A deal that would allow Russian mercenaries into Mali, extending Russian influence over security affairs in West Africa is close, seven diplomatic and security sources said.
Paris has begun a diplomatic drive to prevent the military junta in Mali from enacting the deal, which would permit Russian private military contractors, the Wagner Group, to operate in the former French colony, the sources said.
France’s diplomatic offensive, the diplomatic sources said, includes enlisting the help of partners including the United States to persuade Mali’s junta not to press ahead with the deal, and sending senior diplomats to Moscow and Mali for talks.
France, Mali’s former colonial power is worried the arrival of Russian mercenaries would undermine its decade-old counter-terrorism operation against al Qaeda and Islamic State-linked insurgents in the Sahel region of West Africa at a time when it is seeking to draw down its 5,000-strong Barkhane mission to reshape it with more European partners, the diplomatic sources said.
A European source who tracks West Africa and a security source in the region said at least 1,000 mercenaries could be involved. Two other sources believed the number was lower, but did not provide figures.
Four sources said the Wagner Group would be paid about 6 billion CFA francs ($10.8 million) a month for its services. One security source working in the region said the mercenaries would train Malian military and provide protection for senior officials.
A spokesperson for the leader of Mali’s junta, which took power in a military coup in August 2020, said he had no information about the deal.
“These are rumours. Officials don’t comment on rumours,” said the spokesperson, Baba Cisse, who declined further comment.
Mali’s defence ministry spokesperson said: “Public opinion in Mali is in favour of more cooperation with Russia given the ongoing security situation. But no decision (on the nature of that cooperation) has been made.”
The mercenaries’ presence would jeopardise Mali’s funding from the international partners and allied training missions that have helped rebuild Mali’s army, four security and diplomatic sources said.
Having Russian mercenaries in Mali would strengthen Russia’s push for global prestige and influence, and be part of a wider campaign to shake up long-standing power dynamics in Africa, the diplomatic sources said.
As relations with France have worsened, Mali’s military junta has increased contacts with Russia.