Sometimes last year, 2022 it was reported by the international news wires that Russian mercenaries usually in army fatigues with no flag and carry Kalashnikov assault rifles had arrived in West Africa with the sole purpose of pushing the objectives of the military might of Vladimir Putin amid intense Ukraine and Russia war.
The Washington Post in its March 9, 2022 reported, quoting western officials of the landing of hundreds of Russian mercenaries in Mali, using that country as one of their strong bases in the region, and subsequently to spread to other West African countries.
Since 2016, the Russian mercenary footprint has grown from four nations to a total of 28, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Eighteen are in Africa, Mali is now the footprints of Russian mercenaries.
This story is based on interviews with 13 local, regional and Western officials who have reviewed intelligence, have access to internal reports or have been briefed on the details of Mali’s security partnership with Russia. Several spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters and avoid retaliation.
Mali’s military junta has denied hiring Wagner, saying it works only with army instructors from Russia, a “historic” partner. Putin, however, made no mention of a military agreement at a February news conference. When a reporter asked about mercenaries in Mali, the Russian leader acknowledged only “commercial activities,” saying the Kremlin has “nothing to do with the companies working in Mali.”
However, it has reported that the Wagner Group, the mercenary army run by Vladimir Putin’s ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, is instrumental to Russia’s war on Ukraine. But Wagner has also been on the offensive across Africa.
After failing in Mozambique, the group has sunk roots into the Central Africa Republic and embraced juntas if not masterminded their coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea. In each of these four cases, Wagner takes advantage of the implosion of French influence. While it seeks to loot each country’s rich natural resources, an activity in which France also participated in decades past, Wagner mercenaries are also willing to do what the French advisers will not. In Mali, for example, that includes targeting ethnic Fulanis and other gross human rights violations.
Increasingly, it appears that the Wagner Group has its sights on three other West African countries: Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast. Each has suffered past unrest. Whereas often United Nations peacekeeping missions cost billions of dollars, extend decades, and achieve only marginal results, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast are the three countries the U.N. points to as the exception that proves the rule.
The reason why Wagner now targets these three are varied. Incumbent president George Weah in Liberia and Julius Maada Bio in Sierra Leone both mismanages their respective countries. At the height of a food crisis, for example, Weah absconded on a six-week multimillion-dollar junket to Qatar, Monaco, and the United States. Such absences are dangerous: When Maada Bio was in the United Kingdom last August, anti-government protesters egged on and paid by Wagner instigated an insurrection meant to force his ouster.
Wagner’s activities in the region appear coordinated by Melee Kermue, a former U.S. convict whom Sergei Berdnikov, Russia’s ambassador in Ghana, appointed to b9e Russia’s honorary consul-general in Liberia. He reportedly allowed Wagner experts to come into the country under the guise of businessmen. While Liberia heads to the polls this autumn, Weah’s general incompetence suggests Wagner may be accelerating plans for a coup in order to prevent more competent leadership from solidifying the country’s economy and relations with the U.S.
Sierra Leone faces a similar conundrum as incompetent leadership leads to stagnation, corruption, and popular unease. As a result, the country’s post-war recovery is now at a tipping point. In other words, the country that popularized the concept of “blood diamonds” may soon be in for a Russia-inspired repeat.
While the Ivory Coast was long one of the most stable countries in West Africa and a regional economic powerhouse, it too is under threat. The Wagner Group has recruited in the country for its Ukraine fight. And Russian proxies in Mali and Burkina Faso covet the country’s natural resources.
What should most concern American policymakers, however, is the possibility that the Wagner Group is not working alone. Too often, U.S. analysts pigeonhole the Wagner Group problem and the China threat. But what if the contracts Wagner seeks from corrupt leaders are meant as proxies for Chinese interests? The U.S. reacts with panic when China seeks to upgrade ports and build possible navy bases on the Atlantic Ocean, but what if Wagner-tied businesses won those contracts and simply upgraded ports to Chinese specifications? If this is not yet a concern in Washington, it is only because diplomats are not escaping embassy compounds or capital cities because it is certainly a concern among those seeking a better future in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov echoed that sentiment in an email to The Post. “We have nothing to do with the activities of private military companies abroad,” he said. Peskov did not respond to other questions about Russia’s military presence in Mali.
Officially, Wagner does not exist as a single registered business. Instead, analysts say, the group operates as a nebulous tangle of entities connected to the Russian military and Yevgeniy Prigozhin, an oligarch who is wanted by the FBI on charges related to interfering in the 2016 presidential election. Prigozhin has denied ties to Wagner, and he did not respond to a request for comment.
Adama Ben Diarra, a member of the Malian transitional council and one of five officials hit with European Union sanctions this year, attends a protest against French troops in Bamako last month. (Paul Lorgerie for The Washington Post)
The controversial backup came after groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State upended life in the country of 21 million over the last decade. Thousands have died and millions have lost their homes as the conflict sweeps through two-thirds of Mali, which is double the size of Texas, and spills into neighbors.
France had sent the most troops of any country into the fight — backed by U.S. intelligence and logistical support — before announcing a total withdrawal from Mali in February, blaming soured relations and the arrival of Wagner. The U.N. has nearly 15,000 peacekeepers in the nation.
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Since the mercenaries began appearing in late December, new government rules have hindered international missions against the rapidly growing Islamist insurgency, according to five officials close to the operations: Surveillance flights now require 72-hour notice, and Mali’s military partners have been ordered to avoid areas where Russians are deployed. Western, regional and business leaders say the security contractors are performing a variety of duties, including embedding with Malian troops, upgrading telecommunications and running an off-limits supply hub out of the international airport.
The number of Russian security forces in Mali is a “defense secret,” said Adama Ben Diarra, a member of the transitional council and one of five Malian officials hit with European Union sanctions this year. Moscow sent them under a formal “state-to-state” agreement, he said, “and the world must prove otherwise.”
Junta spokesman Hamidou Belco Maiga declined to comment on allegations concerning Russia, mercenaries and their activities with the Malian army.
Wagner across Africa
A security officer (left) believed to work for Wagner guards a campaign rally for Faustin-Archange Touadera, president of the Central African Republic, in Bangui in December 2020. (André Bâ/Xinhua/AP)
After news broke last fall that Mali was considering a deal with Wagner, Western and regional leaders sounded the diplomatic alarm: Wagner is known to be more motivated by mineral wealth and other strategic assets than restoring peace.
In the Central African Republic, mercenaries enlisted to counter rebels since 2018 have abducted, tortured and killed people on an “unabated and unpunished” basis, according to a United Nations report, while a Russian company the U.N. said is linked to the group secured gold and diamond mining licenses.
In Libya, one of the continent’s oil giants, mercenaries operated in a “context of impunity,” the U.N. said, planting explosive booby traps in residential areas and committing summary executions in support of a warlord vying for control of the country.
In Sudan, researchers say, mercenaries teamed up with soldiers notorious for violently cracking down three years ago on crowds protesting the government of dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir — in exchange for gold mining rights.
As Wagner launched operations in Mali, pro-Russian rhetoric flooded Malian social media. One video offered a solution: Russian warriors with angel wings. The influx of propaganda in recent weeks has been “industrial,” said one Western official in the country.
Though pro-Russian groups in Bamako have long demanded stronger ties to Moscow, saying the Soviet Union was Mali’s first real ally after it asserted independence from France in 1960, demonstrations lately have burst with Wagner memorabilia. One February rally featured portraits of the 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner, whose stoic face circulates in mercenary circles online, nodding to a nickname for Soviet-era artillery: the orchestra.
“I’ve been saying this for years: My inspiration — my compass — was the relationship our first president had with the Soviet Union,” said Diarra, who gained prominence as a pro-Russian activist and social media star known as Ben the Brain. “But what I care about is Mali. Solving Mali’s problems is why we are here.”
Between 800 and 1,000 mercenaries are now working in Mali, according to U.S. military officials focused on Africa. France has put the number at 1,000.
When French President Emmanuel Macron announced that Paris would shift troops from Mali to bordering nations, he cautioned that Wagner has “predatory ambitions.” A Russian military figurehead in the Central African Republic, Alexander Ivanov, responded that he was suing Macron for “flagrant defamation” to raise money for those hurt by “French neocolonialism.”
The Kremlin has denied involvement with soldiers of fortune, saying private firms are free to peddle services anywhere.
Yet Washington says Wagner is run by Prigozhin, an oligarch known as “Putin’s chef” for his catering empire and ties to the Kremlin.
“There are a lot of rumors around Mr. Prigozhin and the Wagner PMC attributed to him,” Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said in an email. “All of them are absolutely unfounded and unsubstantiated.”
The former head of Ukraine’s main government security agency has referred to Wagner as Putin’s “private army.”
“Russia could start looking at Wagner as a revenue source because the group has the ability to seize assets like gold, diamonds and bauxite,” said Samuel Ramani, associate fellow at the Royal United Service Institution, a British security think tank, and author of a forthcoming book on Russia’s presence in Africa. “You could see a more overt predation.”
How the mercenaries are being paid in Mali remains murky.
Most West African nations sealed their borders and ended all but essential trade with Mali in January after the junta unveiled a five-year plan to restore democracy. Members of the regional bloc known as ECOWAS froze the country’s assets in their commercial banks. Bamako soon after defaulted on domestic debts.
But the nation is Africa’s third-largest gold producer and boasts reserves of lithium, which powers smartphones, and uranium, a silvery metal used for nuclear reactor fuel.
“I have reason to believe that the Malian government tab for Wagner’s services is $10 million a month,” Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command, said on a recent video conference, adding: “I think they will have to trade in kind with natural resources such as gold and other minerals.”
The junta is negotiating concessions with Wagner, according to three Western officials who have reviewed intelligence on the matter. The junta did not respond to questions about a financial arrangement with Russia.
About a third of the Wagner agents in Mali have embedded with the army around the country’s center, where violence has surged in recent years, according to the five officials close to the operations. They have been tasked with cornering suspected fighters and staging strikes in overwhelmingly rural areas.
Since Wagner joined the Malian convoys, rights groups have flagged crackdowns they said hurt or killed innocent people — a problem that existed before Wagner touched down.
The junta has said it probes every report of abuse and is establishing a court to punish military wrongdoers. A spokesman for the Malian army did not respond to questions about the allegations.
European and West African security partners in Mali, meanwhile, have lost access to areas that Wagner patrols, the officials said. The 72-hour requirement for surveillance flights began in January, they said, preventing allies from sending aircraft above villages in danger of imminent attacks — a move meant to spook away assailants.
“We get the impression there is something to hide,” one official in the country said.
Farther north in Timbuktu, Russian contractors have moved into an airport previously used by French forces, the officials said. They were seen “doing telecommunications work” — setting up phone lines and Internet — and fixing the Malian army’s armored vehicles, according to a mining consultancy’s report obtained by The Post.
In the capital, mercenaries guard the presidential palace, according to the officials, and operate a military supply hub out of a sealed-off wing of the international airport.
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Wagner numbers in sub-Saharan Africa fluctuate. The U.S. military estimates that between 3,000 and 5,000 are active on the continent. Mercenaries tend to shuttle from one conflict zone to another.
The Central African Republic usually has the deepest bench, researchers say. Wagner agents there tail the president as bodyguards and attend public events — like the premiere of a movie last year about the heroics of Russian commandos.
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