During the past week, reports of a deal that would see the possible deployment of a shadowy Russian military group in Mali has sent alarms to Western capitals, particularly Paris.
Experts have said that such a deal between Mali’s military-led government and the private security firm to hire nearly 1,000 mercenaries would increase Moscow’s influence while undermining French-led operations against armed groups operating in the country and the wider Sahel region.
“Such a choice would be one of isolation,” French Defence Minister Florence Parly warned on Monday during a visit to Mali aimed at preventing the move.
Germany has also taken aim at the potential deal, while the European Union cautioned “this certainly could seriously affect” the bloc’s relations with Mali.
Last week, the spokesperson for the Malian defence ministry did not deny the reports, saying “Mali intends to diversify its relationships in the medium term to ensure the security of the country.”
“We haven’t signed anything with Wagner, but we are talking with everyone”, the spokesperson was quoted as saying by the AFP news agency.
Although there has been no confirmation of a deal, it reflects the continuing political shift in Mali and the changing dynamics in ties with two international powers: Russia and France.
The relations between Mali and France have significantly deteriorated following two military coups since August 2020, as well as after France’s decision earlier this year to redesign its military operations in the region.
In May, the Malian colonels who had agreed to share power with civilians after overthrowing President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita detained civilian politicians and took over the control of the country again.
Paris strongly denounced the latest power grab and pushed the military rulers to ensure a modicum of transition. Even though the colonels have pledged to stick to the 18-month timetable for the civilian transition, with fewer than six months to go before promised elections, doubts and mistrust are deepening.
With the possible deal with the Russian mercenary group, Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said it was clear “now more than ever” that the military chiefs are much more invested in their interests and in maintaining power than in restoring Mali to a constitutional democracy.
“The junta leaders are looking for the support necessary to keep them in power beyond the deadline for the transition to conclude. Cultivating a relationship with another international benefactor, like Russia, might pave the way for this,” said Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
For Andrew Lebovich, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, there are two possibilities. One, he said, is that the military rulers may be uncertain about the future of French and European security cooperation and exploring partnerships with other powers.
“Or, they are trying to put pressure on France and also the EU, to maintain security cooperation and to try to guarantee their support for the transition. Because it is quite clear that the transitional government is going to delay the elections,” Lebovich added.
In 2012, a previous coup allowed northern Tuareg separatists, allied with an al-Qaeda offshoot, to take advantage of the political instability and briefly seize large swaths of land in the north until they were driven out by French troops, together with Malian and other African forces.
Despite the presence of thousands of United Nations and French forces, the violence has worsened and spread beyond Mali’s borders as armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and the ISIL (ISIS) group have exploited age-old tensions among various ethnic communities and tapped into deep-seated local grievances.
According to the UN, 5.9 million Malians need urgent humanitarian assistance in 2021, and more than 380,000 people have been internally displaced.
Mali’s fragile governance system has prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to restructure operations in the Sahel region amid growing frustration about the lack of political process and state presence, as well as growing discontent at home.
Facing a fight with seemingly no end in sight, Macron announced in July plans to reduce the 5,100 French troops by about half and close down French bases in northern Mali in a bid to initiate a wider European effort.
The drawdown came as anti-French sentiment has become widely popular among Malians who accuse Paris of failing to contain the ever-growing violence and pursuing a hidden agenda in the country.
“Many Malians believe that the Western presence has no other purpose than the exploitation of raw materials,” said Boubacar Salif Traore, the general director of Afriglob consulting firm in the capital, Bamako.
“The French policy is decried in Mali because it is considered neocolonialist by many observers and advisers to the authorities in place.”
Discontentment rose towards France, coupled with a growing for toward Russia, as more and more Russian flags began to appear during street rallies in Bamako.
Traore said people in power have distanced themselves from Paris while warming up to Moscow.
“The young soldiers in power in Mali have sympathy for Russia … The current military authorities are convinced that Russia will produce more results than France,” he added.
After a military cooperation agreement signed in 2019 between Mali and Russia, the current military government in Bamako has increased contacts with Moscow, including Defence Minister Sadio Camara visiting Moscow and overseeing tank exercises this month. Several military leaders such as Defence Minister Sadio Camara and Interim President Assimi Goita were trained by Russia.
Baba Dakono, a political and security analyst based in Bamako, argued the involvement of private mercenaries in multinational military operations would create problems for the countries militarily engaged in Mali.
“The presence of mercenaries, who by vocation do not obey any rule and convention, can be a source of unease,” Dakono told Al Jazeera.
Embroiled in a deadly mix of violent armed groups, the resurgence of local conflicts, absence of state presence, the multilayered crisis is a serious challenge to be solved by a military-focused approach, analysts said.
“Involving mercenaries in the context of Mali can produce counterproductive effects and above all lead to an exacerbation of violence”, Dakono said.
As for the Wagner Group, Eizenga believed they have little incentive to enforce peace. Pointing out their presence in the Central African Republic (CAR), he claimed so long as insecurity and instability persist, the rationale for retaining their services persists.
“Wagner ensures that the [CAR] President Faustin-Archange Touadera is not toppled from power [by rebels] in exchange for access to areas with important deposits of natural resources. The net result is that Touadera has exchanged parts of CAR’s sovereignty for his self-preservation and enrichment”, Eizenga said.
Wagner fighters have been involved in conflict areas where Moscow has sought to increase its political, economic and military dominance. They fought alongside Russia-backed separatist groups in eastern Ukraine, they bolstered the Moscow-backed Syrian government, and helped Libyan renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Their entrance to the conflict in the CAR resulted in a significant increase in Russian influence in the country.
Russia has denied sending mercenaries abroad, while Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has reportedly been linked to Wagner, has rejected having any association with a private military company or any business interests in an African country.
For France, the arrival of Wagner mercenaries in Mali could be the last straw, as a French source told AFP that Paris could transfer its remaining troops to neighbouring Niger which Paris has good ties. There is a greater power politics at play, according to Lebovich.
“France and Europe have witnessed how Russia has thrown its weight around militarily in Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic and they are concerned about greater Russian control, and a greater exertion of Russian influence,” he said.