By Peter Apps
LONDON, September 17 (Reuters) – The Wagner group of private military contractors operates in the shadows, its existence, operations and ownership subject to rumor, misinformation and denial. But he may be on the verge of achieving something militants and rebels alike have been unable to for decades – hasten the end of a French military intervention in Mali once seen as interminable.
Reports this week suggested that Mali’s caretaker government – which seized power in a coup last year – was on the verge of signing a contract with the Russian company to fight Islamist militants. The news prompted a reprimand from Paris, which announced the arrival of Wagner Group would be “incompatible” with French support for decades to the Malian government.
The French position was taken up by German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who said on Twitter that hiring the cabinet would call into question everything the United Nations and the European Union were doing in Mali. Germany is a major contributor to a European Union training mission, while the UN force also includes British, Chinese and multinational troops.
A spokesperson for the head of the Malian junta said he had no information about such a deal. Malian officials told reporters the government was in contact with “everyone” to fight an ongoing insurgency that includes elements of the Islamic State.
It is not yet clear to what extent France and Germany could withdraw from Mali, but President Emmanuel Macron has indicated that he wants to withdraw French forces in the country.
In June, Macron announced his intention to scale down the long-running French counterterrorism operation Barkhane in Mali and merge it with other international efforts. At the time, France had over 5,000 troops operating in Mali and the wider region, its presence dating back to colonial times, but Paris wants to share the burden with other European and African nations.
Paris and Berlin are now signaling that the arrival of the Wagner group would be a step too far. It could also perhaps be used as an excuse to withdraw support from a region where they wish to reduce their engagement, even at the cost of losing influence to Moscow and Beijing.
INSTABILITY AND VIOLENCE
While China’s reach across Africa has led it to invest in countries on the continent, Russia’s is more recent and focused. The Wagner group profited from the instability and violence. Libya and the Central African Republic are the two most documented examples, but there have been reports of Russian military contractors active at various points in Mozambique, Madagascar and Sudan.
The potential Wagner group deal in Mali was first reported by Reuters on September 13. Several diplomatic and security sources said a deal could be reached, with four sources telling Reuters that the Wagner Group could be paid around 6 billion CFA francs ($ 10.8 million) per month. for its services. Reuters could not reach the Wagner Group for comment.
To what extent the company exists as a separate private entity remains unclear. Foreign Policy magazine said this year that no entity like the Wagner Group legally exists, the term instead being used as a shorthand for a network of outsourcing companies used by the Kremlin to fight in Ukraine in 2014 and expand to Syria the following year. The Russian authorities refuse to allow the subcontractors of the Wagner group to fulfill their orders.
The group’s shareholder structure also remains opaque. Several media platforms, including Reuters, have linked businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman who was charged in the United States with interfering with the 2016 U.S. election and was hit with sanctions from the ‘EU after being accused of violating a UN arms embargo against Libya. Prigozhin denies any connection with the Wagner group and his press office claims he has no involvement in Africa, and no commercial interest there.
Since a coup in August last year that was condemned by the United States and France, Mali appears to be moving closer to Russia and away from Paris and Washington.
After the coup, some foreign and Malian media spoke of possible Russian involvement, reporting that Mali’s new military leaders, Malick Diaw and Sadio Camara, had spent a year at a military college in Moscow. Camara, who is now defense minister, was back in Russia this month for an official visit, Reuters reported, citing a Malian defense official.
It is not known whether Russia could supplant France as the main player in Mali. France is keen to build international opposition to the use of the Wagner group, but on other fronts Paris and Berlin have long been keen to balance the confrontation with Russia with economic and other cooperation. This has been evident with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline which will transport natural gas from Russia to Europe via the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine. Although opposed by the United States, the construction of the pipeline was supported by Macron, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her two likely successors in the German leadership.
Whatever the outcome of events in Mali, Russia has once again demonstrated how effective it can be by using unconventional tactics and forces to sit at the table when it wishes.
*** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the 21st Century Study Project; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan and non-ideological think tank. Paralyzed by a car accident in a war zone in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016 he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labor Party.
(Edited by Timothy Heritage)
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