A change in Mali: The French out, Wagner in

A change in Mali: The French out, Wagner in


07 | 05 | 2022


The withdrawal of French forces from Mali leaves an open window that is being covered by the Russian mercenary group, further threatening the security situation in the region

In the image

Russian mercenaries providing security for convoy with president of the Central African Republic [Clément Di Roma/VOA]

Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world, hosts ongoing military operations due to its instability and terrorist threats; prospects doesn't look well. After nine years, France announced in February the withdrawal of its military contingent in Mali, ending the operation ‘Barkhane’ that intended to pacify the country. Moscow is one of the actors ready to fill the void left by the French troops, and the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, has increased its presence in Mali in the past months. European countries fear that the Kremlin could try to combine its attack in Eastern Europe with some pressure on Southern Europe from Africa.

Among the hard problems Mali faces, the most impactful ones are a deep political crisis deriving into violent protests, communal violence in several regions, attacks by terrorist networks, suspected killings of state security forces, abuses inflicted on the civilian population, and corruption.

The rapidly growing population—at the rhythm of its regional partners—doesn't ease the problems. The demographics show that the population is weighted towards the youth; there has been an increase in urbanization, and unemployment is very high. This fact, combined with the ongoing violence, forces many to migrate outside the country to find opportunities, generally aspiring to emigrate to France and other European countries.

Mali’s economy relies heavily on its agriculture. Most activity is concentrated in the valleys of the Niger and Senegal rivers, but due to low levels of technology and harsh periodic droughts, there are many difficulties challenging this essential sector. To face these complications, there are current projects that provide aid to cover some of the financial struggles. France, the United States, and some member states of the European Union and of the OPEC contribute in external aid to those sectors that are most in need. International organizations also have active plans such as the European Development Fund and the United Nations Development Programme, which seek to assist in economic development, poverty reduction, and environment protection.

In the political field, the country is marked by some recent military coups and their unstable ruling periods. The most recent one, occurred in May 2021, did not result in major changes to the previous structure.

Research about Mali and the current military operations show how it is not only the West that is interested in the country—in fact, it seems like Western countries are downsizing the forces they have deployed in the area—; other countries, such as Russia, are equally keen on controlling it.

Currently, the ongoing main international mission in Mali is the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). The European Union counts on two executive missions that fall under the Common Security and Defense Policy: the European Union Training Mission Mali (EUTM-Mali) and the European Union Capacity Building Mission (EUCAP Sahel Mali).

The security dilemma

After nine years, President Emmanuel Macron recently announced the withdrawal of the French military contingent in Mali, therefore ending the France-led operation ‘Barkhane’. According to Macron, this decision is due to the major disagreements with the military junta that took power in August 2020: “we cannot remain militarily engaged alongside de facto authorities whose strategy and hidden aims we do not share.” Most of the 5,000 French troops will be redeployed to other parts of the Sahel, with the possibilities of Niger or Chad as the new alternatives. However, as the French withdraw, other countries like China or Russia push to increase their presence in the region.

The security situation in Mali has direct consequences for the stability in the Sahel, which in turn impacts Europe as well. A challenge that European countries are facing is massive immigration coming from destabilized regions in Africa as the Sahel. Most national security strategies now stress the importance of aiding developing countries to fight jihadist terrorism, as well as the increase of cooperation in humanitarian aid and financial investment. As the French troops withdraw, there is fear that the region will become more violent and that the terrorist networks will grow without any limits. This would contribute to an acceleration of the current cycle: the more instability and violence, the more emigration from those countries to Europe, which in turn provides for complex challenges in the social and security fields.

The terrorist groups of jihadist nature coexist with secessionist groups in the Sahel region, amplifying criminal activity with kidnaps, human trafficking, drug trafficking, and attacks on civilian population. As stated before, the withdrawal of French troops leaves an open window for different states, or other actors, to cover the security needs of the region.

Russia in Mali

As it has been already suggested, Moscow is one of the actors ready to fill the void left by the French troops in Mali. The Wagner Group is a Russian private military company that has increased its presence in Mali in the past months, coinciding with the French withdrawal of troops. It is true that the group is private, but it is equally true that it will never act against the Russian government’s interests. Furthermore, it provides the Kremlin plausible deniability as the officials deny any command over the mercenaries.

Sources from the United States administration say that Wagner is controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, nicknamed ‘Putin’s chef.’ The group has expanded its presence in Africa and the Middle East in recent years, including Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, Madagascar, Central African Republic, and Mali. This past February, the United Nations urged the Central African Republic to end any connections with private forces, including Wagner Group, because it “had been committing systemic and grave human rights violations, including arbitrary detention, torture, disappearances and summary execution.”

In Mali, the deployment is reported to have begun in December 2021. This action was condemned by the United States and European countries because of the security risk it poses for the region and the probable negative consequences that the deployment will have on the civilian population. Soon after the settlement of Wagner in the outskirts of Bamako, the European Council adopted restrictive measures against the company as well as against individuals and entities linked to the entity. The restrictions were imposed because Wagner Group “has recruited, trained and sent private military operatives to conflict zones around the world to fuel violence, loot natural resources and intimidate civilians in violation of international law, including international human rights law.”

By providing protection, the group has established ties with the military junta whilst increasing their power and access to resources. France and the United States have warned the government in Mali about the risks of contracting the services of the Russian private military company, but it has been in vain. According to US officials, the Malian government is paying $10 million a month for the services, consisting primarily in security missions. In the end, the conclusion from the Center for Strategic and International Studies seems to be the most prudent: “Western nations would be well advised to strengthen their diplomatic relationships and support for civil society partners in the regions and to ensure that these partnerships are mutually beneficial rather than one-sided.”

Most likely scenario

The situation in Mali has been in the foreign policy agenda of Western countries, especially in Europe, because of the implications it has in terms of migration and security policies. With the French withdrawal, the most likely scenario is a power vacuum, with the danger of Wagner Group achieving its economic and political objectives linked to their military actions. For France, the withdrawal signifies a reduction of military spending dependent on the future relocations in other countries in the Sahel. Another implication in this sense is the loss of French influence in this key area. The withdrawal of military forces inevitably reduces a strong influence in the country, and it is still not clear how the countries in which these forces are deployed will receive the French. In Mali, the military junta could be strengthened potentially, but social tensions will continue to rise.

Russia’s presence in Africa under the policy of ‘counter-terrorism’ also means an increase in economic and political power through influences around the continent. From a European point of view, this is not positive. Apart from the fact that the region will be unstable, Russian mercenaries could expand towards the north, posing a security threat to Spain and therefore Europe. The interests of Wagner Group are clear and the settlements in Africa are just the beginning. Thus, the French withdrawal not only poses a change of policy in Mali, but a risk in stability and security whilst it opens opportunities for countries outside the scope of Western values.