Russia’s Wagner Group Entry Into Mali by Emily Levinson

On September 13, Reuters broke the news of an impending agreement with the Malian state that would reportedly see as many as 1,000 Wagner Group mercenaries enter Mali to provide military training and serve as private security for senior officials. Although the deal has not been publicly confirmed, multiples sources have lent legitimacy to this claim. The spokesperson for the Malian defense ministry declined to deny reports of such an agreement, and soon after, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov announced that the Malian government had independently sought aid from “private [Russian] armed companies” amid a planned drawdown of French troops.

While the timeline for implementation of the alleged agreement is unclear, the announcement is making waves in international circles due to its potential long-term local and regional implications. Western nations and their allies, including France, Germany, Estonia, and Côte d’Ivoire, have warned that by pursuing a partnership with Wagner Group, Mali’s transitional government will isolate the country politically, in addition to jeopardizing the work of the multiple military coalitions that have been working to restore stability since 2012.  Russia would be the sole beneficiary of this change, as Wagner’s entry into Mali would expand and strengthen Russia’s reach in Western Africa.

The reported agreement also comes at a particularly complicated moment in Mali’s history. Leaders in France, which has provided security assistance in Mali since 2012 and has been running the counterinsurgency Operation Barkhane since 2013, have grown increasingly vocal about their intention to end the operation and reduce troop presence in the Mali-Niger-Burkina Faso tri-border zone. Two coups d’état in less than a year have further complicated Mali’s relationship with both regional and Western allies. Meanwhile, much has been made of Russia’s alleged popularity in Mali as a replacement for France. As a former colonial power, France bears the weight of intense skepticism from the population regarding its intentions; and after eight years of continuous military engagement, some have voiced doubts about the French military’s ability to accomplish its mission. Russia, by comparison, is generally perceived to have less self-interested reasons for engagement in Mali, and Malian officials have spoken positively of Russia’s long, albeit small-scale, history of security assistance. Several of the coup leaders, who currently hold key positions in Mali’s transitional government, were reportedly trained in Russia; these ties may further facilitate Russian leaders’ relationship with the transitional government.

However, several factors stand to mitigate the potential success of the deal, not least of which is Wagner Group’s own checkered past and limited capabilities demonstrated elsewhere on the continent. Wagner mercenaries have already engaged in at least five African states, including Libya, Mozambique, and the Central African Republic (CAR), with disastrous results. Wagner Group was the first mercenary group on the ground in Mozambique, tasked with helping state security forces to beat back an Islamist insurgency. Hindered by challenging environmental conditions and an inadequate understanding of the cultural context in which they were operating, Wagner lost seven mercenaries in two ambushes and quickly withdrew from the country. The mercenaries have fared somewhat better in CAR, where they have gained significant political influence and access to resources but have also been extensively implicated in human rights abuses.

The extent to which the population would support such an initiative is also debatable. Support for Russia among Mali’s population, though not negligible, appear to be overstated in some media – recent protests in Bamako in favor of Russian engagement in Mali have drawn a few hundred supporters, compared to the tens of thousands who participated in the protests preceding the August 2020 coup. Also key to recognize is Mali’s ethnic, political, and ideological diversity – attitudes in Bamako often diverge significantly from attitudes in central and northern Mali, which bear the brunt of the country’s security challenges. The Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), a coalition of rebel groups and signatory of the 2015 Algiers Accord that has become a key political power in northern Mali, has publicly condemned efforts to bring Wagner Group into the country. Group leaders voiced concerns about both human rights abuses and the impact of such an agreement on the implementation of the 2015 Algiers Accord, which ended the 2012 Tuareg Rebellion that saw Mali lose control of the north. Without the support of CMA and its counterparts in northern and central Mali, any security efforts by Wagner Group face a further reduced likelihood of success.

Ultimately, the future of Mali’s security environment depends on the extent of local support for Russian mercenaries in Mali and Bamako’s receptivity to civilian attitudes. Wagner Group mercenaries are unlikely to make significant gains in the battle against Islamist insurgencies if they are brought in over the objections of northern Mali’s political leaders. On the contrary, with its history of human rights abuses, Wagner Group’s involvement risks escalating the conflict by upsetting the fragile balance of peace that has been established over the past six years. In northern Mali, a Tuareg rebellion brought on by long-term grievances and a desire for independence preceded the Islamist invasion of 2013. While the state has nominally regained control of the area, local armed groups that are signatories to the Algiers Accord – most notably the CMA and the Platform of Movements of June 14, 2014 Algiers (Plateforme) – hold most political power, and resentment toward the Malian state still lingers. In central Mali, ethnic violence, primarily between mainly Dogon farmers and mainly Fulani herders, adds a layer of complexity to the struggle against jihad. Without understanding the context in which they operate, Wagner Group risks exacerbating existing fault lines and undermining efforts to ameliorate intercommunal tensions.

Russia may still benefit from Wagner’s participation in Mali – if not from heightened prestige due to the success of its operations in West Africa, then from expanded access to resources such as gold. For Mali, however, these mercenaries represent an isolated future and a threat to peace objectives six years in the making.