Follow us on social

Wagner, Mali, and prospects for peace in Africa

Wagner, Mali, and prospects for peace in Africa

Why the path to stability in Bamako may have to run through Moscow

Analysis | Africa

Since the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin on August 23, much ink has been spilled on the future of his private military company (PMC), Wagner Group, and its affiliated companies. Most attention remains on Ukraine, where the PMC has not been formally active since Prigozhin declared victory in Bakhmut on May 20. Meanwhile, Wagner continues to conduct military operations in both Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR).

On November 14, the Malian Armed Forces (FAMA), backed by Wagner, took the separatist stronghold of Kidal. Despite entering a town nearly abandoned, the capture was undeniably a symbolic victory for Mali’s Interim President, Colonel Assimi Goïta, and his military regime.

There is a significant risk that FAMA’s March on Kidal will further exacerbate humanitarian crises in the region, all at a time when the international community is stepping back from the Sahel. This is a mistake. The Sahel has become the epicenter of the West’s, including the United States’, two great threat narratives: jihadist terrorism and the expansion of Russian influence. Their accompanying containment narratives almost ensure counterproductive, knee-jerk reactions to future events on the ground.

To avoid these pitfalls, the international community must focus today on creative solutions that account for Russia’s presence in Africa.


The past five years have seen a popular backlash against peacekeeping and humanitarian-military operations in central Africa and the Sahel. While politicized, the criticism has not been without merit. Peacekeeping missions have undoubtedly improved the lives of many. They have also often empowered the most violent and produced more, not less, armed groups. Yet it was Wagner Group’s interventions in Sudan and CAR that turbocharged the criticism.

The structure of Wagner’s 2017 intervention in Sudan initially followed standard practices for Africa’s private security sector: training and security provision in exchange for mineral concessions. (A notable exception was the political consulting and media operations Prigozhin’s team also offered.) In Sudan, the structure stayed consistent. In CAR, events on the ground shaped the nature of Wagner’s intervention. In 2018, Prigozhin’s men became diplomats.

Wagner’s diplomacy in CAR

In February 2019, the CAR government and 14 major armed groups signed the Khartoum Agreement — a peace deal hailed by the United Nations. A considerable contribution to this process belonged to Prigozhin’s working group, although experts from various Russian government entities also participated.

For Prigozhin, the prospect of peace would translate into increased access to mining concessions. It would also deliver a win to Moscow and increase the chances for Kremlin subsidies to fund his Africa gambit. For armed group leaders, the Agreement was a chance to obtain lucrative ministerial positions, while President Faustin-Archange Touadéra could shore up his vulnerable position vis-à-vis the armed groups.

The significance of the Agreement was immense, but unfortunately most walked away with the wrong conclusions. The international community felt it could finally distance itself from CAR’s seemingly endless problems. The CAR government and Prigozhin, victims of their own success, felt they could abandon notions of an inclusive government. All seemed unable to account for the return of the largest potential spoiler of the peace, former president François Bozizé, and his decision to run in the 2020 presidential elections.

Despite rising tension between Touadéra and Bozizé, the CAR government, Wagner, and the international community pushed elections at all costs, even as a new coalition of armed groups — nominally led by Bozizé and including six of the fourteen Khartoum Agreement signatories — advanced on Bangui, the capital.

As a result of the rebellion, Wagner’s mandate changed from that of a training mission to a military operation. The resulting counteroffensive brought nearly all major towns under government control.

The partial victory — armed groups are down but not out — led to overconfidence within Wagner’s ranks: Military solutions were possible. The PMC came to view the Khartoum Agreement through a cynical lens as insiders reframed it as a clever way to weaken and divide the armed opposition, rather than the genuine effort at conflict resolution it was at the time.

Wagner began to fashion itself as Russia’s “security solution,” Moscow’s most successful export to Africa. Back then, Prigozhin had the ear of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Taking advantage of Moscow’s light footprint on the continent, Wagner’s boss could define what Moscow’s interests in Africa were.

Wagner’s military solution in the Sahel

By 2020, all actors recognized the value of the “Wagner threat” to Africa; not least African governments which leveraged narratives of “cooperating with” or “countering” Wagner to extract concessions or support from both Russia and the West.

Cold War containment narratives became a self-fulfilling prophecy in 2021 when, after a second coup, tensions between Colonel Goïta and France resulted in French military withdrawal from Mali and Wagner’s arrival. Goïta’s grievances with Paris were first political: He wanted France to recognize his government. Second, anti-French rhetoric helped build political legitimacy for the military regime.

The rhetoric tapped into genuine grievances with France’s Operation Barkhane, especially among Mali’s military class. At the top of the list was France’s quiet cooperation with Tuareg separatists to oust the jihadists in northern Mali. Bamako saw that cooperation as a violation of sovereignty. Intervenors and those intervened upon could not agree on who the terrorists were.

Wagner’s arrival in Mali further revealed the conflict’s separate realities. Western analysts focused on human rights abuses and the territorial expansion of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara (ISIS-GS) to prove Wagner’s intervention a failure.

Goïta’s circle was far less focused than western analysts on controlling territory outside the capital. The potential for another coup in Bamako was more important, and the government relied on internet influencers and political entrepreneurs to shore up its popularity. In turn, it became a prisoner of its own jingoistic claims to return Kidal to the fold.

The resulting Wagner-backed operation has enjoyed more success than predicted. The Malian army has demonstrated increased combat capability and coordination between branches of the armed forces. Wagner’s operations in Mali also reflect a new level of cooperation with the Russian Ministry of Defense. Russian officers are involved in planning military operations and acting as advisors. Wagner mercenaries participate in ground operations, but, unlike in CAR, they are always embedded within FAMA.

A return to diplomacy

FAMA does not have the ability or capacity to fight both separatists and jihadists. Indeed, FAMA and Wagner are on the path to an unwinnable counterinsurgency in the north. Interaction between Tuareg separatists and JNIM suggest the jihadi group is not quite neutral in the conflict, and its role could grow.

Despite the current success of Wagner’s military solution, it is evident that only peace talks, a process of reconciliation, and the equitable distribution of power and resources between Bamako and the provinces can end the conflict.

The victory in Kidal puts the government in Bamako in a stronger position to negotiate with separatists. But given the prospect of an unwinnable war in the north, the continued threat of jihadist groups, and a host of economic woes, the window for “cashing in” on victory will be short.

Of course, the Malian government has demonstrated little interest in serious negotiation to date. Few outside powers have leverage over its decision-making.

Russia, and the Wagner Group in Mali, have more influence than most. For Russian diplomats, efforts to bring peace to Mali would reinforce Moscow’s growing prominence in the Sahel. Wagner Group, too, has consistently engaged in diplomacy when it sees greater potential for profit in peace than open warfare.

The international community has leveraged the presence of Wagner Group in Mali as a pretext to step away from the conflict. Yet the crisis in Mali, and the Sahel more generally, cannot be ignored. Efforts should be made to create at least conditions for a negotiating process.

The West’s exceptional concentration on the war in Ukraine and its support for Israeli operations in Gaza have damaged its credibility in the Global South. Competing with or trying to contain Russia (or China, for that matter) in Africa only does further damage to that credibility. Limited, compartmentalized work with all partners in the Sahel will show that the U.S. can view issues in the Global South outside these prisms.

Russia is here to stay in Africa. Mali, and the Sahel more generally, should be an opportunity to engage in geopolitical deconfliction rather than competition.

A French armored vehicle is unloaded from a British C-17 in Bamako, Mali, in 2013. (Defence Imagery/ CC BY 2.0)

Analysis | Africa
New Israeli military outposts risk even bigger crisis in Gaza

An Israeli soldier operates a gun on a military vehicle, near the Israel-Gaza border, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Israel, April 15, 2024. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

New Israeli military outposts risk even bigger crisis in Gaza

Middle East

Israel is ramping up its development of a strategic route that bisects the Gaza Strip, according to new satellite imagery, which shows that Israeli forces have been modernizing two military outposts at the crossroads of key pathways Palestinians used to flee south in the earlier stages of the war.

This road, part of the so-called “Netzarim Corridor,” runs east to west from the Gaza-Israel border to the Mediterranean Sea, just south of Gaza City. The Israeli army’s Engineering Corps has been developing it since shortly after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks.

keep readingShow less
The shortsighted US-Japan-South Korea military pact

US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol pose for a photo following a trilateral summit meeting at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, August 19, 2023. (dpa via Reuters Connect)

The shortsighted US-Japan-South Korea military pact


Driven by their common perception that North Korea and China posed growing threats to their nations’ security, U.S. President Joe Biden, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida agreed at last August’s summit at Camp David to elevate trilateral military ties to an unprecedented level.

They have been demonstrating this commitment everyday since, some say to the detriment of stabilizing relations with Pyongyang and Beijing.

keep readingShow less
Staging ground for US military aid pier in Gaza attacked

Palestinians on Gaza coast amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Deir Al-Balah, in the central Gaza Strip, on April 24, 2024. (Photo by Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto)NO USE FRANCE

Staging ground for US military aid pier in Gaza attacked


The Gazan beach staging area for the future American "surge" of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians there has already been attacked, according to official reports.

According to U.S. and Israeli sources, United Nations reps who were on the beach prepping the area for the new pier came under limited mortar fire early Thursday. No one was hurt, and there was minimal damage to some engineering equipment. Early reporting from i24 News speculated that Palestinians were targeting Israeli Defense Forces in the area, but that has not been confirmed. The Pentagon did not return a request for comment from RS.

keep readingShow less

Israel-Gaza Crisis