Russian private military company (PMC) Wagner Group deployed to Mali late last year as part of a deal the PMC signed with the Malian junta last autumn. The deployment has been condemned by the U.S. and numerous European countries out of fears that the Russian PMC will commit atrocities and exacerbate insecurity in Mali as it has in its other areas of operation. Wagner is nominally in the country to train the Malian military and to provide security to government officials, but it will likely engage in economic and diplomatic activities benefitting its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin who is known to have close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Wagner Group does not officially exist on paper. It is instead an assemblage of entities connected to the Russian military and Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch with close ties to Putin. The Kremlin uses the PMC, which some call “Putin’s private army”, to covertly increase its international influence. Wagner’s international footprint has grown considerably in recent years. While in 2016 it operated in just four countries, it operates in 28 today, including Ukraine, Syria, and Yemen. Prigozhin and the Kremlin, however, deny having ties. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the Russian state has “nothing to do with the activities of PMCs abroad.” According to many experts, however, the links between the Russian state and Wagner are clear.
Though the entire scope of Wagner’s mission in Mali is unclear, it will likely work to bolster Russian influence through deniable means as it does in its other areas of operations. Reports of the presence of Wagner-linked lawyers and geologists in Mali have arisen, hinting that the PMC is also in the country to provide site security to Russian mining companies. If true, these reports point to deployment with objectives resembling those of previous Wagner deployments in Africa which have aimed to secure lucrative mining deals that can buffer the Kremlin against sanctions.
The Malian junta also hopes to benefit from Wagner’s deployment, with some saying that the PMC will “coup proof” and shore up the government which took power in a May 2021 military coup. While the junta pledged that a transition to democracy would occur by March this year, it announced in January that the transition would be extended by five years. The coup was Mali’s third in a decade, reflecting the unstable and undemocratic political environment that bolsters Wagner’s appeal as a defence against political challengers.
Wagner is infamous for its atrocities and has already contributed to the single worst atrocity in Mali’s decade-long conflict against Islamist extremism. In late March, the Malian military and Wagner mercenaries executed roughly three hundred men over five days in the central Malian town of Moura. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Malian and Russian-speaking soldiers inserted via helicopter and exchanged fire with Islamist rebels, resulting in the deaths of soldiers, rebels, and several civilians. The soldiers proceeded to gather and hold hundreds of unarmed civilians in captivity for five days before executing them during the night. Bodies were piled into mass graves. The U.S. and the EU condemned the incident and called on the Malian government to allow an independent investigation to occur. The government said that it would investigate the alleged abuses, adding that only Islamist militants were among those killed.
Wagner’s deployment comes in the wake of French President Emmanuel Macron’s February decision to end entirely France’s near decade-long military presence in the country as part of counterterrorism Operations Serval and Barkhane. Macron announced last summer announced that he would half the number of troops in Mali but later changed his mind as French ties with the Malian government deteriorated as a result of Wagner’s deployment and the junta’s power grabs.
While France’s counterterrorism mission in Mali failed to reduce the threat posed by Islamic extremism, with attacks carried out by extremist groups rising throughout Operations Serval and Barkhane, many say that Wagner’s overly aggressive tactics will worsen the country’s already poor security environment. Extremist organizations will be able to exploit popular grievances with the PMC’s heavy-handedness. Armed groups also dominate the mining sector, so Wagner incursions may incite violence.
Image: Justin Weaver via Wikimedia Commons