Russia may use its growing footprint in Mali as a bargaining chip when negotiating updates to the Paris-Moscow relationship.

For years, violent militants have terrorised the impoverished, destabilised, and largely waterless Sahel. Across this mostly desert terrain that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, international borders are porous and state control is often weak. Power vacuums created amid the collapse of state institutions and dire economic conditions have enabled hardline militant groups, some with links to Al Qaeda and Daesh, to exploit grievances and gain influence.

The Malian coup of March 22, 2012 resulted in a chaotic situation with Tuareg separatists in the north revolting against the putschists in Bamako after becoming more heavily armed as a result of their activities in Libya during that country’s 2011 crisis, which involved NATO. 

But soon after the Tuareg fighters declared an independent state in the region they call Azawad, three main militant groups — Ansar Dine, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) — overpowered them to usurp control of the northern-two thirds of Mali. It prompted France to launch Operation Serval in January 2013 with the aim of depriving such terrorist groups of a haven in the country. 

Yet the extent to which such armed extremists continue to pose grave dangers to Mali and other countries in the Sahel, such as Burkina Faso and Niger, points to major shortcomings in the anti-terror campaigns waged by France and other actors.

Today there is rising anti-French sentiment among segments of the Malian population and those of other West African nations. Paris sees hardly any returns on the massive amounts of money it has invested in the country. Within this context, Emmanuel Macron’s government is considering pulling many French soldiers from Mali. Currently about 5,000 French forces are stationed in Mali and other countries in the Sahel as part of Operation Barkhane.

One factor, however, which appears to be giving officials in Paris reason to reconsider any large-scale withdrawal from the highly unstable country is concern about Russia filling voids in Mali.

Enter the Wagner Group

France’s leadership has recently lashed out at the Malian government for accusing Macron’s administration of planning to abandon its former colony. Paris has also called on Bamako to abandon any consideration of a possible deal with the Wagner Group, warning the West African nation that it could face international isolation if it enters into an arrangement with the Russian mercenary group. There have been rumours for months about such a deal for one thousand Wagner Group forces to come into Mali.

Moscow’s official line is that Wagner Group, which has been active in Syria and Ukraine, as well as a few African countries including Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, and the Central African Republic (CAR), is a private company operating autonomously from the Kremlin. Western governments, however, reject this claim.

The US and the European Union have sanctioned entities and individuals operating within the Wagner Group. Within this context, Moscow maintains that any deal between the private military and security contractor and the junta in Bamako is for French and other Western officials to take up with Mali’s government, not the Kremlin.

Nonetheless, the Putin administration is open about its close relationship with Mali and Moscow’s interest in preventing another collapse of the Malian state — through equipment, weapons and ammunition. “We will do whatever is necessary to prevent threats to Mali's statehood and territorial integrity,” said Moscow’s chief diplomat Sergei Lavrov earlier this month. 

A global reputation

Moscow’s ability to help Bamako effectively combat such extremist groups factors into Russia’s quest to gain greater international prestige while advancing its geopolitical and economic interests across Africa. Mali is rich with natural resources including gold, uranium and limestone, which naturally factor into Moscow’s agendas in the country. 

The Wagner Group’s actions in Mali could help Moscow further push its narrative about Russia representing a bulwark against European neo-colonialism. This has worked to various extents in other parts of Africa including Libya and Sudan, where certain actors have seen Russia as protector against what they have seen as Western imperialism.

Russia is appealing to certain segments of Mali which believe the French have overstayed in their country. By not lecturing Mali on issues pertaining to civilian rule, democracy, or human rights, Russia sets itself apart from Western powers like France, which carry much colonial baggage throughout Africa. 

Also, while Bamako denies having entered into any agreement with the Wagner Group, Mali’s leadership emphasises that it has every right to establish security partnerships with any actors which it pleases and that no permission needs to come from Paris.

Footage of Russian flags at an anti-France rally Mali earlier this year was perhaps indicative of how at least some segments of the country’s population may want the Wagner Group (as opposed to the French military) to help the state take on hardline militias. 

Considering the Wagner Group’s experiences fighting in Syria and CAR, certain members of Mali’s government and general population might see the mercenary force as a useful partner, especially if a French exit creates a dangerous power vacuum that the Malian military is not able to effectively address on its own.

Mali’s leadership may also choose to enter an arrangement with the Wagner Group because it would be less visible to the wider public. Andrew Korybko, a Moscow-based American political analyst, told TRT World that this Russian mercenary group would “operate in the shadows” and thus carry out operations “under a lot less scrutiny than the French forces” have been doing in Mali. If there is a French exit from Mali, “they’ll likely have a fair chance to succeed” in filling the vacuum, according to Korybko.

Although France has used strong rhetoric to signal its opposition to a stronger Russian hand in Mali’s security architecture, tensions between Paris and Moscow vis-à-vis the Sahel could decrease with the two Great Powers finding ways to both compete throughout “Françafrique” while cooperating in other domains. 

“As long as French companies aren’t kicked out of the African countries in which Russia expands its influence, then Paris might be able to make peace with Moscow’s new…role,” said Korbyko. “France would prefer to retain its political influence, but it’s difficult for it to do if it continues behaving hegemonically and thus creating opportunities for Russia to exploit.”

Ultimately, Mali could become one chip that Putin’s government leverages when negotiating updates to the Paris-Moscow relationship. With Macron keen to distinguish himself from some other Western statesmen in terms of maintaining his position that Russia (like China) is France’s rival and not an enemy, Paris may choose to engage with the Russians vis-à-vis Mali. 

Although France’s strong rhetoric in opposition to any Russian role in Mali might make it difficult to foresee, the real possibility of Paris and Moscow finding a common understanding on the fight against violent militants in Mali must be considered.

Such a development would need to be understood within the context of Paris’ foreign policy becoming increasingly assertive and independent of the US and post-Brexit UK against the backdrop of increasing friction between France and its fellow NATO allies over major international issues from Libya’s civil war to AUKUS and differing threat perceptions of China.

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Source: TRT World