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The Wagner Group is Bad News for Mali's Citizens and Its Stability

08 Jun 2022
By Dr Shannon Zimmerman
MINUSMA Force Commander Visits Anefis in Northern Mali, 2015.
Source: UN Photo, Flickr,

As Russia has turned its eye towards Africa, its private military companies have become more and more active in conflicts across the continent.  In Mali they have been used to devastating effect.

In the worst massacre in Mali’s almost decade-long conflict, white men “speaking a strange language” led Malian soldiers in an assault on Moura – a village held by militants. Over four days, hundreds of civilians were interrogated and summarily executed. Several sources have subsequently identified the foreign soldiers as Russian private military contractors working for the Wagner group.

The Wagner group, founded by a former Russian special operations officer, first emerged during Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, allowing Russia direct influence in combat operations while maintaining plausible deniability. Since then, the group has operated in roughly 30 countries and employs around 5,000 fighters, most of whom are Russians with military experience. Despite private military companies (PMCs) being illegal under the Russian Constitution, they have begun to play a key role in furthering Moscow’s policy objectives, in lieu of traditional, overt, and more transparent forms of statecraft.

The Wagner group essentially operates like a “Russian Ministry of Defence proxy force” and is owned by a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

As Africa has become one of Russia’s foreign policy priorities, Wagner appeared in Libya in 2015, Sudan in 2017, the Central African Republic and Madagascar in 2018, Mozambique in 2019, and – most recently – in Mali in 2020. The Group has deployed across Africa, protecting governing elites and critical infrastructure in return for payment in access to natural resources, lucrative commercial contracts, access to strategic infrastructure, and support for Russia’s foreign policy preferences. Through the Wagner Group and other PMCs, Russia can influence African leaders and further Russian foreign policy goals. All of this is done with a blatant disregard for human rights and the rule of law.

When the Wagner Group arrived in the Central African Republic (CAR) to support the government, human rights abuses skyrocketed. Originally intended to instruct CAR troops, evidence quickly emerged that these former military officers were actively engaging in combat operations on the ground. Most disturbingly, Russian forces were not simply operating alongside CAR troops, but were often in command or directly supervising CAR forces. In return for propping up the struggling government, the group was rewarded with access to natural resources. So destabilising was the presence of Wagner mercenaries in the country that the European Union suspended its training of national army soldiers until they could receive “assurances that the soldiers will not be used by the Wagner mercenaries” to extort more resources from the local population.

In Mali, the military junta that seized power in August 2020 turned to Russia for support, with the likely payoff being access to Mali’s uranium, diamond, and gold mines. Mali’s ruling junta believed that the Russia forces might be more effective than the  French forces already in the country, at fighting Mali’s Islamist insurgency. The arrival of Wagner forces, along with an already frayed relationship between the French military and Mali’s military government, facilitated the French decision to withdraw in 2022 but not before the Wagner group attempted to frame French forces for atrocities that they themselves committed.

Since then, the Wager group has participated in “mixed missions” alongside Malian troops which have resulted in the deaths of several hundred civilians. The arrival of Wagner Group saw a drastic rise in the number of deaths caused by the Malian security forces, undoing years of work by the United Nations and the European Union to professionalise the security sector.  A disturbing trend has also emerged where any injury to “Russian instructors” results in revenge attacks against civilians. Achieving justice for those killed is difficult, as Russia was able to veto a United Nations Security Council plan to commission an independent investigation into the worst of the massacres in Moura, and Mali has blocked the UN from sending a team to the site. This essentially allows Wagner to operate with impunity.

Wagner’s presence will likely further destabilise Mali, stoking violence and giving credence to Islamist groups’ claims. While ostensibly the group is there to provide security, in reality it is focused on protecting and supporting the existing Malian elite. The promised progress against Islamist terrorists is likely to be mitigated by the use of forces unfamiliar with the operational environment, who do not speak local languages and struggle to communicate to partner militaries, and have no qualms about committing – or asking national forces to commit – human rights abuses. In the end, it is likely that the security situation for the average Malian will decline and atrocities will only result in the strengthening of radical groups.

The presence of Wagner and other Russian PMCs is a key tool in Russia’s arsenal to push back against Western and democratic values. Wagner’s willingness to use excessive force, violate human rights, and exploit their partnership with weak governments to shore up crumbling states regardless of the cost, only serve the short-term interest of Russia and corrupt African elites. In their wake, Wagner leaves behind civilian atrocities, and deeply undermines attempts by the international community to support democracy and the rule of law in post-conflict societies. U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Milton Sands, the head of Special Operations Command Africa, told The Washington Post in early March that “Wagner comes in, further destabilizes the country, ravages the mineral resources and makes as much money as they can before they choose to leave,” in the end “The country is left poorer, weaker and less secure. Every time.”

Dr Shannon Zimmerman is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at RMIT University and a Research Fellow at the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.