More than a dozen Western powers on Thursday condemned the move by the military junta in Mali to bring in Russian mercenaries working for the shadowy Russian proxy Wagner Group to help fight the Islamist insurgency. Wagner Group is also known under the names, PMC Wagner, ChVK Wagner and CHVK Vagner

A joint statement on Thursday by the 15 countries – including Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom, who are all involved in helping defend Mali from the bloody ongoing insurgency – said they “firmly condemn the deployment of mercenary troops on Malian territory.”

The United States was not one of the signatories of the statement. However, earlier in December, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Mali not to accept Wagner mercenaries, saying that hiring them would divert needed funds and further destabilize the country.

It was one of the first official acknowledgments by Western governments. Moscow has begun the deployment of Wagner mercenaries after months of public announcements that the Bamako government had hired them. However, the statement by the 15 signatories stopped short of saying that the presence of Wagner’s fighters would result in a withdrawal of their forces. What the signatories and the U.S. could force home to the ruling military junta is that in light of this situation, they may withhold humanitarian assistance and foreign aid to Mali. 

“This deployment can only further deteriorate the security situation in West Africa, lead to an aggravation of the human rights situation in Mali and threaten the agreement for peace and reconciliation in Mali,” the statement said.

They said they “deeply regret” the choice of the Malian authorities to use “already scarce public funds” to pay foreign mercenaries instead of supporting the Malian armed forces.

Malian troops being trained by Czech special operations troops as part of Task Force Takuba. AP photo

“We are aware of the involvement of the Russian Federation government in providing material support to the deployment of the Wagner group in Mali and call on Russia to revert to a responsible and constructive behavior in the region,” the statement added as a message to the Russian government.

Moscow has consistently denied that the Wagner Group has any official ties to the Russian government. But, the owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is a businessman close to President Vladimir Putin, and is known as “Putin’s Chef.” Prigozhin also denies any government involvement with the Wagner Group which has already been hit by sanctions for being behind the Russian interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential elections. Russia’s own constitution states that all matters of defense and security belong exclusively to the State so private military contracting companies like Wagner would be illegal unless Moscow had given them a pass. 

Ministers from the European Union (EU) announced on Monday that they are drawing up fresh economic sanctions against Wagner in light of this development. Those sanctions include the freezing of assets and travel bans on eight people involved with Wagner, including founder Dmitry Utkin, and three energy companies linked to the group in Syria.

The EU headquarters issued a joint statement accusing the Wagner Group of human rights abuses in every region that it has been deployed, including Syria, Libya, Mozambique, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Ukraine. 

“The Wagner Group has recruited, trained, and sent private military operatives to conflict zones around the world to fuel violence, loot natural resources, and intimidate civilians in violation of international law, including international human rights law,” the statement read.

It added that Wagner operatives had conducted “serious human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings, or in destabilizing activities in some of the countries they operate in, including Libya, Syria, Ukraine, and the Central African Republic.”

The statement said that the group should be treated as a “proxy organization” for the Russian state.  

Wagner operatives filmed themselves torturing a Syrian with a sledgehammer before killing him for reportedly deserting from a militia Wagner was working with. 

Back in late September, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Malian government had approached private Russian companies to boost security in the country but added that the Kremlin was not involved. However, the Russians did agree to provide military equipment to the junta. The military equipment would presumably include the fully automatic weapons, mortars, artillery, RPGs, and armored personnel carriers that Wagner Operators have been seen equipped with.

Mali has been fighting an insurgency since 2012 when Tuareg separatists rebelled against the government. That insurgency was quickly hijacked by Islamist terror organizations, including the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. France came to the aid of its former colony in 2013, but the violence and human suffering continue in the semi-arid, sub-Saharan country. That insurgency has spread like a virus to the neighboring countries of Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Mauritania, who comprise the G5 Sahel.