Is it possible that there are French soldiers and Russian mercenaries in the same country? For Paris the answer is a sharp “no”. The question is far from hypothetical. An exclusive from the Reuters agency has caused a sensation: the Malian government is on the verge of signing a contract with the Russian company Wagner, a private security company linked to the Kremlin.
On the French front they guarantee that the contract will not be made, and mysteriously add that the government will do everything necessary to prevent the signing. On the Malian front, however, silence reigns. Finally, as regards Wagner, there is nothing to report, also because in Russia Wagner does not officially exist.
Yet this mercenary army is real, and is headed by Evgenij Prigožin, a figure close to Vladimir Putin. Its fighters, initially only Russian but now from different countries, are paid to intervene (and sometimes die) on the fronts where Russia has interests, from the Ukrainian Donbass to Syria, from eastern Libya to Sudan and Mozambique. Since 2017, Wagner has also been involved in the Central African Republic, a showcase as well as a source of revenue thanks to mining contracts.
For years we have witnessed the return of Russia on the international scene, a return wanted by Putin and carried out through the main instrument at his disposal: the soldiers. The use of Wagner allows Moscow to keep what is called in jargon plausible deniability, the “plausible denial”, which no one believes but which serves to save face.
In Mali we are faced with a complicated equation, between the war against jihadism, repeated military coups and delicate relations with France, a former colonial power and therefore with a vulnerable image. Russia is trying to wedge itself into this part of Africa by waging a media war against the French presence and taking advantage of the instability of the situation.
The current Malian government, the result of a double military coup, would like to negotiate an agreement similar to the one signed in the Central African Republic, at a cost of about ten million dollars a month. The Malian authorities intend to show in this way their independence from a French presence deemed too cumbersome.
When Wagner was invited to the Central African Republic, France suspended its military collaboration with the country. But in Mali, where jihadists are being fought and given the presence of over five thousand French soldiers in the Sahel, the same turnaround cannot be made.
The Wagner affair comes at a delicate moment because France is preparing to change its military commitment in Mali, without however withdrawing from the country entirely. The US failure in Afghanistan has cast doubts on all Western military operations. Doubts that Paris is trying to dispel especially with the European partners invited to participate in operations in the Sahel.
France, with its colonial baggage and the use in the past of mercenaries like Bob Denard to do the dirty work of the “Françafrique”, is not always perceived as it would like, especially when military results betray expectations. But there is no shortage of arguments in Paris to dissuade Bamako from resorting to Russian mercenaries, whose arrival could plunge the country into even more uncontrollable chaos.
(Translation by Andrea Sparacino)