission risks being inadvertently used to advance the aims of a military junta seeking to secure its future—and that of a Russian mercenary group expanding Moscow’s influence and seeking a payoff. Washington has also expressed concern that the U.N. mission, which has a mandate to support the Malian authorities, could be placed in the awkward position of supporting a government engaged in extensive atrocities or providing an inadvertent benefit to the Wagner Group, the diplomat said.

“Like others, the United States is deeply troubled by the developments in Mali,” Richard Mills Jr., deputy U.S. representative to the United Nations, told the U.N. Security Council on April 7. “The last three months have been marked by alarming accounts of human rights violations and abuses against civilians by terrorist armed groups and the Malian Armed Forces with individuals linked to the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group.”

A senior U.S. State Department official said the Malian regime’s decision to contract Wagner fighters was prompted by its own sense of regional and international isolation as well as the need to ensure its own security.

But the Russians hardly have the capacity to outperform tens of thousands of international troops and peacekeepers who have battled the region’s terrorists over the last decade.

“A thousand Wagner folks ain’t going to fill the security void in Mali,” the senior State Department official said, adding it has done an effective job of selling a “false narrative” that it is providing security to Mali. “They may be killing terrorists, but they are also killing so many civilians.”

“How many new terrorists do they create?” the official added.


Protesters wave Russian and Malian flags during a demonstration in Bamako, Mali, on May 27, 2021, against French influence in the country.
Protesters wave Russian and Malian flags during a demonstration in Bamako, Mali, on May 27, 2021, against French influence in the country.

Protesters wave Russian and Malian flags during a demonstration in Bamako, Mali, on May 27, 2021, against French influence in the country. MICHELE CATTANI/AFP via Getty Images

Malionce praised as a model for a fledgling democracy in Africaemerged as a major terror hub in the years following NATO’s 2011 military intervention in Libya amid a revolution against the government of then-leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, which led to Qaddafi’s ouster and death and set the stage for the spread of weapons and extremists throughout the Sahel.

An Islamist terror group hijacked an insurgency by the Malian Tuareg minority, seized control of northern Mali, and began preparing for an assault on the capital of the former French colony. Alarmed by the development, France launched Operation Serval in January 2013 to crush the Islamists and pave the way for a political settlement between Mali’s southern governments and northern Tuaregs. In August of the following year, the French replaced that with Operation Barkhane, with a wider mandate to battle extremists throughout the region.

Over the years, France has tried to cobble together a coalition of West African and European special forces, working closely with a U.N. peacekeeping mission, to help it contain the terror threat in Mali, restore security in the country, and support African-led political negotiations aimed at ending the country’s political stalemate.

The West’s relationship with Mali has sharply deteriorated since August 2020, when Malian military leader Col. Assimi Goïta staged the first of two military coups, with the second in May 2021, and quickly reneged on pledges to restore civilian democratic rule to Mali.

Russia has taken advantage of the rift, offering to provide military support and training to the Malian army. Russia has positioned itself as a diplomatic champion of Mali’s military junta, praising Russian-backed Malian counterterrorism operations that the country’s critics say have resulted in large-scale violations of human rights.

Following the August 2020 coup, Russia’s ambassador to Mali, Igor Gromyko, the grandson of former Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, became the first foreign dignitary to publicly meet with the new military junta, as U.S. and European diplomats scrambled to craft their own response. Gromyko emerged from the meeting to a small crowd of supporters waving Russian flags, leading Western diplomats to suspect the whole spectacle was a choreographed public relations stunt for Moscow to get a leg up in its influence with the new rulers.

“It’s hard to buy high-quality Malian flags in Bamako, much less high-quality Russian flags,” Pham said. “How do you find nicely made Russian flags in Bamako?”

Most recently, Moscow has provided diplomatic cover to Mali over the massacre of some 300 civilians in the town of Moura, Mali, last month, which human rights watchdogs say was carried out by Malian forces with possible help from Russian mercenaries. (Malian authorities said it was a counterterrorism operation that “neutralized” jihadi fighters.) Russia, backed by China, blocked a U.N. Security Council request for an independent investigation into the massacre.

“Cooperation between Russia and Mali has a long history and tradition,” Anna Evstigneeva, a deputy permanent representative to Russia, recently told the U.N. Security Council. “We are working to improve their capacity, train members of military and law enforcement.”

“We note the commitment of the Malian general staff to observing human rights and international humanitarian law,” she added. “We commend Bamako’s efforts in investigating the incidents of reported human rights violations. As for the information campaign about so-called Russian mercenaries, we regard it as part of a malevolent geopolitical game.”

France’s departure is raising deeper concerns about the West’s role in Mali and the viability of a U.N. peacekeeping mission whose best-trained and resourced peacekeepers come from Europe, including Germany and the United Kingdom. While French forces operate independently of the U.N. mission, the French provide vital services, including a hospital in the city of Gao, Mali, as well as close air support for peacekeepers under armed attack and medical evacuation services for wounded blue helmets. Key European powers are now reviewing their roles in Mali.

This month, the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said: “We are halting the training missions for the [Malian] Armed Force and national guard.” Borrell cited concerns about the presence of the Wagner Group, which he said may be “responsible for some very serious events, which have led to tens of people being killed in Mali in recent times.” He insisted, though, that the European Union remain committed to participating in counterterrorism efforts in the broader Sahel region.

For the moment, Britain and Germany continue to serve in the U.N. mission in Mali, but they may reconsider their commitment in light of Russia’s growing role, according to U.N.-based diplomats.

U.N. peacekeepers dismount an armored personnel carrier patrolling in the streets of Gao, Mali, on July 24, 2019, the day after a suicide bombing.
U.N. peacekeepers dismount an armored personnel carrier patrolling in the streets of Gao, Mali, on July 24, 2019, the day after a suicide bombing.

U.N. peacekeepers dismount an armored personnel carrier patrolling in the streets of Gao, Mali, on July 24, 2019, the day after a suicide bombing. SOULEYMANE AG ANARA/AFP via Getty Images

The United States and its European counterparts are also concerned about potentially deteriorating relations between Malian forces and the U.N. peacekeeping mission. On March 22, a Malian attack helicopter fired six rockets near a British reconnaissance unit in eastern Mali. The Malian government said it had mistaken the British forces, who are serving in the U.N. peacekeeping mission, for terrorists, who they claim have been operating in the area.

But one U.N.-based diplomat said the U.N. mission’s intelligence unit had not detected a terror presence in the area before the attack, and a European diplomat said the area may have been in territory controlled by the Malian army and Wagner Group, so they did not want U.N. peacekeepers in the area.

The attack, Mills said, is “an affront to all those who serve in U.N. peacekeeping missions.”

Mills raised particular concern about “the extremely disturbing accounts of hundreds of people killed last week in the village of Moura in the Mopti region of central Mali.”

New York-based Human Rights Watch, which conducted an investigation into the killings, cited several unnamed sources who claimed Malian forces and Russian soldiers executed several hundred people, committing the worst atrocity in Mali in a decade.

“The Malian people deserve answers to what happened in Moura this week of March 28 and what led to the gruesome, execution-style killing of over 35 people on March 2 in the Ségou region and who is responsible,” Mills said. He noted that Malian authorities have said it will launch an investigation as well as grant the U.N. mission access for its own inquiry.

“This increase in reports of human rights abuses is exactly why the United States continues to warn countries against partnering with the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group,” Mills said. “Wagner forces have been implicated in human rights abuses, including execution-style killings, in the Central African Republic and elsewhere.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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