Fri. Dec 9th, 2022

The Wagner Group—a Russian private military company (PMC) linked to the Kremlin, Ministry of Defense (particularly the Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU), and Federal Security Service (FSB)—has arrived in Mali with the support of the Russian armed forces. This deployment, which reportedly began in December 2021, has been condemned by Mali’s international partners including the United States and numerous European countries. With instability in the Sahel on the rise, and with countries like France scaling back their military efforts against Salafi-jihadist groups in the region, Wagner’s emergence comes at a particularly fraught moment for Mali and is representative of Russia’s strategy to spread influence in the region through irregular, deniable means. As Russia’s most infamous PMC works to entrench itself in a state that has been at the center of counterterrorism efforts in West Africa, the international community should rethink its strategy to stymie Russian irregular efforts in Africa.

The Malian junta’s turn to Russia and the Wagner Group is intended to shore up its domestic political position rather than to meaningfully address insecurity in the country. While Wagner will ostensibly train local forces and provide security services to senior Malian officials, it will also take advantage of the situation to spread Russian influence on the continent and secure financial gains. Similar to its deployment in the Central African Republic (CAR), Wagner’s activity in Mali allows Malian political leaders to coup-proof the regime in exchange for financial and mineral concessions.

Wagner’s intervention in Mali—as in the CAR—also displaces the nation’s traditional French partnership following France’s decision to scale down its activity, amplifying broader geopolitical competition in Africa. While Wagner-linked Russian actors have used disinformation to facilitate PMC activities in the country, Mali’s military junta has capitalized on anti-French sentiment in the country to rally domestic support. This has created a delicate balancing act for Mali’s political and security partners, who—by attempting to hold the junta accountable for its abandonment of democracy—risk further orienting the military government toward Moscow. The United States, France, and other African states must now develop a proactive strategy to prevent the expanding influence of Russian PMCs rather than merely reacting to the use of these irregular tools.

This analysis is divided into three main sections. First, it uses satellite imagery analysis to assess Wagner’s deployment and military buildup in Mali. Second, it examines the information operations and historical context that shape growing Russian influence in the country. Third, it explores implications for U.S., French, and other regional policymakers—including the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)—seeking to counteract the spread of Russian PMCs in Mali and other African states.

Wagner’s Arrival and Activities

Upon arriving in Mali in December 2021, Wagner troops began to construct a camp just outside the perimeter of Bamako’s Modibo Keïta International Airport, southwest of Airbase 101, a military installation used by Mali’s air force. According to reporting by Le Monde, French government sources noted the construction of approximately a dozen military tents, troop transport trucks, and numerous armored vehicles at the newly constructed camp. New CSIS satellite imagery analysis reveals further details in the ongoing construction of a military operating base at the Bamako airport, which is likely being used by Russian and Wagner operatives to facilitate their deployment to Mali.

Modibo Keïta International Airport, Mali

Between September 2021—when the first reports of a deal between the Malian government and Wagner emerged—and December 2021, the large plot of land at that location was cleared and construction on a base began, as shown below. Closer analysis shows the construction of a new access road to this facility, which is outlined and protected by a series of defensive revetments.

Comparison of Site of Suspected Wagner Group Operating Base, September and December 2021


Click to expand.

The camp itself houses a barracks area, including several tents, and multiple transport vehicles, as seen in the imagery below. Additionally, construction is ongoing on a headquarters area at the center of the camp.

Suspected Wagner Group Operating Base, December 2021

Click to expand for a close-up view of the Wagner Group base.

Personnel and equipment were likely transported to Bamako on Russian military planes, including those linked to Wagner Group operations in other countries. For example, open-source flight tracking data recorded a Russian Air Force Tupolev TU-154 aircraft arriving in Bamako on December 19, 2021, after traveling from Moscow via Syria and Libya. That aircraft, with registration number RA-85042, is part of the Russian Defense Ministry’s 223rd Flight Detachment, which has previously contracted with Wagner-linked companies to transport PMC personnel to countries such as Sudan. RA-85042 has also been linked by the United Nations to Wagner Group operations at locations including Al Khadim Airfield in Libya. Beyond this specific example, French government sources have noted “repeated air rotations with [Russian] military transport planes” in Bamako, facilitating the deployment of Russian and Wagner personnel.

Russian operatives have also moved beyond Bamako into central Mali, a contested security environment where the al Qaeda–affiliated Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and communal militias exert significant influence. Wagner personnel reportedly suffered their first casualties on January 5 when a mixed Wagner-Malian army patrol hit an improvised explosive device between Bandiagara and Bankass, in the Mopti Region. Photos have also emerged of Wagner operatives in Ségou, a town in central Mali, where as many as 200 mercenaries may be based. Russian personnel have also deployed to the city of Timbuktu, occupying former Operation Barkhane bases that were turned over to the Malian army by French forces in December 2021.

The exact scope and nature of the Wagner Group’s activities in Mali remain unclear. Early reporting noted that PMC personnel would train Malian defense forces and provide protection services for senior political leaders—activities Wagner has also undertaken in countries such as the CAR and Mozambique. The presence of Wagner-linked geologists and lawyers in Mali suggests that PMC personnel may also eventually provide site security services to Russian companies engaged in mining activity, which would be consistent with the Wagner Group’s activities in other countries in which Russia has secured mining concessions in exchange for PMC services. These individuals, including the director of a mining company active in the CAR, reportedly scouted mineral locations in Mali’s Sikasso and Koulikoro Regions prior to Wagner’s arrival.

Disinformation and Discontent

The Malian reception of Russian troops and PMCs should be understood in the context of both Russian information operations and long-standing tensions between Mali and its traditional ally—and former colonial ruler—France. Wagner-linked actors have exploited domestic dissatisfaction with the security situation, including anger directed at France, to justify the supposed need for PMC support.

Concurrent to Wagner’s reported deployment to Mali, figures and organizations affiliated with the PMC worked to craft a more favorable information environment. In September 2021 and again in January 2022, the Foundation for National Values Protection (FZNC), an organization sanctioned by the U.S. government for its ties to the Wagner Group, published polls purporting to show growing, broad-based Malian support for the government’s collaboration with Wagner and disapproval of France’s counterterrorism mission. In October, Alexandre Ivanov, a Wagner surrogate previously active in the CAR, gave an interview to the Malian press praising the value that a PMC such as Wagner could provide Mali. Social media accounts shared dubiously sourced images claiming to show Wagner personnel training Malian soldiers, which were subsequently amplified by Kremlin-affiliated media outlets. These were the latest in a series of Russian-PMC-linked propaganda and disinformation efforts seeking to spread pro-Russian sentiment and supplant Western—and specifically, French—influence in sub-Saharan Africa.

Although the Wagner Group and other Russian-linked entities primed the pump for Malian support, they were aided by a long-standing well of resentment for French intervention. Arguments against Russian assistance must consider not only recent Wagner-driven narratives, but also decades of complex relations between Mali and France. Since Mali gained independence in 1960, France has endured as its preeminent international partner, including through counterterrorism efforts over the past decade. However, this post-colonial relationship has been fraught: Malians resent perceived French neocolonialism and unilateral action, while France paradoxically wishes both to bear less of the burden in the region and to retain its dominant influence. Russian intervention offers Mali an alternative to French neocolonialism and fills the gap France leaves as it reduces its role in managing Mali’s security and governance challenges, yet it challenges France’s highly valued cachet in the region.

Implications

As the United States, France, and their partners attempt to support the democratic transition in Mali and counter the spread of Russian PMCs such as the Wagner Group, it is vital to share information about Wagner’s activities, highlighting the PMC’s ineffectiveness and the hidden costs of its intervention. This includes operational failures in conducting similar missions. For example, following its 2019 deployment to Mozambique’s northernmost province, Cabo Delgado, to fight the local Islamist insurgency, the Wagner Group suffered personnel and territorial losses due to its inexperience fighting in the local environment and inability to communicate with local forces. Ultimately, the PMC forces were so ineffective that the Mozambican government opted to replace them about seven months after their arrival. In addition to operational failures, Russian PMC activities often impose heavy legal and humanitarian costs. For example, throughout its operations in the CAR, the Wagner Group has committed severe human rights abuses including torture, rape, and the indiscriminate murder of civilians.

Through this information-sharing process, Western nations should focus their argument to Mali and other African states on transparency and local interests rather than a thinly veiled frame of great power competition. Anti-French sentiment in the Sahel is both real and growing, as evidenced by the pro-junta demonstrations in Mali in January and efforts by demonstrators in neighboring Burkina Faso to block French military convoys in November 2021. Moreover, security approaches in the Sahel spearheaded by countries such as France and the United States have not adequately addressed the political drivers of conflict, allowing insecurity and militancy to multiply. Western responses to Wagner’s deployment that attempt to impose on Mali a binary choice between Western and Russian security patronage will likely fail because they do not adequately appreciate these realities. Such approaches offer rhetorical fodder to illiberal leaders like Mali’s military junta, which can gain domestic political capital by criticizing France for having “abandoned” Mali, capitalizing on long-standing resentment. As a result, Western arguments against Russian intervention should center on promoting Mali’s own national interests, and attempts to impose consequences on the Malian government for its turn to Russia and ostensible abandonment of the democratic transition should focus on supporting grassroots demand for elections, transparent government functioning, and human rights accountability in security partnerships.

As the situation in Mali rapidly evolves, it remains important for the United States, France, and ECOWAS to maintain open communication with the Malian government while also holding it accountable. Mali’s military leadership has abandoned repeated agreements to pass power to a civilian government. Rather than an 18-month transition period, the junta has argued that it should hold power for five more years until elections can be completed in 2026. In response, ECOWAS hit Mali with punishing sanctions, including closing all land and air borders and suspending Mali from regional financial institutions. Mali’s junta, however, has used these sanctions as a populist rallying cry, organizing demonstrations in the country on January 14 during which protestors carried signs denouncing France’s presence in the country. On January 31, the junta expelled the French ambassador from the country in response to public criticism from the French foreign minister three days prior. As the international community seeks to establish accountability and put Mali’s democratic transition back on track, it must balance its efforts against the junta’s demonstrated willingness to double down, a trajectory that may lead it to align even more closely with Russia and the Wagner Group.

Moreover, the complex and historically driven competition for influence in Mali presents a lesson to Western policymakers interested in containing the spread of Russian PMCs on the continent. Over the past five years, Russian PMCs have targeted countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have rich natural resources as well as governance and security challenges. Events in Mali—as well as other countries, including the CAR—indicate Wagner’s interest in specifically leveraging and undermining traditional postcolonial partnerships with nations such as France. Anticipating that Russia is likely to continue to follow and refine this playbook, Western nations would be well advised to strengthen their diplomatic relationships and support for civil society partners in the region and to ensure that these partnerships are mutually beneficial rather than one-sided. Though supporting root challenges to good governance is time and resource intensive, it is likely easier than dislodging the influence of Russian PMCs once they have been deployed.

Jared Thompson is a research associate with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Catrina Doxsee is the associate director and an associate fellow with the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS. Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. is senior fellow for imagery analysis with the iDeas Lab and Korea Chair at CSIS.

Credit | CSIS

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