WHAT HAPPENED: An al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group claimed to have killed four Russian contractors employed by Wagner Group following the French withdrawal from Mali on 15 August. Mali’s junta hired the Kremlin-linked private security company in 2021 to provide training and protection from al-Qaeda and Islamic State-linked militants, marking a major foreign policy pivot toward Moscow. Wagner Group has been accused of bringing fresh violence and disorder to Mali’s tenuous security situation, including the alleged torture and murder of civilians.
WHY IT MATTERS: Russia deployed Wagner to the Sahel as a check against Western objectives on the continent and an alternative to the G5 Sahel Joint Task Force; however, Moscow now finds itself involved in a power struggle between an anemic Malian government,
Islamist militants and breakaway factions, and could face blowback should the military junta lose power or fail to transition to a democratic system. Wagner Group’s reputation for poor discipline and ineffective leadership suggests the contractor is ill-equipped to backfill France’s stabilizing presence and is unlikely to restrict its 1,000-man contingent to small-unit training and executive protection. Heavy-handed tactics will likely galvanize insurgent recruiting, while state collapse could discredit Russia as a trustworthy partner or capable security provider.
BACKGROUND: Russia has made good on its strategic priority to obstruct US foreign policy objectives in Africa by signing 19 military collaboration agreements with African nations between 2015 and 2019. An alliance with Moscow provides African governments the freedom to conduct counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations without the restraint of human rights obligations imposed by Western powers. In exchange for training and protection services, as is the case in Mali, Russia seeks access to natural resources – namely uranium, diamond, and gold mines. Moscow employs private security companies like Wagner Group as the state’s proxy to provide plausible deniability, avoid public objection to Russian military casualties and absolve itself of accountability for human rights violations.
Bryan A. is a former Force Reconnaissance Marine and Intelligence Officer at CIA. He currently serves as the Vice President of Special Programs at Hayes Group International.