A few hours after the news released by Reuters that the Malian government is close to an agreement to secure the services of the private Russian mercenary company “Wagner Group”, comes the tweet of Emmanuel Macron, who in the night announced that “Adnan Abou Walid al Sahraoui, the leader of the Islamic State terrorist group in the Great Sahara, was neutralized by the French forces ”. The French operation adds a piece to the complex mosaic of the Western military presence in the Sahel, which since the summer has begun a strategic repositioning of which external forces such as Russia seem ready to take advantage.
Adnan Abou Walid al Sahraoui, leader of the terrorist group Islamic State in the Greater Sahara was neutralized by French forces. This is another major success in our fight against terrorist groups in the Sahel.
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) September 15, 2021
On Tuesday morning, the Reuters exclusivity had sparked the irritation of France, which immediately announced its position. Although the news is interpreted as yet another attempt by Moscow to extend its influence by resorting to mercenaries, geopolitical analysts agree that if Russia has been able to take advantage of a new gray zone in international relations with the Sahel, much will. it owes to an attempt to reposition the strategic priorities of European countries – including Italy – which undergoes a downsizing of the centrality of Mali, whose political stability has for years been oppressed by continuous coups d’etat.
The paramilitary group with which Bamako is speculating a $ 10.8 million-a-month deal is considered “the invisible hand” of the Kremlin. “As already demonstrated in the Central African Republic and in Syria, Russia’s purpose is essentially one: to fill the space left free by Western powers for strategic purposes”, comments Edoardo Baldaro, ISPI researcher and Sahel expert. The contractor company is financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin. Nicknamed “Putin’s chef” Prigozhin is a businessman with little hair on his stomach and many convictions behind him.
“The thousand Russian soldiers that the agreement would envisage – on which neither the Malian government nor Wagner’s office have yet expressed their opinion – would strengthen a presence which, albeit to a very limited and, if possible, even more informal Mali is already there », continues Baldaro. «Some time ago Moscow had concluded a deal for the sale of some military helicopters. A small group of contractors had been sent as training personnel useful to the Malian military, less experienced in the use of certain equipment; it is an entity without a formal legal order that operates in a manner unrelated to the Russian government. This gives them a large operating margin ».
In this way, Russia has reinforced a modus operandi well known to analysts. «Moscow uses an old formula: it provides weapons in exchange for resources. It has already happened in Guinea, then in Nigeria, where Lukoil used the Gulf of Niger for its mining activities », continues Baldaro. “Wagner therefore allows Russia to act without appearing”, adopting what academics call the “plausible denial”, that is an unlikely excuse but supported, albeit opaque, by the formal framework within which the facts happen.
The news from Reuters soon circulated in France, infuriating the Minister for Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian: “This move is incompatible with the French presence in the territory”, said the minister, adding that “Wagner has already proved to be a militia guilty of abuse and violations in the past ». In response, the French government has announced diplomatic action to prevent an agreement with the paramilitaries.
Several factors favored Russian penetration into West Africa. Macron’s march to remove France from Mali became clear last May, when the Paris government temporarily cut off military relations with the African country. This following the second coup in a few months, since the “coup in the coup” – as it was defined – was preceded by another overthrow led by the Malian colonels, who on 18 August 2020 forced their resignation then president-elect Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Initially that turn of government – led by Colonels Ismaël Wagué and Asimi Goita – had even met with the approval of Macron, satisfied with the relations with the transition executive controlled by the Comité National pour le Salut du Peuple set up by the coup leaders.
In the following months, however, French interests began to diverge, progressively isolating Bamako: on the one hand, before the news of the killing of the Daesh leader last night, the so many criticized budget of the Barkhane operation, the very expensive “War on terror ”in French, had basically disappointed. «France should have neutralized the jihadist threat in the northern regions of Mali, preventing the birth of caliphates. But military actions have often been the subject of criticism – especially from French civil society – as after the unfortunate air raid in the village of Bounti that killed dozens of people who were celebrating a wedding », continues Baldaro. That event aggregated local opinion against the presence of Paris, as evidenced by the anti-French protests that have taken place. However, having prevented the consolidation of the jihadist entities present in the territory, did not make Barkhane a successful operation, especially net of the huge economic weight of the mission, which consumes over a third of the budget allocated by the Ministry of Defense for missions abroad.
«The news of the contractors could be a way for Mali to send a message to France and the Western forces present in the country. France in particular took advantage of the instability of the coup government to shake up its strategic repositioning in West Africa ”, concludes Baldaro. The French attention has therefore shifted, shaped by the line of the new Task Force Takuba – where Italy provides the second contingent by number of units, about 200 – and rewarding the diplomacy work of Niger, a key country to understand the strategic reorientation in the Sahel. With the already fragile prerequisites for military presence in the Malian bases of Kidal, Tessalit and Timbuktu no longer valid, at the beginning of July Macron announced a plan to close the bases and a massive return of soldiers by the end of the year.