Less than a decade ago, former French president Francois Hollande received a triumphant welcome — and a fretful camel — during a visit to Mali, where cheering crowds hailed France’s advances against a fierce Islamist insurgency.
Today, the insurgency is entrenched, Mali is ruled by a military junta, and Paris is pulling its troops from the Sahel country amid soaring anti-French sentiment. As French forces retreat, another foreign player is gaining ground in Mali and elsewhere, analysts and reports say: Russia — backed by private military contractor, the Wagner Group.
As has been widely reported, the head of the Wagner Group is considered a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin — and the Ukraine security agency has described the group as Putin’s private army.
Escalating tensions between Russia and the West over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine are also casting a new focus on Africa — ramping up worries about Moscow’s expanding influence on the continent, particularly in former French colonies. Even if some analysts currently dismiss another Cold War scenario, dividing Africa into Western and Russian spheres of influence, many agree on its growing strategic importance.
As Russian forces batter Ukraine, there is pronounced alarm at the growing clout of Wagner, accused of rights violations in Africa and the Middle East. More recent reports suggest Wagner personnel were dispatched from Africa to Ukraine in a bid to assassinate President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“There’s obviously been a huge amount of concern” about Russia’s strategy in Africa, says Pauline Bax, Africa program deputy director for the International Crisis Group. While Russia’s influence in the resource-rich continent isn’t new, she says that “Wagner has been a sort of game changer.”
“The West has seen Russia’s strategy as very informal and opportunistic, with the deployment of mercenaries that operate off the books,” she adds. “And Wagner-tied companies getting their hands on mining concessions has caused a great deal of consternation, because Russia cannot be held responsible.”
In Bamako and Bangui: France out, Russia in
For France, Russia’s growing foothold in Mali comes amid its own deteriorating ties with Bamako’s military rulers and spiking anti-French sentiment that has spread to other parts of the Sahel.
In late January, Malian authorities expelled France’s ambassador, compounding tensions including over French demands for a swift democratic transition in Mali. Weeks later, Paris confirmed plans to pull its 2,400 Barkhane counterinsurgency troops from the country, along with a smaller European Union force.
Amid the acrimony, Wagner personnel arrived in Mali in late December, reports say. They launched a pro-Russia campaign on social media — part of their trademark strategy of online disinformation, some say — and their estimated 1,000-man presence in the country is intended to replace French troops.
French President Emmanuel Macron accused Wagner of “predatory aims,” saying the group was in Mali “to secure their own business interests and protect the junta.”
“There is a lot of opportunism,” agrees Bax, describing Russia’s broader presence in Africa, including via Wagner. “That’s what you see clearly in Mali, where there is mining, an insurgency and very strong anti-French sentiments. They’ve been testing the waters to see what they can do.”
France’s relations with Bamako dipped another notch last week, when Mali suspended French broadcasters RFI and France 24 over their reports of alleged civilian executions in central Mali by both Wagner and government troops. The U.N. is investigating the reports.
Wagner has denied it has a presence in Mali, where the junta says only Russia military trainers are on the ground.
Anti-French and pro-Russian sentiments are also high farther south, in Central African Republic (CAR), another former French colony once dependent on Paris’ military support. Today, that’s been partially replaced by Russian forces and Wagner, which reportedly arrived in 2018. Last year, France suspended military cooperation and aid to Bangui over its alleged failure to stop anti-French disinformation campaigns.
Relations have not improved since then. Last month, Central African officials briefly arrested four French peacekeeping troops over allegations on social media they were plotting to assassinate the country’s president. The move intersected with French and U.S. accusations that Wagner had killed dozens of civilians in the country.
Bamako and Bangui both deny hiring Wagner personnel, saying they are working only with Russian military “trainers,” in their fight against armed groups. Analysts say the two countries count among Wagner’s growing African foothold, with its presence reported in Libya, Sudan and Mozambique, among other countries.
“Wagner is a cheap war under the radar, where Russia liberates itself from all the rules,” French analyst Marc Lavergne told France’s TV5Monde television channel. “It’s a war not against enemies, but to implant itself in countries where Russia doesn’t have a means to deploy commercial networks.”
Still, analysts are uncertain about Russia’s overarching goals in Africa — if, indeed, it has any. Besides providing military support, Moscow counts among Africa’s top weapons suppliers. But it’s unclear, some say, whether it has a bigger game plan on the continent, as it did during the Cold War.
“I think they’re looking for opportunities, rather than operating on a coherent expansion strategy,” says Sahel specialist Andrew Lebovich, of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
If the Ukraine conflict and western sanctions grind on, he adds, Russia may recalibrate. “There is going to be a desire to up the pressure on Europe,” Lebovich says.
Russia’s growing international isolation is another consideration. CAR and Mali count among two dozen African countries who declined to condemn Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine during a U.N. vote earlier this month.
“Russia has lost many friends,” says Bax of the Crisis Group, making the cultivation of African allies increasingly important. “But I think Russia is too preoccupied with the Ukraine war to put much energy and resources into that.”
For their part, African countries like Mali are mindful that Russia does not deliver the sizable development aid they receive from Europe or the United States, analysts say. And it may not deliver military dividends either.
“There’s no guarantee that Wagner will succeed where Barkhane has failed,” Bax says of France’s counter-insurgency force in Mali. “The security situation has not gotten better.”