A Mixed Picture: How Mali Views the Wagner Group

Boots on the ground: Russian mercenaries deployed in northern Mali as part of the Wagner Group's operations. Image: Associated Press / Alamy

Despite the death of its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group’s operations in Mali continue. But how do locals feel about the mercenaries’ presence?

The Wagner Group, a Russian private military company (PMC), appeared in Mali in December 2021 and is still operating there as of March 2024. There was some disruption in the immediate aftermath of the Wagner mutiny and then after the death of the group’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, with Wagner staff seemingly panicking, salaries being delayed and operations being suspended or downsized for some months. At the time of writing, however, the activities of Wagner have changed little overall compared to the first quarter of 2023, at least as far the perceptions of the Malians are concerned.

The reasons why the Malian government began the discussions in early 2021 that eventually led to Wagner arriving in Mali are complex. This article will focus on one particular aspect, which is Wagner’s expected contribution to achieving the aims of a range of actors: the Malian government, the armed forces and various communities that make up the Malian social and political space.

There are strong perceptions that Wagner has contributed relatively little to Mali’s struggle against jihadist groups and may even have presided over a deterioration in the situation. Sectors of the population may indeed have expected that Wagner would help restore security and service delivery in areas affected by the jihadist insurgencies, but that does not appear to have been the primary reason why Wagner was called in, as far as the Malian authorities are concerned.

With just over 2,000 men in the country at the peak of its operations in early 2023 (according to Wagner sources), including a team handling the small air force that Wagner had established there, another team protecting the ruling elite and all support elements, Wagner simply did not have the resources to even contemplate reclaiming substantial portions of territory from Mali’s disparate opposition groups, which include five jihadist groups (Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, Ansar al-Din, Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, Al-Mourabitoun and Katibat Macina) and three coalitions of northern secessionist (or former secessionist) groups. Pro-Russian propagandists certainly celebrated the departure of French forces, but the Malian authorities originally had not intended to replace MINUSMA and French forces with Wagner. The intent had rather been to establish Wagner alongside the two missions, according to a senior source in the Malian government. As noted above, negotiations with Wagner and with the Russian authorities started even before the May 2021 coup that deposed President Bah N’daw (who had reportedly opposed his government colleagues’ enthusiasm for bringing Wagner in).

The Malians’ rationale was that MINUSMA and the French were too combat-shy and would never defeat the opposition with their soft counterinsurgency approach. French cosiness with some of the Tuareg groups in the north was viewed with particular apprehension and concern in Bamako, giving rise to a range of conspiracy theories. Bamako’s hypersensitivity on this issue has recently led to a diplomatic clash with the Algerian government. The Malian government does not like the reconciliation route to pacification with the Tuareg rebels in the north, which was sponsored by the French, and wants a military solution instead, which Wagner is happy to support. Wagner was thus meant to strengthen the offensive capability of the Malian armed forces, undermining the territorial control exercised by opposition groups and taking the war back to the north. Indeed, to this day, the recapture of Kidal in the north in November 2023 remains the main achievement of Wagner in Mali, as far as the Malian authorities are concerned.

There are strong perceptions that Wagner has contributed relatively little to Mali’s struggle against jihadist groups and may even have presided over a deterioration in the situation

The Malian authorities may have miscalculated when they decided to bring the Wagner Group in, underestimating the depth of geopolitical rivalries. However, when asked to choose between the French and Wagner, they opted for the latter and rejected French efforts to prevent the contract being signed in the second half of 2021. Among the reasons for this are likely to be Wagner’s commitment to securing the regime and to doing whatever it asks for. Many who supported Wagner’s entry regret that this resulted in the departure of MINUSMA and of the French, with a destabilising impact in some areas. However, it is not clear to what extent the regime that emerged from the May 2021 coup sees this as a problem now. Wagner might have deliberately manipulated the situation to create a long-term Malian dependency on its services, but it is also perfectly plausible that the Malian regime (perhaps unwittingly) manoeuvred itself into this position.

The Malian government and the military leadership pay Wagner for its activities in Mali and still seem supportive. This might be less of an elective choice than in early 2021, given the resulting international isolation and how the departure of other foreign military forces has made Bamako dependent on Wagner. Without Wagner, the Malian armed forces lack the punch to challenge insurgent control. In any case, at least according to Wagner sources, the Malians are asking the Russian PMC to do more, particularly in terms of expanding its training effort and air force capabilities. In part also thanks to regime control over the media and to the powerful propaganda machine set up by Wagner, the population of Bamako and of some other cities also appears to be mostly supportive of Wagner’s presence and of its role, as even local critics of the government tend to acknowledge.

In rural areas, the picture is much more mixed. In areas directly affected by Wagner’s operations there is strong resentment against its ruthless approach and its penchant for violence. This is particularly the case for Fulani communities in central Mali, which have been targeted because many of their younger members have joined jihadist groups. Especially in the early months of the group’s deployment, when Wagner forces were often deploying alone and lacked adequate local intelligence or often even interpreters, their policy of executing suspects wreaked havoc. Even sections of the local Fulani population who used to oppose the jihadists have been alienated by the looting and arrogant behaviour of Wagner forces and associated militias, according to local notables.

Needless to say, Wagner appears to be very unpopular among the Tuaregs in the north as well, given its role in bringing the war back to the region and in destroying the June 2015 agreement with the Tuareg rebels (which was finally abrogated by Bamako in January).

As for the Malian armed forces, the tactical units that share operating space with Wagner units often experience friction with them, not least because Wagner operates under a separate chain of command (it is under the National State Security Agency) and the two chains appear to be poorly coordinated. In extreme cases, there have even been episodes of violence, typically ending in injuries and loss of life among Malian soldiers. There have been frequent accusations of racism levelled against Wagner fighters from the ranks of the Malian armed forces.

The Malian regime is clearly unconcerned about popular support in remote areas and appears to believe that the way forward lies in increasing its coercive capabilities

Over time, Wagner forces started being accompanied by Malian armed forces units, often special forces; by various local militias, in particular the Donzo, who mostly operate as scouts; or by defectors from armed groups associated with the JNIM. While some sources report that the presence of the Malian army has a mitigating impact on the behaviour of Wagner mercenaries, the same is not true of the militias. Much of the violence perpetrated by Wagner forces appears to be driven by the Donzo militias, which have rivalries with local communities – typically Fulani, who have signed ‘survival pacts’ with the insurgents.

Despite the friction, local sources say that Wagner forces, which typically operate in groups of around 50, share many of the same attitudes towards counterinsurgency operations as the Malian armed forces. Neither believe in soft or population-centric approaches, even if Wagner forces are remarkably more violent towards the civilian population than the Malian army is. Prisoners and locals are coerced into cooperating with Wagner and its pro-government allies, yielding information and even being forced to lead them towards insurgent hideouts.

While Wagner’s modus operandi aligns more closely (although not perfectly) with that of the Malian armed forces than the French or MINUSMA, it is clear even to the Malian authorities that as it stands the Russian PMC will not decisively defeat the insurgents. Wagner is training the Malian special forces, but that will hardly be enough to lead to a major expansion in Malian capabilities. The Malian regime is clearly unconcerned about popular support in remote areas and appears to believe that the way forward lies in increasing its coercive capabilities – hence the desire for a more powerful air force and for expanded training of its ground forces, as mentioned above. Perhaps securing ‘useful Mali’ (cities, roads, mines) is what Bamako is prioritising right now.

The main risk to Wagner’s position in Mali has paradoxically appeared to emanate (for a period at least) from the Russian government itself, with considerable turmoil for months after Prigozhin’s death. As of February 2024, the Wagner presence in Mali had been halved to about 1,000 men, and sources within the PMC say that it is unable to meet the Malian regime’s request for additional assistance. This appears to be mainly a result of Wagner’s difficulties in retaining and replacing staff (many left the company after Prigozhin’s death), which might in turn be due at least in part to the Russian government’s lack of desire for Wagner to grow again.

After some months of friction, an agreement appears to have been reached whereby Wagner operates under the control of the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD), according to sources within Wagner. Under the deal, the MoD no longer charges Wagner for the rented vehicles and air fleet deployed to Mali or for ammunition. Nonetheless, it is not clear how stable this deal is, given the bad blood between the two entities. The Russian authorities reportedly still want to replace Wagner with Redut PMC, but negotiations over this have been sluggish. For now at least, the MoD is accepting a continuing role for a diminished Wagner Group, especially in combat operations, while looking for ways to replace it with Wagner’s competitor Redut or even direct assistance.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Antonio Giustozzi

Senior Research Fellow

Terrorism and Conflict

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