The withdrawal of European forces from the country is Putin's gain
The German government’s statement could hardly have come as a surprise. Announcing this week that it would pull its 1,000 troops from the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) by May 2024, Germany thus followed in the footsteps of the UK and Sweden, who this year have both declared withdrawals from the mission.
Launched in 2013 to stabilise a country beset by political instability, civil conflict and jihadist insurgency, MINUSMA’s peacekeeping efforts have been undermined in recent years by the volatile nature of Malian politics. The government is currently ruled over by interim President Assimi Goita, a colonel who launched the 2020 coup against then-president Ibrahim Boubacar Keitar, as well as the May 2021 overthrow of Keitar’s successor Bah Ndaw.
However, a new power has emerged in Mali. This month, British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey complained that struggles in the peacekeeping mission were exacerbated when “the Malian government began working with the Russian mercenary group Wagner and actively sought to interfere with the work of both the French-led and UN missions,” a partnership he euphemistically deemed “counterproductive to lasting stability and security in the region”.
It was in September 2021 that reports emerged of the beleaguered Malian government inking a deal with the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group, receiving approximately 1,000 of their mercenaries to shore up the government’s position and take part in state counter-terrorism operations. Offering leaders security protection in return for lucrative financial and mineral concessions is a strategy straight from the Wagner Group’s playbook for Africa, following similar operations in Libya, Madagascar, Mozambique, the Central African Republic and Sudan.
No matter where Wagner forces have been sent, reports of atrocities have followed, and Mali is no different. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project states that the Wagner Group’s deployment in Mali has “entailed mass atrocities, torture, summary executions, looting and the introduction of booby traps as a counter-insurgency tactic”. Perhaps most infamously, Wagner forces were implicated in the March 2022 Moura massacre, in which over 300 civilians were killed during a counter-terrorism operation.
Russia has been pursuing another target in the country besides insurgent groups. France launched its own peacekeeping operations in Mali at the request of the then-government in 2013, committing 5,000 personnel to help take back the north from advancing jihadist groups. However, relations between France and Mali rapidly deteriorated after the 2021 coup, culminating in the last French troops pulling out in August. In May, Mali even withdrew from defence accords with France, citing “flagrant violations” of its national sovereignty, before going on to sign a deal to enhance security co-operation with the Russian government this month.
Russia has been aggravating tensions to drive France out of its former colony, leading the former French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly to comment that their military could not “cohabit with mercenaries”. In April, the French army accused Wagner combatants of conducting a smear campaign by burying the bodies of Malian citizens near an army base used by the French military and then claiming on social media that they had been killed by French soldiers.
France’s colonial history in the country has provided Russia with a convenient and effective weapon. Visiting Mali in May, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed France’s concerns over growing security co-operation between Mali and Russia as “nothing more than the resurgence of a colonial mindset”. Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron last week condemned the “predatory political project financed by Russia”, which he accused of pushing disinformation into African countries via social media. The goal of this online campaign is to “hurt France, hurt its language, sow doubts but above all pursue certain interests,” including by representing the presence of France and Francophonie as colonialism.
Before embarking on a tour of African capitals in July, Lavrov penned an op-ed claiming that Russia has “not stained itself with the bloody crimes of colonialism and has always sincerely supported Africans in their struggle for liberation from colonial oppression.” However, as Malians wave Russian flags in the streets of Bamako, Russia has succeeded in gaining a foothold in Mali.