Scrolling through the Twitter account of the Malian army, Michael Shurkin, an American security analyst specializing in West Africa, has noticed something in recent months. After the announcement of a new military operation, a spurt of roaring communiqués soon followed achieved successes against terrorists who have controlled large parts of the country since 2012.
So many terrorists neutralized, so many AK-47s confiscated, so many terror bases dismantled. And: so many internally displaced persons who were finally able to return home.
“As if the military is suddenly able to get something done that it hasn’t been able to for the past nine years,” Shurkin said by phone from Washington. The inaccessibility of the relevant regions in central Mali makes it difficult to check the information. Still, the analyst has a hard head about it. All the more after recently reports appeared that in those same regions dozens of citizens were killed by soldiers.
“This is not suddenly a different army,” the analyst says. “What has changed is their communication strategy. Coincidentally, just when the Russians arrived.”
The Russians. They are the newest players in the violence-torn country, having arrived at a time when Mali is increasingly isolated from its main partners, former colonizer France leading the way. After two consecutive coups and fierce accusations back and forth, President Emmanuel Macron recently decided to end French counter-terror missions in Mali. The drop: the arrival of the Russians.
Also read: Not Russia but the West is isolated
It remains unclear who exactly these Russians in camouflage are, who have been spotted in the capital Bamako and in central Mali since December. Instructors, says Malian government, in country to help their soldiers with the helicopters and weapons they bought from Russia. But Macron and Western security services use another word: mercenaries.
Cause they have them seen before† First in 2014 in Eastern Ukraine. Then Syria. Libya. Sudan. The Central African Republic (CAR). “Instructors” who actually turned out to be employed by the Wagner Group, a shrouded private military company whose owner has close ties to the Kremlin. A company that officially does not exist, but according to experts unofficially serves as a military means with which Russia expands its influence.
Gold and diamonds
Thanks to the digging of newspapers like the Russian Novaja Gazeta and French Le Monde their modus operandi is now clear. For example, Wagner’s support for unstable and authoritarian regimes is offset by lucrative concessions for raw materials. Gold in Sudan, diamonds in CAR. Revenues that have become even more valuable since Russia recently invaded Ukraine, followed by a barrage of economic sanctions.
It is no coincidence, according to analysts, that Wagner’s army of mercenaries appears mainly in Africa, with which relations have been close since the Soviet years and where frustrations over French intervention missions are growing.
The interests are also strategic. According to analysts, it is no coincidence that Wagner’s army of mercenaries has mainly emerged in recent years in Africa, with which relations have been close since the Soviet years and where frustrations about French intervention missions are growing.
“The Russians are not interested in stabilizing the Sahel,” analyst Shurkin said. “They are there to make money, garner diplomatic support and put their fingers in the eyes of France.”
Since the summer there have been rumors that Mali would be Wagner’s next stopping place. The country has been in crisis since large parts of the north were taken in 2012 by separatist Tuareg rebels who had allied with jihadists linked to al-Qaida. The help of France was called in, the north was liberated again. But the threat from the jihadists did not go away.
On the contrary. Violence continued to spread, despite French troops still being present, later assisted by United Nations and European Union peacekeeping and training missions. 320,000 Malians were displaced, thousands more perished. Anger and incomprehension were brewing in Bamako. French flags were set on fire during anti-government demonstrations.
Another flag popped up more and more: the Russian one. As well as questionable opinion polls. As one published last September, shortly after Macron announced a major cut in French troops in Mali. This angered the military junta that had meanwhile seized power. The prime minister appointed by them, the populist Choguel Maïga, told the media that the French could do just fine. will be replaced†
“If partners unilaterally decide to leave, shouldn’t we have a plan B?”
Who that Plan B had to be, was decided by the opinion poll emphasizes: “more than 87 percent” of the Malians surveyed (how many remains unmentioned) would be in favor of engaging Russian military companies. The poll came from the Foundation for the Protection of National Values, which a US sanctions list stands for spreading disinformation. Their financier: Yevgeny Prigozhin, also owner of the Wagner Group.
Also read: Russia advances in Africa – with the help of mercenaries
Around the same time as the poll, according to a detailed reconstruction from the French weekly Jeune Africa the first Wagner-affiliated geologists in Bamako to inspect potential mines. Mali may be penniless, but the land is rich. Lithium, bauxite, but especially gold. It is unclear whether any contracts have already been concluded.
The first Russians in camouflage followed at the end of December. They took up residence in barracks just outside Bamako airport, according to satellite images analyzed by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a Washington think tank. As well as in the military base in northern Timbuktu. The day before, it had been handed over by the French to the Malian army, the symbolic moment captured by numerous cameras.
But most of all, the Russians, now estimated at around a thousand, are moving to the regions of Ségou and Mopti, where the violence is now the most severe. There they would assist the army in tracking down suspected terrorists.
Only: who are they now? Prime Minister Maïga insists he knows nothing about mercenaries. “Wagner. wagner. It’s the French who say that,” he recently responded annoyed to a question from France24, a French public broadcaster. “We don’t know Wagner. We are working with the Russian state.” At a press conference in Moscow last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said nothing about such an appointment. What he did say: “There are commercial interests of companies that have come to an agreement with the Malian government, but the Russian Federation has nothing to do with that.”
wagner. wagner. It’s the French who say that. We don’t know Wagner. We work with the Russian state
Choguel Kokalla Maiga Prime Minister of Mali
It is reminiscent of the smokescreen surrounding Wagner’s presence in the war-ravaged Central African Republic. Everyone knows they’re there – a Prigozhin-affiliated media company even made one Hollywood-esque propaganda film about – but the government in Bangui vehemently denies it. Meanwhile, Russians protect the president, a Russian was his security adviser and Russians fight with the army.
They have a harsh reputation. United Nations Rapporteurs accuse Wagner mercenaries in CAR of torture, disappearances, rapes and executions. Torture films also came from Syria. Last December, as Russia threatened to invade Ukraine, the European Union imposed sanctions on eight individuals linked to the Wagner Group for “gross human rights violations.”
“This group’s activities reflect Russia’s hybrid warfare” said Josep Borrell, the European foreign affairs coordinator in December. “They pose a threat and create instability in multiple countries worldwide.”
Western politicians and diplomats fear what awaits Mali. The country became the catalyst for the jihadist violence that is now sweeping the Sahel region. With the departure of the French, and more European countries in their wake, the UN peacekeeping mission and an EU training mission are also coming under pressure. For example, Borrell would like guarantees that Malian soldiers trained by the EU will not fight with the Russians.
Also read this interview with Niagalé Bagayoko: “The question is not whether France wants to stay in the Sahel, but whether it is possible”
Macron himself warned about the “predatory intentions” from Wagner. “They are only in Mali for their own business interests and because the junta sees them as the best partner to stay in power, not to fight terrorism.”
Mali’s junta responded only by asking France to withdraw its soldiers “without delay”. Last week, Radio France International (RFI) and France24, two French public broadcasters with large audiences in West Africa, were also forbidden† The reason: RFI had testimonials published of torture and executions allegedly committed by Malian soldiers since December – in the presence of ‘white men’.
The allegations, also documented in a report of human rights organization Human Rights Watch, are denied by the army. In a last interview with RFI, the deputy chairman of the Defense Commission called the messages “a conspiracy to disguise the successes of the Malian army”. A day later, the channel in Mali went silent.
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