Russia’s presence in Mali raises concerns

Russia will soon arrive in another country formerly under the wing of a Western power, but what does it stand to gain?

Expert comment Updated 21 December 2021 Published 14 December 2021 2 minute READ

Russia is making friends in Mali. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov welcomed his Malian counterpart Abdoulaye Diop in Moscow amid reports of a deal being done for the West African nation to recruit mercenaries from the Wagner Group, the most infamous of Russian private military companies (PMCs).

Africa is back on Russia’s agenda, and it is engaging differently

Both sides deny a deal has been agreed, even as the European Union (EU) eyes sanctions on Mali and Wagner and so Mali and Russia find themselves in an arrangement that sees them both alienate allies and anger the West.

This engagement is part of Russia’s renewed efforts to form alliances after its long post-Soviet absence. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia retreated inwards and the relationships it built with newly independent African states faltered, with only $17 billion worth of debt to show for its efforts. But Africa is back on Russia’s agenda, and it is engaging differently.

Mali left shopping for security partners

Because Russia lacks the financial heft of China, the US, and the EU, Moscow now does diplomacy on the cheap — an inverse of Soviet-era strategy when a big budget brought only marginal gains.

Russia is attempting to portray itself as a reliable ally in the fight against jihadists and insurgents as Western attention turns elsewhere. The proposed exit of half of the French troops stationed in the Sahel, the semi-arid African region riven with armed gangs and Islamist terrorists, has left Mali shopping for security partners. It has found one in Wagner, the shadowy Kremlin-linked organization that supplies ex-Russian military fighters in conflict hotspots globally.

In Africa, Wagner is most active in the Central African Republic (CAR) where its mercenaries arrived in 2018 after yet another French withdrawal. Armed rebel groups threaten the government in Bangui, and the president’s armed guard is staffed by Russians. Valery Zakharov, a former Federal Security Service (FSB) agent, is the CAR’s president’s national security adviser. Russia’s influence is significant enough that it has been involved in peace talks between the government and rebels.

The Malian government says it needs assistance fighting insurgents. Even with French troops, American intelligence-gathering, and a 15,000-strong UN force, the Malian government is barely in control beyond its major cities. More than 6,000 people have been killed and about two million have fled their homes. So desperate is the government that it has recently directed the High Islamic Council to open peace talks with al Qaeda’s local affiliate, a sign that containment is being considered.

Even with French troops, American intelligence-gathering, and a 15,000-strong UN force, the Malian government is barely in control beyond its major cities

Russia’s growing influence

Bringing Wagner in will not solve Mali’s problems. Instead, the evidence in the CAR suggests the situation could worsen. A United Nations (UN) report accuses Wagner of human rights violations, including indiscriminate killings alongside local forces. Conflict still rages, with huge swathes of the country under rebel control.

Nonetheless, Russia is a useful partner for a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. ECOWAS – the Economic Community of West African States to which Mali belongs – has suspended the country as hopes of a return to democracy fade. February elections have been shelved.

Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea means it has had to find non-Western partners

Understandably, the EU and ECOWAS are unhappy but Russia does not concern itself with frivolities like democracy and human rights, handy for a Malian regime led by putschists facing condemnation and the threat of international isolation on all sides. If you are a junta desperate to hold onto power, having a permanent member of the UN Security Council that does not preach about democracy is good for business.

This was the case for Zimbabwe when Russia used its veto power in 2008 to protect the former from human rights-related sanctions. And just recently, Russia – alongside China – initially helped to torpedo a UN attempt to call for an end to hostilities in Ethiopia’s civil war. The language was watered down when a statement was finally made.

Deals outside the obvious channels

With threats of Western and African sanctions in Mali, Russia’s influence there could grow considerably and that suits the Kremlin’s ambitions. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea means it has had to find non-Western partners. This strategy demonstrates Russia cannot be isolated diplomatically and can make economic deals outside the obvious channels. In exchange for providing cover for its African partners, Russia expects support for its positions at multilateral organizations.

And there is business to be done. Russian companies have legal (in government-controlled areas) and illegal (through warlords) access to the CAR’s considerable diamond reserves in return. Expect more of the same in Mali with its huge reserves of gold.

Deals outside the obvious channels contd.

Russia’s gradual advance in Africa is making policymakers in the West nervous. But should it? Russia would like its opponents to think it is making progress. Headline-grabbing deals in Mali obscure the fact most of the agreements signed between African countries and Russia are more symbolic than strategic. It is good PR.

The West has work to do in Africa to assure its partners it will not abandon them. But for now, fretting over Russian influence must be tempered by the reality that Russia is still no match for it – yet.