Mercenaries in Mali: what does Russia want in Africa?

To analyse

Status: 17.09.2021 8:05 p.m.

The government of the crisis country Mali allegedly wants to hire Russian mercenaries. This poses great challenges for the West. What are Russia’s goals on the African continent?

By Norbert Hahn, ARD Studio Nairobi

Russia’s flags on the streets of Bamako, invective against France. Sidi Traoré from the “Pro-Russia” movement marches with: “We are here to demand the withdrawal of the French. And we want Russia to come to our aid.” Everyone around him is saying the same thing. The group of protesters in May was small, their popular support is clear but stable. For many Malians, the international community has promised security but not delivered – at least that’s how they see it.

Norbert Hahn
ARD-Studio Nairobi

There is great frustration, and the Malian government is understanding. After all, the military coup plotters also have to deliver. A military aid agreement between Russia and Mali had already been signed in June 2019 – before the overthrow against the elected president. Then, last summer, the hour seemed to come all the more for the new friends: some of the putschists had received military training in Russia. Since then, there has been speculation about what military aid could soon come from Russia.

Sales market for weapons

Russia is by no means the only country that has recognized Africa as a lucrative future market. While many other countries such as China are primarily concerned with Africa as a supplier of raw materials and a sales market for civilian products, Russia has little to offer in the latter. When it comes to security, it is different: the notorious AK-47 rifles come from Russia, combat helicopters, tanks – all reliable and competitively priced.

The first major goal of Moscow’s new Africa policy in 2018 was the Central African Republic (CAR). Russia made sure that the UN sanctions committee made an exception and let weapons for the government army in the war-torn country. The private Wagner fighters came with me, supposedly a few hundred. The Russians are still in the country today. Without their help, the old government, newly elected at the turn of the year, might no longer be in office.

Only recently an issue

At the end of 2019, the Russians were still an issue that the West handled smoothly. The then head of the European training mission, the French Brigadier General Eric Peltier, said: “The Russians offer something additional, they limit themselves to combat and shooting training. That is a supplement and therefore you do not have to coordinate with the other international actors. ” There is room for everyone.

This is how ZAR Defense Minister Marie-Noelle Koyara saw it and hoped that “Germany and its partners would help build the army”.

Moscow is silent – and is expanding its influence

The friendly times are over. France in particular is reacting more and more irritably. Paris accused Moscow several times in the past few weeks of damaging France’s reputation in Africa in order to expand its own influence. Moscow rejected this in monosyllables and continued as before. In the embattled north of Mozambique, Wagner mercenaries were occasionally sighted by the government, and around 1,000 fighters are said to have been active in Libya between 2019 and 2020.

Russian warships in Sudan

In February of this year, the first Russian warship docked in the port of Port Sudan. Last year, President Vladimir Putin is said to have approved the expansion of a port in Sudan, in which nuclear-powered ships can also enter and which should offer space for 300 seafarers and employees.

There is also an upward trend in trading goods: according to the peace research institute SIPRI in Stockholm, Russia is now responsible for almost half of all arms imports on the continent – ahead of France, the USA and China. It’s about billions, repayments are made in raw materials, preferably gold and precious metal. Mali could even be about uranium, which is also used to power French nuclear power plants. In addition to the Russian treasury, this could also benefit the alleged Wagner entrepreneur Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Private mercenaries have advantages

One thing is the state’s arms sales, another is the use of private mercenaries. The advantage of private armies: If something goes wrong, the country from which the fighters come can more easily steal from responsibility – you simply don’t know anything. In the case of the Wagner troupe, this has so far been practical, because Moscow naturally did not feel responsible for a number of alleged human rights violations.

According to research by the Internet journalists from “Intercept”, the founder of the notorious US mercenary company Blackwater and then Trump advisor, Erik Prince, tried to offer Wagner his services, according to “Intercept”. Wagner is said to have rejected the offer. In the US alone tens of thousands of companies work in the security sector – a billion dollar business.

Russian foreign policy priority

Russia not only wants to earn money from the arms and mercenary business, but also wants to regain influence from the days of the old Soviet Union. Putin had already made it clear at the Russia-Africa summit in 2019 that “strengthening ties with African countries” was one of the priorities of Russian foreign policy.

Sidi Traoré from the pro-Russia movement thinks this is a good idea. He sees the French as exploiters of the country’s resources and Russia as saviors. At least Traoré and his colleagues hope that this would change if Russia and Mali marched “hand in hand” into a new future.


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