The presence of Russian paramilitaries in Mali is "absolutely irreconcilable" with that of French troops, according to France's foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who spoke out on September 15 in response to reports of a possible agreement between Mali and the Russian private security firm Wagner.
The establishment of new connections between Russia and Mali reminds the two nations' diplomatic solid contacts during the Soviet period.
On October 23, 2019, 43 African leaders of state convened in Sochi for a Russia-Africa Summit, which President Vladimir Putin intended to utilize as a chance to reaffirm Russia's position on the continent. Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the then-President of Mali, went on a charm offensive, telling Putin, "We need to see evidence of your friendship in a field that everyone knows you are the champion of the battle against terrorism." President Putin, you have said that you are competent in this field, and this knowledge is urgently required."
Mali has been fighting a separatist conflict since 2012. Despite France's anti-terrorist military campaign in the Sahel, Operation Barkhane, the security situation has worsened in recent years.
There are public protests now and again asking for French soldiers to withdraw, with some protestors advocating for Russian military involvement.
Seven diplomatic and security sources claimed an agreement is near that would enable Russian mercenaries into Mali, expanding Russian control over security issues in West Africa and provoking resistance from former colonial power France.
According to the sources, Paris has launched a diplomatic campaign to prevent the Mali military junta from implementing the agreement, which would allow Russian private military contractors, the Wagner Group, to operate in the former French territory.
At least 1,000 mercenaries may be engaged, according to a European source tracking West Africa and a security source in the area. Two other sources said the amount was smaller but didn't provide any numbers.
According to four sources, the Wagner Group would be paid approximately 6 billion CFA francs ($10.8 million) each month. According to a security source in the area, the mercenaries would train Malian soldiers and provide security for key leaders.
Reuters was unable to ascertain how many mercenaries could be involved, how much they would be paid, or the precise goal of any agreement involving Russian mercenaries for Mali's military junta.
The Wagner Group could not be reached for comment by Reuters. Russian billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has been connected to the Wagner Group by media sources such as Reuters, denies any ties to the company.
On the social networking site Vkontakte, his press office further claims that Prigozhin is unaffiliated with any private military firm has no economic interests in Africa, and is not engaged in any operations there.
His press office did not reply to a Reuters request for comment on this story right away.
According to diplomatic sources, France's diplomatic effort involves soliciting the assistance of allies, notably the US, to convince Mali's junta not to proceed with the agreement and send top officials to Moscow and Mali for discussions.
According to diplomatic sources, France is concerned that the arrival of Russian mercenaries will jeopardize its decade-old counter-terrorism operation in the Sahel region of West Africa against al Qaeda and Islamic State-linked insurgents at a time when it is attempting to reduce the size of its 5,000-strong Barkhane mission to reshape it with more European partners.
The French foreign ministry did not react, but a diplomatic source in France criticized the Wagner Group's actions in other nations.
"An intervention by this entity would therefore be irreconcilable with Mali's Sahelian and international allies participating in the Coalition for the Sahel's initiatives for regional security and development," the source added.
A spokesman for Mali's junta, which seized power in a military coup in August 2020, said he was unaware of any such agreement."This is only a rumor. Rumors are not addressed by officials "Baba Cisse, the spokeswoman, refused to speak more.
According to a spokesman for Mali's defense ministry, "Given the current security situation in Mali, public opinion favors more collaboration with Russia. However, no decision has been taken (on the nature of such collaboration)."
The Russian defense and foreign ministries and the Kremlin, and the French president did not reply to demands for comment.
According to four security and diplomatic officials, the mercenaries' presence would jeopardize Mali's financing from foreign partners and allied training missions that have helped rebuild Mali's army.
According to diplomatic sources, Russian mercenaries in Mali would bolster Russia's drive for global reputation and influence. They would be part of a more significant effort to upend long-standing power relations in Africa.
More than a dozen people with connections to the Wagner Group have previously told Reuters that the group has carried out covert combat operations in Ukraine, Libya, and Syria on behalf of the Kremlin. Wagner contractors are not carrying out instructions, according to Russian officials.
The military junta in Mali has said that it would supervise a democratic transition that will culminate in elections in February 2022.
Mali's military junta has expanded ties with Russia as relations with France have deteriorated, with Defence Minister Sadio Camara visiting Moscow and supervising tank drills on September 4.
According to a senior Malian defence ministry official, the visit was "in the context of collaboration and military support," but no more details were provided. According to Russia's defense ministry, deputy defense minister Alexander Fomin visited Camara at an international military conference and "discussed defense cooperation projects in detail, as well as regional security issues relating to West Africa." There was no additional information provided.
Christophe Bigot, the French foreign ministry's senior Africa diplomat, was sent to Moscow on September 8 for meetings with Mikhail Bogdanov, Putin's Middle East, and Africa point man. Russia's foreign ministry confirmed the visit.
The foreign ministry of France has refused to comment on the visit. Bigot could not be contacted for comment right away, and Bogdanov's request for comment to the Russian foreign ministry went unanswered by Reuters.
Written by: Olivium's Editor