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Who Blessed the Vlads Down in Africa?

Russia’s Wagner Group has its eyes on Mali. It fits a pattern of Russian interference in Africa.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.

Fighters from the Russian mercenary group Wagner may soon have another stamp in their passports, this time from the West African country of Mali, after already littering at least five fragile African states with human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, and political interference. 

Last week, Reuters reported that Mali, currently ruled by a military junta after experiencing two coups in the last 13 months, is in talks with the mercenary group to hire at least 1,000 fighters to train the country’s military and provide security for senior officials. But experts and Western officials fear the group’s presence will leave the new leader beholden to Moscow and further fuel instability, which has already displaced millions of people from their homes.

A thousand mercenaries in a country the size of Mali may sound like a drop in the bucket, but the reports sparked alarm in Western capitals, particularly Paris, which is in the midst of scaling back its eight-year counterterror presence in the Sahel. French Defense Minister Florence Parly traveled to Mali over the weekend to urge the military government to rethink the move, and on Monday, she warned that a deal to accept Wagner fighters would isolate Mali internationally. Germany, which also has several hundred troops in the region, said it also may be forced to call into question its military commitments in the region. 

“Minister Parly noted that no contract had been signed by the junta with Wagner and reminded that the Barkhane force could not cohabit with the Wagner force,” a French official told Foreign Policy over email, referring to Operation Barkhane, the French-led counterinsurgency operation doing battle with al Qaeda and Islamic State offshoots in the region as well as Boko Haram militants. 

The potential deployment of Wagner fighters to Mali fits an emerging pattern of Russian mercenaries being dispatched to prop up embattled African leaders, giving the Kremlin significant leverage for minimal investment. Nominally private, the murky network of companies and contractors that make up the so-called Wagner Group is widely believed to be closely entwined with Russian security services. 

“We have a very clear map of how this is going to go,” said Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. Siegle pointed to the Central African Republic, where more than 2,000 Wagner fighters have been dispatched to the country since 2017. Ostensibly, they are unarmed military trainers, which enabled their deployment to skirt a 2013 U.N. arms embargo on the country. But the Russians have quickly taken the high ground, serving as bodyguard to Central African President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, while Valery Zakharov, a former official from Russian military intelligence, serves as Touadéra’s national security advisor. 

“They’ve gained unprecedented influence in the [Central African Republic], and ultimately, Wagner has been implicated in human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, rape, and torture,” Siegle said. 

A hallmark of the Wagner Group is its melding of mercenary activity, which seeks to further the Kremlin’s geopolitical aims, with rewards of lucrative natural resource extraction in the states they operate in. It’s a pattern that has played out in Syria, Libya, Sudan, and the Central African Republic, where companies affiliated with the group were awarded gold and diamond mining concessions in 2018. 

“I would bet that they’re going to access some of the gold, uranium, and bauxite mines in Mali,” Siegle said. 

Russia has been steadily increasing its footprint across Africa using more traditional economic and diplomatic charm offensives as well as more underhanded methods via the Wagner Group as it seeks greater access to the continent’s rich natural resource reserves, both to curry influence and fulfill the Kremlin’s vision of a more multipolar world.

Measured against traditional barometers of statecraft, Russia’s ties are growing but are still eclipsed by China, the United States, and European countries. Africa accounts for 16 percent of Russian arms exports while just shy of 60 percent go to Asia. And although Russia’s trade with the continent is on the rise, it is still dwarfed by other countries. But if there’s one thing Russia has proven adept at, it’s playing a weak hand well. Asymmetric approaches, such as reliance on the Wagner Group, has given the Kremlin outsized influence relative to its investment. 

In targeting fragile states at moments of turbulence, Moscow has been able to pick countries off one by one. In December 2020, the Russian government announced it had struck a deal with the Sudanese government to establish a naval base at Port Sudan on the Red Sea, expanding its military reach in the Middle East and North Africa. The deal, which was initially agreed with now-ousted Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, is under review by the new Sudanese government. In Libya, Wagner forces have served as the tip of the spear, fighting alongside renegade commander Khalifa Haftar’s forces and flying advanced Russian combat jets, according to the United States Africa Command. In Madagascar, Wagner forces have been involved in training local armed forces; Wagner operatives were also dispatched to Mozambique.

Since 2015, Russia has signed bilateral military cooperation agreements with more than 20 African countries, and over the summer, it inked deals with the continent’s two most populous countries: Ethiopia and Nigeria. The first Russia-Africa summit, co-hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was held in 2019 with a further summit set to be held next year. 

“If you just look at it, there’s this massive axis that goes from Libya and the Mediterranean to Central Africa and across from the Red Sea at least to Mali now,” said Cameron Hudson, former director of African affairs at the National Security Council. 

Russia’s role in the military-led coup in August 2020, which ousted then-Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, remains unclear. The Daily Beast reported that two of the coup plotters were in Russia for military training and flew from Moscow to Bamako, Mali, just days before they pulled off the coup. Russian disinformation also fueled protests that led up to the coup, Siegle said. But Russia’s involvement in Mali’s current predicament is not helpful.

More than 2 million people have been displaced in the Sahel, according to the United Nations, amid a growing threat from jihadi insurgents that have spread from Mali to Burkina Faso and Niger, stoking communal violence and brutal responses from national and foreign militaries that have fueled militant recruitment. France is backpedaling as it looks to replace its combat mission with an international coalition of troops that will train and accompany local forces. 

“Sustaining a security presence and rebuilding trust and cooperation with local communities is what is going to make a difference,” Siegle said. “This will require more, well-trained local forces. Bringing in Wagner, therefore, is the wrong tool for the problem the Malians face—and one that could very well worsen the security environment.” 

If the military-led transitional government in Mali were to invite Wagner fighters, it would be a “potentially watershed moment,” Hudson said. “This is an authority essentially making a choice between Russian-led mercenaries or continuing to cooperate with some of the most respected militaries in the world.” 

Russia’s inroads in Africa have sparked concerns in the West over Moscow’s long-term intentions. Countering the influence of both Russia and China was one of the explicit aims of a new U.S. strategy for Africa centered around trade and counterterrorism, unveiled by then-U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton in 2018. Russia’s latest foray is, to say the least, a spanner in the works. 

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union sought to make inroads in Africa, carving out spheres of influence by supporting independence movements and exploiting the brutal colonial legacy of Western countries. That memory leaves U.S. policymakers wary of Russian advances in countries they don’t otherwise pay much attention to.

“They’re under NATO’s southern flank,” Bolton said. “I’m not saying these Wagner forces are very substantial, but it’s an extension of influence and an effort to gain favor with governments in the region, and there may be mineral extraction things they want to do that would increase the economic relationship.”

But Russia and the Wagner Group’s latest forays into Africa shouldn’t necessarily monopolize policymakers’ attention, said Paul Stronski, a senior fellow for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Russia and Eurasia program. 

“We shouldn’t freak out that Russia is in Africa, per se,” Stronski said. “We have a ‘combating Russia everywhere’ policy as opposed to an Africa policy.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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