COLUMN-Could Russian mercenaries hasten French departure from Mali?
The Wagner Group of private military contractors operates in the shadows, its existence, operations and ownership the subject of rumour, disinformation and denial. But it may be about to achieve something militants and rebels could not over the course of decades – hasten the end of a French military intervention in Mali once seen as unending.
By Peter Apps
LONDON, Sept 17 (Reuters) - The Wagner Group of private military contractors operates in the shadows, its existence, operations and ownership the subject of rumour, disinformation and denial. But it may be about to achieve something militants and rebels could not over the course of decades – hasten the end of a French military intervention in Mali once seen as unending.
News reports this week suggested Mali’s interim government – which took power in a coup last year – was on the brink of signing a contract with the Russian company to fight Islamist militants. The news prompted a rebuke from Paris, which said the arrival of the Wagner Group would be "incompatible" with the decades-long French support for Mali’s government.
The French stance was echoed by German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who said on Twitter that hiring the firm would call into question everything the United Nations and European Union were doing in Mali. Germany is a significant contributor to a European Union training mission, while the U.N. force also includes British, Chinese and other multinational troops.
A spokesperson for the leader of Mali's junta said he had no information about such a deal. Malian officials told journalists that the government was in contact with "everyone" to tackle an ongoing insurgency that includes elements of Islamic State.
How close France and Germany might be to pulling out of Mali remains unclear but President Emmanuel Macron has signalled he wishes to draw down French forces in the country.
In June, Macron announced plans to scale down France's long-running counterterrorism Operation Barkhane in Mali and merge it with other international efforts. At the time, France had more than 5,000 troops operating in Mali and the wider region, its presence going back to colonial times, but Paris wants the burden shared with other European and African nations.
Paris and Berlin are now signalling that the arrival of the Wagner Group would be a step too far. It could also perhaps serve as an excuse to pull support from a region where they are keen to scale back their commitment even at the cost of losing influence to Moscow and Beijing.
INSTABILITY AND VIOLENCE
While China's outreach across Africa has seen it plough investment into countries across the continent, Russia's is more recent and targeted. The Wagner Group has taken advantage of instability and violence. Libya and the Central African Republic are the two most widely documented examples, but there have been reports of Russian military contractors being active at various points in Mozambique, Madagascar and Sudan.
The potential Wagner Group deal in Mali was reported first by Reuters on Sept. 13. Multiple diplomatic and security sources said a deal could be close, with four sources telling Reuters Wagner Group could be paid around 6 billion CFA francs ($10.8 million) a month for its services. Reuters was unable to reach the Wagner Group for comment.
To what extent the firm exists as a separate private entity remains unclear. Foreign Policy magazine said this year that no such entity as the Wagner Group legally exists, with the phrase instead used as shorthand for a network of contracting firms used by the Kremlin for fighting in Ukraine in 2014 and expanding to Syria the next year. Russian authorities deny Wagner Group contractors carry out their orders.
The group's ownership also remains opaque. Multiple media platforms including Reuters have linked businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman who has been indicted in the United States on accusations of interfering with the 2016 U.S. election and has been hit by EU sanctions after being accused of breaking a U.N. arms embargo on Libya. Prigozhin denies any connection to the Wagner Group and his press office says he has no involvement in Africa, and no business interests there.
Since a coup in August last year that was condemned by the United States and France, Mali has appeared to move closer to Russia and further from Paris and Washington.
After the coup, some foreign and Malian media pointed to possible Russian involvement, reporting that Mali’s new military leaders, Malick Diaw and Sadio Camara, had spent a year at a military college in Moscow. Camara, who is now defence minister, was back in Russia this month on an official visit, Reuters reported, quoting a Malian defence official.
Whether Russia might supplant France as the main player in Mali is unclear. France is keen to build international opposition to the use of the Wagner Group, but on other fronts both Paris and Berlin have long been keen to balance confrontation with Russia with economic and other cooperation. That has been evident with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will carry natural gas from Russia to Europe via the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine. Though opposed by the United States, the pipeline's construction has been supported by Macron, Chancellor Angela Merkel and both of her likely successors to the German leadership.
Whatever the outcome of events in Mali, Russia has again demonstrated how effective it can be in using unconventional tactics and forces to grab a seat at the table when it chooses.
*** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think-tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party.
(Editing by Timothy Heritage)
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