The Russians in Mali: from the French disengagement to the new balances in the Sahel

(To Filippo Del Monte)
12/05/22

In politics, where the iron law of the balance of power is in force, every space previously left empty is filled by someone who takes opportunities.

This happened in Mali, where France was engaged until a few months ago in a fierce fight against Islamic extremist groups, until with the coming to power of the military junta, Paris decided to loosen ties with Bamako and move the center of gravity of its commitment in Africa towards Niger and the Gulf of Guinea. The climax of the Franco-Malian crisis came in January, when the military junta in Bamako expelled the French ambassador and Macron jumped at the ball to announce the withdrawal of troops.

Already in June 2021, France had announced the interruption of military cooperation with Mali (see article) without, however, abandoning the country which remains strategic for Paris. The goal of the Elysée was to involve the closest allies, including Italy, to assume greater military responsibilities not only in Mali but in general throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

The reconfirmation of Emmanuel Macron at the Elysée may be the harbinger of politically and militarily important scenarios in the Sahel region since, however, without prejudice to the need to reduce the commitments and costs of the "unilateral" military presence of Paris in Africa (as requested by a wide slice of public opinion), the French could soon return to knocking on their partners' door asking for a joint effort for the stabilization of a region that is not only a "sanctuary" of militarily organized Islamic terrorism, but also a barycentric transit route for the trafficking of human beings and one of the reference points for the market of rare stones and energy sources.

Also for Rome, not only in the light of the Quirinal Treaty, but also for national interests, it would be not only necessary but obligatory to participate, with a role of primary importance, in a multinational device (de facto French-led) in the Sahel, while maintaining present the risks involved (see article).

The disengagement of France in Mali was exploited by Russia in the context of the Kremlin's African projection policy, an issue that returned to the fore with the start of the war in Ukraine last February 24 (see article). In December 2021, the Russian mercenaries of the Wagner Group allegedly installed their own base of operations at the “Modibo Keïta-Sénou” international airport, located 11 kilometers from Bamako and which also hosts a Malian air force base.

The Wagner mercenaries operate in Mali officially as instructors and consultants of the Malian Armed Forces (FAMA) and would not have the authorization to participate directly in the fighting (and therefore to conduct de facto the operations). In reality, however, the presence in the field of those who in the Malian military correspondence are called "Russian instructors" is ascertained from several sources. Specifically, between February and April, the Wagner mercenaries would have taken part in the fighting against the forces of the Jamaat Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimin (JNIM), leading FAMA troops into battle.

Along a wide belt that goes from the border with Burkina Faso and Niger, to the western border with Mauritania and also the cities of northern Mali, including Timbuktu, large mixed Malian-Russian patrols have been spotted and conducted operations against the Islamists present on the territory and also against ethnic groups suspected of having provided direct support to the JNIM. The main accusations made against the government of Bamako by NGOs and Western diplomacy - in particular British - are linked to the operation of "military police" against the shepherds of the Pehul community in Moura, a village in the Niger plain. they never openly mention Wagner's name. Moura is located in an area controlled by the JNIM for years and subject to the Sharia.

On March 27, Malian troops led by "Russian instructors" allegedly, after a brief fire fight with Islamist militiamen, rounded up civilians and carried out summary executions of hundreds of men suspected of being supporters of the terrorists. However, investigations are still underway to ascertain the real development of the facts.

On April 19, Islamist militants ambushed a mixed Russian-Malian patrol in Hombori, southeast of Timbuktu, while the FAMA led by Russian mercenaries were involved in an important clash between the villages of Mondoro and Boni, in south / south-west of Timbuktu last April 23, with the death of a Russian and the wounding of four others.

Russian pilots would also have been driving Malian assault helicopters that were engaged in raids related to military operations in central Mali in February. All this was reported in an exclusive of the British newspaper "The Guardian" (v.link) of 6 May.

The war in Ukraine has inevitably turned the spotlight on the deep-rooted military presence of Wagner - therefore of the Kremlin - in Africa, not only generating a propaganda campaign aimed at demonstrating the connection between Russia's African policy and the dizzying collapse of human rights in the countries of the Sahel allies of Moscow, but also forcing, even in the short term, to review Western strategic priorities in the black continent.

The Western disengagement (which in Africa, in essence, means "European") began shortly before history violently returned to the scene with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and therefore with the reassessment of the importance of the "southern front" of the global clash that the West faces with revisionist powers. Likewise, in the global south, Russia will try to play a leading role in taking up those spaces that are denied it elsewhere, with interests that are not necessarily complementary to those of China. And in Africa this diversity of geopolitical interests between Russia and China could emerge more than elsewhere, just as in Europe it seems that the two powers can act in concert.

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