According to news reports, France and Germany are dismayed that authorities in the West African country of Mali are in talks with the Russian government over deploying mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company.
According to the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, France and Germany threatened to pull their troops that have been assisting the Malian government, which quickly reacted to say it hadn’t yet formally signed a deal with the Russians.
Wagner mercenaries have operated in Ukraine, Central African Republic (CAR), Mozambique, Libya and Syria, and have credibly been accused of war crimes.
On September 15, The Moscow Times quoted Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov as denying that Russia was in talks with Mali on military ties.
“We are in contact — including through the military — with many countries, including [on] the African continent… [t]here are no representatives of the Russian armed forces [in Mali],” Peskov was quoted telling reporters in a conference call.
Peskov reportedly also told reporters: "There are no official negotiations."
That denial is misleading.
Essentially, Peskov was playing a verbal shell game by mentioning “representatives of the Russian armed forces.” The supposedly “private” Wagner PMC has ties to the Russian state and defense ministry, even though Russian authorities act as if the group is independent. Using Wagner forces gives the Kremlin plausible deniability.
Indeed, some analysts say Wagner PMC helps Russia dodge political liability – and make money – while intervening in various conflicts. Officially, the group is affiliated with a company owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin also owned the so-called “troll factory” in St. Petersburg that spread disinformation on social networks and interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Russia has denied using Wagner mercenaries even in countries where it has an official military presence, including the Central African Republic (CAR).
In an October 2019 Russian state TV broadcast, a Russian military instructor operating in CAR denied any connections with Wagner.
Yet, in that very same program, eagle-eyed viewers spotted the Wagner logo displayed in the military facility shown in the segment.
According to The Moscow Times, Mali’s defense ministry did not deny that Mali’s government had discussions with Wagner. The newspaper cited an Agence-France Presse (AFP) report that a small Wagner team was first spotted in Mali’s capital Bamako in late 2019 after the country’s former president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, signed a military cooperation deal with Russia.
Rebellious military officers overthrew Keita in August 2020, and some of them may have received training in Russia under the military cooperation deal.
Several thousand French and German troops are stationed in Mali, assisting the government in fighting radical jihadists and Tuareg separatists.