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News, September 2020
Mali Prime Minister Defends Military Partnership with Russian company Wagner, Fueling French-Russian Rivalry
September 20, 2021
Mali must consider its options to "bolster our national defence", says Prime Minister Choguel Maiga
Africanews MAIMOUNA MORO/AFP or licensors
September 19, 2021
Mali's transitional Prime Minister, Choguel Maïga, alluded to a potential military partnership between his country and the Russian company Wagner, raising French concerns that potential Russian involvement would compromise their ongoing military operations in the country. Maïga says Mali must broaden "broaden our potential for cooperation to bolster our national defence" in the face of international partners who "altered their policy" or "have decided to leave Mali to withdraw to other countries".
- UN on the affair -
A possible partnership between the government of Mali and the Russian private security company Wagner should fully "respect human rights and international law" if it comes to pass, a senior UN official said Friday.
Asked at a press conference about the possible impact of a deployment of Russian paramilitary contractors on the 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations, said he had seen no final agreement on the subject.
"As UN, we do not interfere in sovereign prerogatives," he said.
"It's important for us to be able to continue delivering our mandate with the full support of the host government, with the full cooperation and coordination with the local armed forces, without obstacle, without access denial, without threat," he added.
"It's also critical that any partnership be carried out in full respect for human rights and international humanitarian law," he said.
"Our missions are mandated to report on human rights and humanitarian law," said the UN official. "We expect from our host governments, host countries that they bear that in mind when they engage in a bilateral partnership."
France and Germany have warned they will reconsider their military engagement in Mali if a contract is struck between the Malian government and the controversial Wagner company, already present in several other African countries.
In the Central African Republic, the UN accused members of this paramilitary company, which is reputed to be close to President Vladimir Putin, of committing abuses early this summer -- though the number of those accusations has gone down, a UN official said this week.
Russia has denied negotiating a military presence in Mali. According to a French source familiar with the matter, the junta in power in Bamako is nevertheless studying the possibility of a contract with Wagner on the deployment of a thousand Russian paramilitaries, to train the country's armed forces and ensure the protection of its leaders.
Additional sources • AFP
French Minister in Mali to Thwart Hiring of Russian Mercenaries
September 19, 2021
France's Armed Forces minister arrived in Mali on Sunday to pressure the military junta to end talks to bring Russian mercenaries into the country and push it to keep a promise to return the country to constitutional order in February.
Diplomatic and security sources have told Reuters that Mali's year-old military junta is close to recruiting the Russian Wagner Group, and France has launched a diplomatic drive to thwart it, saying such an arrangement is incompatible with a continued French presence.
West Africa's main political bloc, ECOWAS, as well as other allies combating militants in the Sahel region, have also expressed concerns over the potential deal.
But Mali's junta, which seized power in August 2020, has dug in, noting that France has begun scaling down its decade-old operation against insurgents linked to al-Qaida and Islamic State across the region.
On Sunday, Mali's foreign ministry called objections from neighbor Niger to the prospect of a deal with Wagner "unacceptable, unfriendly and condescending."
The visit by Florence Parly to Mali is the highest-level trip by French officials since the talks with Wagner emerged.
An official from the French Armed Forces Ministry told reporters ahead of the visit that Parly would stress "the heavy consequences if this decision were to be taken by the Malian authorities."
She would also underscore the importance of keeping to the calendar for the transition to democracy leading to elections in February 2022, the official said.
French officials describe the relationship with the junta as "complicated," although it still relies on Paris for counterterrorism operations.
Paris said on Thursday it had killed the leader of Islamic State in Western Sahara in northern Mali.
Parly earlier on Sunday was in Niger to lay out plans to reshape its operations in the region.
The French army started redeploying troops from its bases in Kidal, Tessalit and Timbuktu in northern Mali at the start of the month, French army sources have said.
France wants to complete the redeployment by January. It is reducing its contingent to 2,500-3,000 from about 5,000, moving more assets to Niger, and encouraging other European special forces to work alongside local forces.
The European force in the Sahel so far totals about 600 troops from nine countries.
France and Russia make a stand over which country will have the greater influence in Mali
France 24, 18/09/2021
According to reports, the Malian junta and Wagner, a militia with close ties to the Russian President Vladimir Putin, are nearing a deal that would send mercenaries to train Malian troops and provide security for high-ranking officials. Understandably, France is less than happy with the situation.
The presence of Russian paramilitaries in the country is "absolutely irreconcilable” with that of French troops, said France’s foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, reacting on September 15 to the news of the possible agreement between Mali and the Russian private security firm Wagner.
Moscow ‘a long-held 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 use as an opportunity to renew Russia’s presence on the African continent. The then-President of Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, launched a charm offensive, telling Putin, “We need to see proof of your friendship in a sector that everyone knows you are the champion of: the fight against terrorism. You said yourself that you are qualified in this domain, President Putin. We need this expertise now.”
Mali has been battling an insurgency in the country since 2012. In recent years, the security situation has deteriorated even further, despite France’s anti-terrorist military operation in the Sahel, Operation Barkhane.
Every now and then, there are public demonstrations calling on French troops to leave – with protesters sometimes in favour of Russian military intervention instead.
"There’s a long-held dream in Mali, currently propounded by so-called patriots, of seeing the country break off ties with France and cooperate instead with Moscow,” explains Niagalé Bagayoko, a political scientist and an expert on security in French-speaking Africa. “This dream harks 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 the 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 muscle in and take its place.”
At the start of the 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 the first Malian president, Modibo Keïta: a socialist keen to cut ties with its old colonial power. The USSR took up the search for mineral resources – hitherto led by France – and started to funnel equipment into the country and carry out military training.
“The USSR, with its enormous, resource-rich territory, had little economic interest in Africa. Any investment in the continent had the primary aim of using Africa as a political instrument in the context of the Cold War with the West,” explains Anastasiya Shapochkina, a professor at Sciences Po University in Paris and a specialist on Russia. The USSR’s investments in Mali, as in other African countries, were a loss-making enterprise for the Soviets.
The Russians are back
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia was in financial ruin. During the decade that followed, it refocused its energies on its immediate sphere of influence: former Soviet countries. It was only in 2012, when Mali began its war with Islamist terrorists that had taken control of the north of the country, that Bamako started to re-establish military ties with Moscow.
The government first of all signed an agreement with the Russian arms exporter Rosoboronexport to buy 3,000 Kalashnikov guns for over a million euros, according to BBC Africa. Bamako wanted to update Russian military equipment it had acquired during the Soviet years and as a result negotiated new deals with Moscow.
In 2016, after Russia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mikhaïl Bogdanov’s visit to Mali, Moscow gifted two helicopters to the Malian army, adding that “other equipment will follow”.
In June 2019, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta signed a military defence pact with Russia. “The intensification of military ties is in the interest of our two countries,” announced Sergueï Choïgou, Russia’s defence minister, saying that Moscow wanted to help to create “conditions for durable peace and stability”.
Tensions with France
France, meanwhile, was watching these renewed ties with apprehension, but chose not to wade in. French President Emmanuel Macron said that Russia was no longer an “enemy”, and the priority was fighting against international terrorism.
Until now. The involvement of Russian mercenaries is a red line for France’s foreign ministry. “Wagner is a militia that has shown itself in the past in Syria and Central African Republic to have carried out abuses and all sorts of violations that do not lead to any solution,” said Jean-Yves Le Drian, hinting at a possible withdrawal of all French troops from Mali.
“In my opinion, this reaction indicates a sense of power that is more concerned with controlling its territory than with the fight against terrorism,” Niagalé Bagayoko told FRANCE 24. “On the side of the Malian junta, however, it’s a master stroke, allowing it to appease public opinion while also affirming its own independence. In this context, where France is planning a gradual military withdrawal anyway, Mali is playing France and Russia off against each other to raise the stakes. That said, I think this strategy does have its limits because Russia has nothing to gain by going to fight terrorists in the Sahel.”
Anastasiya Shapochkina agreed. "Despite all the political rhetoric, Africa is a marginal partner for Russia and Putin has no desire to make the same past mistakes. By sending a militia to French-speaking Africa, he above all wants to send a message to France not to meddle in its domestic affairs. That’s why Russia is using a group like Wagner, which is controlled by the Kremlin but has no traceable ties to the authorities. The West is quite right to be suspicious of Wagner, because it’s a mafia motivated solely by money and which has a questionable track record in the fight against terrorism.”
Russia has responded to the furore by choosing its words carefully.
“There is no representative from the Russian armed forces there, and no official negotiation currently under way,” Dmitri Peskov, a spokesperson for President Putin, told journalists on September 16.
France has since begun a diplomatic offensive with 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 began the campaign won’t be different in the future,” the French Minister of Defence Florence Parly said.
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