An insurgency by Wagner forces in Russia has created a diplomatic dilemma for Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR), where mercenary forces have played an increasingly central role in the long-running internal conflict.
As Wagner’s fighters turned toward Moscow on Saturday after capturing a southern town overnight, Mali and CAR government spokesmen declined to comment on how the unrest might affect their security strategies against armed groups.
Both countries have sought closer ties with Russia and military assistance in the fight against armed fighters, saying in the past that their military cooperation agreement is not with Wagner but with Russia.
“[Wagner’s] The presence in Mali is sponsored by the Kremlin and if Wagner falls out with the Kremlin … naturally Mali will suffer consequences on the security front,” said Malian political analyst Basiru Doumbia.
Mali, where military authorities seized power in coups in 2020 and 2021, is fighting a year-long campaign against armed groups linked to ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda. It said Russian forces there are not Wagner mercenaries but are assisting local troops with equipment bought from the trainer Russia.
But the alliance has severed ties with the United Nations and separatist Western powers, which say the fighters are Wagner’s forces and have accused them of possible war crimes alongside Malian troops.
The Malian and Russian governments have denied the allegations.
Wagner’s continued presence in Mali amid the ongoing uprising in Russia could prove problematic for Bamako’s relationship with Moscow, which last year committed to sending Mali a shipment of fuel, fertilizer and food worth nearly $100 million.
“[The] Mali’s exact fate really depends largely on unknown factors such as the organizational autonomy of Wagner and their chain of command, and, of course, whether or not things escalate. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and Wagner,” said Ivan Guichaua, a senior lecturer at the Brussels School of International Studies.
He said that there were no reports of unexpected military movements in Mali until Saturday morning.
Russia’s power struggle could also have significant implications for CAR, where hundreds of Russian operatives, many from Wagner, have been helping the government fight several rebel insurgencies since 2018.
Both CAR and Mali have been increasingly drawn into Russia’s orbit in recent years as the Kremlin seeks greater influence in Francophone Africa to the frustration of former colonial power France, which has faced anti-French protests in the region and strained relations with several West African governments.
In February, French President Emmanuel Macron described Wagner’s troop deployment in Africa as “life insurance for failed African regimes” that would only sow misery.
The suspension of Wagner’s operations in Africa could impact the group’s finances. The United States last October accused mercenaries of exploiting natural resources in the CAR, Mali and elsewhere to finance the war in Ukraine — a charge Russia then denied.
Wagner began operating in Africa and the Middle East when it was founded in 2014 and was thought to have around 5,000 fighters, but has since grown significantly.
The paramilitary group made a name for itself internationally with Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, a move widely seen as illegal by the international community.
The group was also involved in the Russia–Ukraine War, which began in February 2022, following the deployment of Wagner’s forces to Ukraine on 28 March 2022. According to British intelligence, the group has 50,000 active fighters in Ukraine.
According to Ukraine’s National Security Council, while about 80 percent of Ukrainian soldiers have been released from prison, Wagner is said to have been instrumental in Russia’s alleged seizure of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
Wagner has also sent fighters outside Ukraine to various conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, including the war in Syria. According to leaked US documents, the group has established strong ties with several African governments over the past decade, with operations in at least eight African countries.