How will Wagner turmoil affect peace-keeping in Mali?

Mutiny in Russia and expulsion of UN forces threatens to further destabilise war-torn West African nation

Mali’s foreign minister Abdoulaye Diop and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov at a press conference in Moscow in May 2022
Mali’s foreign minister Abdoulaye Diop, left, and Russia’s Sergey Lavrov
(Image credit: Yuri Kadobnov/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia has sought to reassure the military junta ruling Mali that Wagner Group mercenaries will continue to operate in the war-torn West African nation.

UN peacekeepers have been stationed in Mali since 2013, seeking to contain Islamist insurgents. But Mali’s foreign minister, Abdoulaye Diop, denounced the UN earlier this month over the “failure” of its mission, and called on peacekeeping forces to withdraw “without delay”.

The demand, said Al Jazeera, “followed years of fraying relations between the UN and [Malian capital] Bamako’s military leadership”, which has held power since coups in 2020 and 2021. The fear now is that the country could slide “deeper into chaos if separatist sentiments resurge”.

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Wagner revolt uncertainty

This week’s revolt by the Wagner Group in Russia “poses a diplomatic quandary for Mali and Central African Republic (CAR)”, said Reuters.

This is because “forces from the mercenary group have played an increasingly central role” in the countries. Wagner Group operatives have fought militant groups who have taken advantage of the vacuum left by France withdrawing its troops in 2022 after a nine-year operation.

Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said the Wagner Group would continue to operate in Mali, and that the apparent mutiny of its forces in Russia over the weekend would not affect relations between the two countries.

Lavrov said that Europe and France had “abandoned” Mali and neighbouring CAR, and so the countries turned to Russia and the Wagner mercenaries to “ensure the security of their leaders”, he is quoted as saying by Euronews.

Wagner is “an instrument of Russian influence” in the mind of the West, said Africa News, advancing Moscow’s interests and allegedly “committing atrocities wherever it is deployed”.

UN involvement

The UN mission was established after a coup in 2012, when a rebellion among the Tuareg people of northern Mali triggered a military coup in Bamako and an Islamist takeover of the north. France, Mali’s former colonial ruler, entered the fray to help combat the subsequent Islamist jihad insurgency.

In June 2015, the Malian government, the coalition of pro-government armed groups from the north of the country, and a rebel alliance signed the Algiers Peace Agreement, mediated by the UN mission, as well as the African Union, the European Union, the US and France.

The peacekeeping mission may have “struggled to contain the violence”, said Al Jazeera, but it has “played a role in placating the separatists, who halted their offensive”.

But the Algiers agreement has been fraying. In 2020, the country fell under military control after a coup against Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who resigned the presidency and dissolved parliament.

The 2020 coup and another the following year “brought in leaders more hostile to Western forces”, said the i news site, and more willing to “hold up Western troops as a target and scapegoat”.

Although the UN was originally meant to take its 13,000 troops out of Mali on 30 June, talks had been ongoing about renewing its mandate. But in May, thousands of Malians protested in the capital against the mission’s ongoing presence.

Now, it says it sees no way of continuing. “Peacekeeping is based on the principle of consent from the host country,” the head of the mission, El Ghassim Wane, told reporters earlier this month. “Absent that consent, of course, operations are nearly impossible.”

The growing partnership with Moscow

Anti-West sentiment is on the rise in Mali and neighbouring Burkina Faso. This is in part due to France’s history as a colonial ruler, “but also because of [the West’s] failure to deal with security problems” and a “seeming lack of accountability” for the killing of civilians by French troops, said the i news site.

Last year, France and its allies withdrew troops from Mali, while Burkina Faso expelled the French in January this year. That left a power vacuum for Russia to exploit.

During a visit to the West African country last month, his third in six months, Lavrov pledged continued Russian military support. But since Wagner arrived in Mali, civilian deaths have “shot up”, said i news, with a fourfold increase since 2021.

Last year, Wagner mercenaries and Malian troops killed more than 500 Malian villagers, The Associated Press reported in May. It was “the worst single atrocity associated with Kremlin-linked group outside Ukraine”, said The Observer.

Uncertain future

The UN’s withdrawal would be a “fatal blow” to the chances of peace, said Al Jazeera. A coalition of armed groups said the UN exit, “without a credible alternative”, would threaten security in Mali and stability in the region.

There has been “no visible change so far on the ground” to Wagner operations in Mali, tweeted the open-source network All Eyes on Wagner. But according to Politico, “analysts say it’s unlikely the status quo will prevail”.

“In Mali, the authorities are late on payments [for Wagner] because they don’t receive any European aid from Europe,” Nicolas Normand, a former French ambassador to Senegal and Mali, told Politico. “And Wagner is expensive, it’s several million euros.”

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Harriet Marsden is a writer for The Week, mostly covering UK and global news and politics. Before joining the site, she was a freelance journalist for seven years, specialising in social affairs, gender equality and culture. She worked for The Guardian, The Times and The Independent, and regularly contributed articles to The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The New Statesman, Tortoise Media and Metro, as well as appearing on BBC Radio London, Times Radio and “Woman’s Hour”. She has a master’s in international journalism from City University, London, and was awarded the "journalist-at-large" fellowship by the Local Trust charity in 2021.