Add U.S. military officials to the crescendo of voices warning Mali's interim government against brokering any deal to use mercenaries from Russia's Wagner Group to help with security and counterterrorism.
For weeks, U.S. and French officials have publicly tried to dissuade Malian leaders from moving forward with a reported deal that would pay Wagner $10.8 million a month for 1,000 mercenaries to train Mali's military and provide security for senior officials.
Now, the Pentagon says such a deal could cost Mali in multiple ways.
"Given the Wagner Group's record, if these reports are true, any role for Russian mercenaries in Mali will likely exacerbate an already fragile and unstable situation," U.S. Defense Department spokesperson Cindi King told VOA.
King also warned a deal between Mali and the Wagner Group "would complicate the international response in support of the transition government."
The U.S. had been providing training and other support to Mali as it tries to confront the threat from various terrorist groups, including the Islamic State affiliate IS-Greater Sahara and the al-Qaida-affiliated Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, also known as JNIM.
But that support was suspended following the August 2020 coup that saw elements of the Malian military depose the country's elected leaders.
More recently, France announced this past June that it would bring home some 2,000 counterterrorism forces it had stationed in Mali and neighboring countries.
Mali's interim government has so far denied a deal with Russia's Wagner Group is in the offing, but the country's prime minister told VOA last week that the actions of the U.S., France and others have left the interim government with few choices.
"The security situation keeps deteriorating by the day," Choguel Maiga told VOA in an interview on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
"We have to find new partners who can help," he said. "We can seek partnership either with Russia or with any other country."
Some Western officials with knowledge of the potential deal between Mali and the Wagner Group have called the potential deployment of the Russian mercenaries "a real concern."
The officials point to what they describe as a destabilizing impact of about 2,000 Wagner mercenaries in the Central African Republic, where allegations of human rights abuses and exploitation have been rampant.
Russia has denied any abuses by contractors there and has welcomed talk of the potential deal between Mali's interim government and Wagner.
"They are combating terrorism," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during a news conference at the U.N. last week. "And they have turned to a private military company from Russia in connection with the fact that, as I understand, France wants to significantly draw down its military component."
"We don't have anything to do with that," Lavrov said, adding, "at the government level, we are also contributing to providing for military and defense capacities of Mali."
Many Western governments, though, insist that there is little practical difference between the Kremlin and the exploits of the Wagner Group, run by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Prigozhin, sometimes called "Putin's cook" because of his catering company's work for Russian President Vladimir Putin, is thought to have extensive ties to Russia's political and military establishments, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
The U.S. State Department sanctioned Prigozhin and Wagner back in July 2020, as well as several front companies for the group's operations in Sudan.