Russian Mercenaries in Africa: The Wagner Group in Mali

Since the beginning of this year, war is waging in Ukraine due to the Russian invasion. An incredible amount of information about this war is passed on by the media on a daily basis. Due to this amount, it may not have stuck with everyone equally; but in addition to its own army, Russia uses a mercenary army, called the Wagner Group.

Although now active near Russian borders, this group mainly operates on the African continent, where several massacres have occurred due to their presence.

The Wagner Group is known as a private military contractor (PMC). PMCs like these have been regularly used by states in the post-Cold War and globalized era, where proxy wars seem to have become commonplace. The PMCs were used mostly in (proxy)-conflicts in the Middle-East. These kind of companies are much used because they are cheaper, more flexible, and often a lot more effective than regular state-troops. 

Russia has made use of PMCs before, often companies established outside of their own territory, because they cannot legally be established in Russia itself. But different studies show that there are many indicators that this Wagner Group is however highly linked to the Kremlin.

Due to deteriorating ties with the EU and the US, Russia has been looking for closer ties with other powers like China for some time now. In order to further expand Russia’s influence in the world, the Kremlin seems to have started looking for other countries, too, that had not (yet) joined Western alliances. The ‘balance of power’ mechanism is clearly expressed here; Russia tries to be dominant in these countries to avoid dominance of opposing powers. Many of the countries Russia looked for have been found on the African continent.

One of the countries in which the Wagner Group’s presence has been highly contested due to the outcomes, is Mali.

In 1960, Mali gained independence from their colonial ruler, France. Since then, the country endured decades of instability. Numerous groups with different backgrounds within the country have rebelled against the government, attempting to gain autonomy, especially in the North of the country. The most serious threat came from Islamist insurgents, who carried out multiple deadly terrorist attacks. With the help of French troops, the Malian government tried tackling these threats, but they turned out to be unable to assert control over their territory and establishing safety. 

After increasing discontent of the Malian population of the military presence of France and the lack of realized stabilization, the French troops withdrew at the beginning of this year.

In the meantime, a military junta carried out a successful coup in 2021 and made attempts to fight the Islamists insurgents. But instead of now turning to France for help, this new military regime turned to Russia. 

The withdrawal of the French troops left a power vacuum. Russia seems to have taken advantage of this by jumping in. The Wagner Group has been sent to support the new military regime, and by doing so, in an indirect manner, Russia’s power can be increased in the country and region. Due to the poorly proven and shadowy connection between the Kremlin and the PMC, the Russian government does not have to bear responsibility for violations that occur.

Although Malian authorities still deny this, the PMC now works closely with the local military junta. The British newspaper the Guardian got insight into internal documents of the Malian army, in which the Wagner Group members are referred to as ‘’Russian instructors’’. Moreover, the documents revealed the mercenaries are employed for ‘’mixed missions’’, carrying them out in cooperation with Malian soldiers.

Incidents of terror have risen by 30 percent over the past half year and the Russian mercenaries have been linked to several massacres .

Data from the NGO Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) state the death of 456 civilians in nine incidents, all involving activities of the Malian army and the Wagner Group. In March this year, the most serious incident occurred in which the Wagner Group was involved. In a village called Moura controlled by Islamist extremists, between 350 and 380 men have been murdered over a period of four days. 

In April, satellite images from the French government showed that attempts were made to shift blame of mass-murders onto the French. The footage shows members of the Wagner Group moving corpses to a left-behind French military base and placing them in mass graves.

‘’Russian-linked social media accounts quickly blamed French forces for the killings in a series of inauthentic posts—the latest in an ongoing campaign to discredit French efforts in West Africa and instead promote Russian partnerships’’, wrote Catrina Doxsee for the Center of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). This again underlines the attempts of the Russian government to gain authority in the region. 

The outcomes of the presence of the Wagner Group has naturally raised many concerns. “We worry that these forces are not interested in the safety and security of the people of Mali, but instead are interested in enriching themselves and strip-mining the country — and are making the terrorism situation worse’’; said Victoria Nuland, the US State Department’s undersecretary for political affairs. 

The countries in which the mercenary group is active are often resource-rich states and countries with a weak government. The Wagner Group has now secured financial gains through the rooting of these resources and has gained authority in the region. It therefore has been able to pursue Russian interests. 

Tackling the group remains fairly difficult. The company has not been officially registered anywhere in the world, making it hard to target the group by international bureaucratic institutions. In addition, the members often operate anonymously, causing difficulty tracing them. And moreover, as most violations have occurred in countries where the group cooperated with local governments, the chances of them being held accountable by these states is very minimal. 

The way the group operates and the fact that many eyes are now mainly focused on Ukraine makes it unlikely that the Wagner Group will soon be effectively combated. Human rights organizations therefore fear more violations and atrocities will occur in the near future.

Written by: Alexandra Iburg

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