The Malian junta and Wagner, a militia with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, are reportedly closing in on a deal that would send mercenaries to train Malian troops and provide security for high-ranking officials. It is understandable that France is not happy with the situation.
The presence of Russian paramilitaries in the country is “absolutely irreconcilable” with that of French troops, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said, reacting on September 15 to news of the possible agreement between Mali and the Russian private security firm Wagner.
The establishment of new ties between Russia and Mali is a reminder of the close diplomatic relations between the two countries during the Soviet era.
Moscow, ‘a long-standing dream in Mali’
On October 23, 2019, 43 African heads of state gathered in Sochi for a Russia-Africa Summit, which President Putin planned to seize as an opportunity to renew Russia’s presence on the African continent. The then President of Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, launched a friendly offensive and told Putin: “We need to see proof of your friendship in a sector of which everyone knows you are the champion: the fight against terrorism. You said yourself that you are qualified in this area, President Putin. We need this experience now. ”
Mali has been fighting an insurgency in the country since 2012. In recent years, the security situation has further deteriorated, despite France’s military counterterrorism operation in the Sahel, Operation Barkhane.
From time to time, there are public demonstrations calling on French troops to leave, with protesters sometimes in favor of Russian military intervention.
“There is a long-standing dream in Mali, currently proposed by so-called patriots, to see the country sever ties with France and cooperate with Moscow,” explains Niagalé Bagayoko, French-speaking political scientist and security expert. Africa. “This dream goes back to a fantasy of the relationship the country used to have with the USSR and the Soviet bloc, particularly in terms of military cooperation. That relationship was nurtured by then-President Modibo Keïta and then continued by his successor Moussa Traoré. France is also guilty of spreading this idea, constantly saying that Russia is trying to gain a foothold and take its place. ”
In the early 1960s, which marked the end of the colonial era for many African countries, the USSR began its strategy of forging alliances in Africa. The Soviet bloc found itself an ideal ally in the form of Mali’s first president, Modibo Keïta: a socialist eager to sever ties with his former colonial power. The USSR undertook the search for mineral resources, until now led by France, and began to channel equipment to the country and carry out military training.
“The USSR, with its huge territory rich in resources, had little economic interest in Africa. Any investment in the continent was primarily aimed at using Africa as a political instrument in the context of the Cold War with the West ”, explains Anastasiya Shapochkina, professor at the Sciences Po University in Paris and specialist in Russia. The USSR’s investments in Mali, as in other African countries, were a loss-making venture for the Soviets.
The russians have returned
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia was in financial ruin. Over the next decade, he refocused his energies on his immediate sphere of influence: the countries of the former Soviet Union. Only in 2012, when Mali began its war with the Islamist terrorists who had taken over the north of the country, did Bamako begin to reestablish military ties with Moscow.
First, the government signed an agreement with Russian arms exporter Rosoboronexport to buy 3,000 Kalashnikov weapons for more than € 1 million, according to BBC Africa. Bamako wanted to upgrade the Russian military equipment that it had acquired during the Soviet years and, as a result, negotiated new agreements with Moscow.
In 2016, after the visit of Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhaïl Bogdanov to Mali, Moscow gifted two helicopters to the Malian army, adding that “other equipment will come.”
In June 2019, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta signed a military defense pact with Russia. “The intensification of military ties is in the interest of our two countries,” announced Sergueï Choïgou, Russia’s defense minister, saying that Moscow wanted to help create “the conditions for lasting peace and stability.”
Tensions with France
France, meanwhile, was apprehensively watching these renewed ties, but decided not to intervene. French President Emmanuel Macron said Russia was no longer an “enemy” and that the priority was to fight international terrorism.
Up to now. The involvement of Russian mercenaries is a red line for the French Foreign Ministry. “Wagner is a militia that has proven in the past in Syria and the Central African Republic to have carried out abuses and all kinds of violations that do not lead to any solution,” said Jean-Yves Le Drian, alluding to a possible withdrawal of all troops. French women from Mali.
“In my opinion, this reaction indicates a sense of power that is more concerned with controlling its territory than with fighting terrorism,” Niagalé Bagayoko told FRANCE 24. “On the side of the Malian junta, however , is a masterstroke, allowing it to appease public opinion and at the same time assert its own independence.In this context, where France is planning a gradual military withdrawal anyway, Mali is pitting France and Russia against each other to raise the stakes. That said, I think that this strategy has its limits because Russia has nothing to gain by going to fight the terrorists in the Sahel. ”
Anastasiya Shapochkina agreed. “Despite all the political rhetoric, Africa is a marginal partner for Russia and Putin does not want to make the same mistakes of the past. By sending a militia to Francophone Africa, he especially wants to send a message to France not to meddle in Es This is why Russia is using a group like Wagner, which is controlled by the Kremlin but has no identifiable ties to the authorities. The West is right to suspect Wagner, because it is a mafia motivated solely by money and has a questionable track record in the fight against terrorism “.
Russia has responded to the furor by choosing its words carefully.
“There is no representative of the Russian armed forces there, and there are no official negotiations underway,” Dmitri Peskov, President Putin’s spokesman, told reporters on September 16.
Since then, France has launched a diplomatic offensive with the Malian authorities and has softened its position.
“Our priority is to be able to continue the fight against terrorism and we hope that the conditions in which we started the campaign will not be different in the future,” said French Defense Minister Florence Parly.