Russian private military companies (PMCs) are on the march. In 2012, Russian PMCs were present in only two countries. Today, that number has risen to twenty-seven. Russia’s most infamous “corporate soldiers,” the Wagner Group, are now seeking to enter a new market, Mali, at a time when the country’s fragile democracy is backsliding and counterterrorism challenges are worsening. Wagner’s potential deployment to Mali stands to further erode democracy by entrenching an illiberal government and exacerbating longstanding counterterrorism challenges in the Sahel.
The potential deployment of the Wagner Group to Mali echoes other PMC efforts in Africa. Since 2018, Russian PMCs have been active in the Central African Republic, seizing control of mineral resources while committing brutal human rights abuses. PMCs have similarly deployed to countries like Sudan, Libya, and Mozambique, providing further evidence of a Russian irregular effort on the continent with PMCs at its forefront.
The Wagner Group is less a single entity than a network of businesses and mercenary groups, linked through their connections to associates of President Vladimir Putin, most notably Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. While ostensibly a private security contractor, Wagner has been characterized as a “creature of the Russian state” with close ties to its military intelligence services and a directive to pursue the economic interests of Russian elites. The Wagner Group has undertaken a variety of security tasks, including training local forces and VIP protection, which now form the basis of a potential contract in Mali.
Not What a Troubled State Needs
Mali is navigating overlapping political and security crises, making the prospect of a Wagner deployment particularly fraught. As Islamist militants expand their influence, Mali has experienced two coups d’état since August 2020 and is currently governed by a military junta. Against this backdrop, the prospect of Wagner’s deployment has both alarmed France and complicated the relationship between Mali and its primary security partner.
On September 13, Reuters reported that an agreement between Mali and the Wagner Group was imminent. The deal would reportedly see one thousand mercenaries deploy to the country to train Malian security forces and protect senior political leaders for a monthly price tag of $10.8 million. Wagner would also gain access to three mining deposits as further compensation for its services. The news followed renewed bilateral engagement between Mali and Russia, including a recent visit by the Malian defense minister to Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov subsequently confirmed that the Malian government had approached Russian PMCs but maintained that Moscow was not involved in these talks.
The prospect of an agreement between the Malian government and Wagner set off a flurry of diplomatic activity from France, which has been spearheading counterterrorism efforts in Mali since 2013. France’s chief Africa diplomat, Christophe Bigot, traveled to Moscow on September 8 for meetings with the Russian foreign ministry. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called a potential Wagner presence in Mali “incompatible” with France’s military footprint in the country. French Defense Minister Florence Parly subsequently traveled to Mali to emphasize “the heavy consequences” of an agreement with the Wagner Group. Malian domestic actors reacted similarly. The Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), a coalition of Tuareg and Arab nationalist groups active in Mali’s north, released a statement opposing Wagner and noting its history of human rights violations.
The broader Wagner apparatus has undertaken public relations efforts designed, at least in part, to support its deployment to Mali. The Foundation for National Values Protection (FZNC), an entity sanctioned by the US Treasury Department for disseminating disinformation, released a public opinion poll in September purporting to show 87 percent support among Malians for the government’s outreach to Wagner. The FZNC is headed by Maxim Shugaley, who works “under the direct supervision” of Prigozhin, and previously conducted similar polls in the Central African Republic (CAR). Alexandre Ivanov, a Prigozhin associate who has advocated on behalf of PMC personnel in CAR, recently gave an interview to Malian media promoting the potential benefits of a PMC deployment to Mali.
Convergent political and security crises in Mali make the prospect of a Wagner contract particularly concerning. Mali is governed by a military junta, led by Colonel Assimi Goïta, that has launched two coups d’état since August 2020. While the junta has nominally agreed to transfer power to a civilian government following elections in February 2022, there are increasing signs that the military government will disregard this deadline and retain power well into next year. France, meanwhile, maintains a counterterrorism mission in Mali, Operation Barkhane, which aims to defeat Islamist insurgent groups like Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). While France has announced an ostensible end to Barkhane, the French military will likely remain engaged, albeit with a smaller footprint, over the short term. Other multilateral efforts are also underway to counter the insurgent threat in Mali. A United Nations peacekeeping mission has had a broad civilian protection mandate since 2013, and a European Union training mission currently provides assistance to the Malian security sector.
Russia’s PMC activities potentially afford Mali’s junta some degree of leverage with respect to its traditional security partners. Ultimately, a deal between the Malian government and the Wagner Group may not come to pass. The prospect of such a deal, however, has allowed the junta to apply pressure to the international community and attempt to weather criticism that the junta is planning to cling to power. During the 2021 UN General Assembly, Malian Prime Minister Choguel Maiga lambasted France’s alleged abandonment of Mali and argued that it justified Mali’s discussions with actors like Wagner. France and the United States now face a new risk calculus thanks to the emergence of Russian security patronage: Criticism of the junta may push it to ally with other illiberal partners, limiting the international community’s ability to facilitate a democratic transition or protect Malian civilians. At a time when the United States and France appear poised to deepen counterterrorism cooperation in the Sahel, Wagner’s deployment could derail these efforts.
Russia’s Irregular Strategy in Africa
Wagner’s reported missions in Mali—training for the Malian military and protection for government officials—may appear benign. But the effects of a Wagner Group deployment in Mali will likely be similar to those seen in other African states: exacerbated conflict and entrenched illiberal governance as a way to facilitate Russian political and economic interests in the country.
Russia and the Wagner Group are also active in CAR, a country mired in civil conflict. In CAR, Wagner nominally trains the Central African military and provides protection to senior government officials like President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Yet the Wagner Group has also facilitated the diplomatic and economic activities of companies and individuals linked to Putin’s associate, Prigozhin. One of these entities, Lobaye Invest, secured mining concessions as a result of the agreement that brought PMCs to CAR, and continues to operate gold and diamond mines with the assistance of PMC personnel. A Russian national with ties to military intelligence services, Valery Zakharov, currently serves as a national security advisor to Touadéra and also has financial links to Prigozhin-controlled companies.
More concerning, however, is the extent of PMC combat activities against rebel groups in CAR, often with disastrous humanitarian results. The United Nations has documented PMC participation in “indiscriminate killings,” looting, and forced disappearances. Russian PMCs also operate clandestine prisons that detain civilians before forcing families to pay ransoms to release detainees. The intermingling of PMC personnel with UN peacekeepers in CAR, meanwhile, threatens to undermine the credibility of multilateral interventions to stem the country’s conflict. Russian PMCs have scored tactical victories against the country’s rebels but have further entrenched the brutal character of CAR’s conflict by committing human rights violations and generating revenue in the process. An entrance into Mali by Wagner would likely yield similar effects.
In other African theaters, PMCs have provided Russian actors with leverage to make economic and diplomatic inroads, but their combat record is mixed and has perpetuated conflict. In Mozambique, where Wagner mercenaries deployed to Cabo Delgado to fight an Islamist insurgency in 2019, PMC operatives failed to make gains against the insurgents and displayed poor interoperability with local security forces. Mozambique subsequently replaced Wagner with other PMCs, like South Africa’s Dyck Advisory Group. In Libya, Wagner forces were unable to propel Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s forces to victory in the country’s civil war, leaving Russia to salvage diplomatic relations with Libya’s internationally recognized government. Should PMCs conduct combat missions in Mali, their performance risks being similarly poor.
France has been engaged militarily in Mali since 2013, and while its counterterrorism efforts have notched numerous tactical successes, violence has continued to metastasize. Instability in the Sahel is a political problem, and not one that PMCs have the capacity to address. Moreover, a certain level of instability is desirable for Wagner, permitting it to justify its involvement in a country while obfuscating its malign activities. In short, Wagner simply may not be interested in solving insecurity, even if it could. Rather than stabilize the Malian government, Wagner is more likely to “coup-proof” it while insulating it from international scrutiny in exchange for influence and access to natural resources.
Russia’s overtures to Mali stand to undermine the political and security priorities of the United States and its partners, including their counterterrorism and pro-democracy efforts. Increased Russian influence in Mali will reduce the United States’ and France’s ability to pressure the military government to democratize—a key element of a counterterrorism strategy in the Sahel. Unstable and authoritarian politics could also accelerate the expansion of jihadist groups like JNIM and ISGS to the West African littoral states, a process that is already well underway. Moreover, Wagner combat activity in Mali would almost certainly exacerbate the conflict’s extrajudicial brutality, as PMC actions in CAR demonstrate. More drastic consequences, such as a full withdrawal of French forces from the country in response to a Wagner deployment, could increase violence as armed actors compete in a newly created security vacuum.
The United States needs to respond. It should begin by raising awareness of PMCs among the Malian public, highlighting in particular their ineffectiveness and human rights violations. It’s not clear that a large, genuine pro-Wagner constituency exists in Mali, and members of the military have reportedly attempted to manufacture the appearance of pro-Russia sentiment. This offers partner governments the opportunity to proactively publicize the malign activities of Russian PMCs. United States Africa Command has undertaken similar name-and-shame efforts in response to the Wagner Group’s activities in Libya—a blueprint that could be deployed to head off Wagner’s overtures elsewhere. An effort to publicize Wagner’s abuses could raise the domestic costs of this partnership for the Malian junta and call into question the benefits of working with the group.
More broadly, the United States should develop a comprehensive strategy to disincentivize African countries from entertaining partnerships with PMCs like the Wagner Group. Russia’s efforts in this space have been likened to “throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks”—a series of experimental and adaptive ventures. Yet the United States cannot be effective if it is simply playing an ad hoc game of defense in response to new Russian forays. Strengthening civil society can create strong safeguards against official corruption, reducing the revenue-generating capabilities of Russian PMCs. The United States should seek to vigorously support efforts, like transparency in the extractive industries sector and robust civil society watchdogs, that can help frustrate attempts by PMC-linked companies to surreptitiously win resource concessions.
The Wagner Group’s influence is growing in Africa; it’s now up to the United States to respond.
Jared Thompson (@JaredA_Thompson) is a research associate with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.