Tensions are rising over the ongoing negotiations between the Malian transitional authorities and the private security group Wagner. This Tuesday, 14 September 2021, the French Minister of Defense Florence Parlya considered such an agreement to be “extremely worrying and contradictory” to the measures taken by the French military in the Sahel. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian even considers that the arrival of the Russian group would be “absolutely irreconcilable” in the presence of French soldiers.
In Paris, the unrest is real to see the Russians from the sulfur-containing Wagner company gain a foothold in Mali, the key country for Operation Barkhane. The French authorities warn: this is a new red line. No Wagner in Mali. Just as a few months ago, Paris had informed the Malian government that it was not possible to negotiate with the armed terrorist groups fighting against Barkhane’s soldiers.
According to press reports, the Wagner group could send several hundred or even a thousand Russian mercenaries to Mali. This agreement between Bamako and the Wagner Group has not even been signed and is already provoking very strong reactions. It must be said that many things are being played around this agreement.
The first issue is national sovereignty. To the comments of Jean-Yves le Drian, who is threatening to withdraw the French soldiers from the country, the Malian Ministry of Defense responds: “Mali intends to diversify its relations, we are talking to everyone.” Nothing can be more legitimate for a state. This issue of sovereignty joins a domestic policy issue: the transitional authorities want to show the Malian opinion their independence and their strength. And in the face of the former colonizer, the political gain, when the question of extending the transitional period arises, is obvious. In addition, the ghost of this agreement can also be seen as an asset to validate, this time with Mali’s current international partner, this extension of the transition. As if it were a scam during a poker game, this is what some informed observers do not rule out.
Then there is the diplomatic issue, the one about influence. Russia is not considered an enemy, either by France or by the European Union or the UN, but elsewhere in the world – in Syria, in Libya, in Ukraine – it is clear that the interests and strategies implemented are often very opposite. So Moscow’s arrival at the Saal Theater frightens France, but also Mali’s other Western partners.
Access to mining sites as a bonus There is also the issue of human rights. Regardless of each of the interests, it is not illegal to recall the many allegations of abuse, particularly violent, which Wagner’s agents are covered by in the Central African Republic or in Syria. Accusations documented by journalists and human rights organizations. Finally, there is the economic issue: we are talking about more than nine million euros per month with the bonus for access to several mining sites. If nothing has been signed yet, this is still an issue that needs to be considered because the Malian budget is what it is and US, French or UN military cooperation does not pay off.
Following the warning from French officials and perhaps to ease the pressure, the Kremlin’s spokesman made it clear on Wednesday morning that Russia was not negotiating a military presence in Mali, and that it was not negotiating a military presence in Mali. There is no representative of the Russian armed forces on site. Of course, without ever mentioning the presence of the private company Wagner. Wagner, who in Western eyes is nothing more or less than a fake nose in Moscow.
The Malian Ministry of Defense acknowledged this: negotiations are indeed under way to deploy a thousand Russian paramilitaries responsible for training the Malian armed forces and ensuring the protection of the leaders. At present we do not know more, but if this contract were to take shape, it would cause a real earthquake in Sahelo-Saharan.
Operation Barkhane really extends far beyond Malia’s borders, the force is headquartered in N’Djamena. Its main air base is in Niamey, while the special forces are in Ouagadougou. From an operational point of view, Barkhane can continue his assignment. However, most of the operations are taking place in Mali, in the area around the three borders between Liptako and Gourma. If there is a break with Bamako, it is a double question: what will the American ally decide? What are the Europeans who are currently in power? within the Takouba force? Finally, it would force Barkhane to leave Gao, his main base in Mali. And logistically speaking, it would not be an easy feat.