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Is Mali flirting with Russian mercenaries to get Washington’s attention?

It’s easy for smaller countries to exploit American fears in the ‘great power competition’ context.

The transitional government of Mali has been negotiating with the Wagner Group, a private military contractor closely tied to the Russian state. The news appeared to confirm some of Washington’s worst fears about creeping Russian influence in Africa, and it elicited a spate of alarmist commentary. If one reads the move as a bluff on Malian authorities’ part, however, the lesson changes, and becomes one of how weak states can use the fears of “great powers” to gain leverage over them, thereby entrenching bad policy frameworks.

Mali is in grim shape. In 2012, a rebellion in the northern part of the country helped set off a chain reaction that continues to this day. The latest round of turmoil involved two coups: one in August 2020, and one in May 2021, both by the same set of military officers. The first coup was sparked by Mali’s deep problems, including widespread insecurity, intercommunal tensions, a de facto partition of the country, a broken education sector, grinding poverty, and a stale class of politicians who appear to be out of ideas. The second coup, though, showed that the military officers are most interested in their own power.

These officers and their civilian allies have learned that the international community is fairly easy to manipulate, especially given that France, the United States, and others have made counterterrorism the top priority in Mali — leaving everything else, including democracy, a distant second. After the August 2020 coup, regional and Western actors allowed these officers to keep a significant chunk of their power provided they would appoint a civilian as the country’s transitional president. But after the 2021 coup, Colonel Assimi Goïta became president, still in uniform; key external powers grumbled, then dropped the issue.

The news of the Wagner deal, or near-deal, comes in a context where France and others are frustrated with Mali. As of September, France’s Sahelian counterterrorism mission, Operation Barkhane, has killed some of the top leaders affiliated with al-Qaida and the Islamic State in the region. Yet the insecurity overall is much worse than when Barkhane began in 2014. The coups in Mali also demonstrate that there is no political progress to accompany France’s fleeting counterterrorism victories. In June, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that there would be a “deep transformation” of Barkhane.

Playing the Wagner card thus may have been a shrewd move on the Malian authorities’ part, a move whose audience is not Moscow or the Malian people but rather France and to a lesser extent Washington, Brussels, Berlin, and other stakeholders. Mali’s transitional government cannot promise France that there will be smooth elections (indeed, the transition will likely be extended past its original February 2022 expiration date). The transitional government cannot credibly promise an end to corruption, human rights abuses, political score-settling, or even military influence over civilian rulers. But the transitional authorities can threaten to empower France’s (and the U.S.’s) perceived enemy: Russia.

Viewed in this light, the negative reactions to the Wagner Group deal that have poured in from Paris, Washington, Berlin, London, Niamey, N’Djamena, and elsewhere are not signs that Malian authorities blundered — rather, these are signs that Mali got everyone’s attention. What concessions may now be made because of Mali’s threat to engage the Wagner Group?

France’s planned withdrawal from the Sahel was already less stark than many news outlets suggested, involving less a drawdown than a rebalancing of forces (including to the quietly growing, pan-European, French-backed Takuba Task Force, which may pick up some of Barkhane’s slack). In exchange for not hiring Wagner, Mali’s rulers may be able to get a two-for-one deal — international acceptance, however grudging, of extending the transition; and a recommitment to the bad marriage between Bamako and Paris.

Mali might have extracted these concessions without resorting to talk of the Wagner Group — but even if it wasn’t a bluff, the Malian authorities have now learned that it is easy to make France (and others) react once Russia is brought into the conversation. Mali’s transitional prime minister, commenting on the possibility of Wagner coming to Mali, was clear that he was threatening to replace departing French troops with Russian mercenaries: “If partners have decided to leave certain areas…Should we not have a plan B?”

There are real ties between Mali and Russia, dating to the Soviet era. Mali signed defense cooperation agreements with Russia in 1994 and 2019, and has been receiving deliveries of Russian attack helicopters since 2017, including four that arrived on September 30. On the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York in late September, the Russian and Malian foreign ministers had a cordial meeting.

The Wagner Group has a significant presence in Libya and the Central African Republic, where its personnel have been implicated in serious abuses, and has deployed to Sudan, Mozambique, and elsewhere. Yet Wagner’s battlefield successes are limited. And as regional expert John Lechner writes, “The overwhelming use of private military contractors in Africa shows that the Russian government is interested in Africa so long as its involvement is cheap and if private individuals take the initiative.”

Wagner’s entry into Mali would be bad news for Malians, and would escalate tensions between Bamako and Kidal, the northern region that was the birthplace of numerous rebellions, including the 2012 uprising. Kidal’s rulers, the ex-rebel bloc called the Coordination of Azawad Movements, have already expressed their unhappiness with the Wagner proposal. Malian authorities would have more to lose than to gain by bringing Wagner in — hence the possibility that Bamako is bluffing.

Whether it is a calculated threat or an imminent deal, part of what gives Mali’s Wagner Group negotiations such power over Western governments is the mantra of “great power competition” in Washington and beyond. Russia is a second-rate power, with a gross domestic product for 2020 ($1.5 trillion) than was considerably less than that of France ($2.6 trillion), to say nothing of the U.S. economy. Despite all the talk of misinformation on Russia’s part, Western capitals have deluded themselves about Russia’s strength, including in Africa — and that perception blinds Paris, Washington, and others to the harms of the status quo. Mali’s trajectory under current policies, local and Western, is a bigger problem than Russian influence, real or imagined.

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