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As UN Peacekeepers Prepare to Leave Mali, It Now Hangs in the Kremlin’s Grip


UN peacekeeper from the Niger contingent in the UN mission in Mali
A peacekeeper from the Niger contingent in the UN mission in Mali provides security for the visit of the boss, El-Ghassim Wane, to Ménaka, March 22, 2023. Just three months later, the Malian government demanded the full withdrawal of the mission, Minusma, from the country. The process is about to begin, but Mali’s request could make it more dependent for security on the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group, which is providing military help in Mali but also mutinied in Russia on June 24. HARANDANE DICKO/MINUSMA

As the United Nations Security Council plans to vote this week on the future of Minusma, its peacekeeping mission in Mali, the military officers in charge in Bamako will have their eyes on developments in Moscow, Minsk and the front line in eastern Ukraine.

After the weekend mutiny by the Wagner Group militia in Russia, the only certainty in the country now is uncertainty. The instability casts a long shadow over Mali as its own leaders are playing one of the riskiest cards in their hand by forcing the departure of the UN peacekeeping mission.

Just weeks earlier, on June 16, Mali’s military government demanded the Security Council swiftly end Minusma and immediately remove its 13,000 troops stationed throughout the restive Sahelian country, stunning many Council members and the UN itself. The request followed, in the words of Malian President Colonel Assimi Goïta, a “very satisfying” phone call two days before between him and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. It appears that Goïta had secured Putin’s word to potentially send more support to Mali to fill in the large security and logistic gaps Minusma leaves if it goes.

The Council will likely vote to extend Minusma’s mandate on June 30 for six months instead of the usual year, given that Mali has told the mission to leave immediately. The process to withdraw the military begins first, followed by pulling out the assets, such as transportation equipment. Meanwhile, the UN’s budget committee, part of the General Assembly, is negotiating an allotment to pay for the cost of the withdrawal over a nine-month period. Russia is proposing $191 million for the expense, while other delegations are proposing at least four times that amount to ensure an orderly drawdown and the safety of the peacekeepers, they say. A final agreement should be made this week. (The annual budget for Minusma has been approximately $1.3 billion.) [UPDATE, June 28: Two sources told PassBlue that Mali is now demanding that Minusma leave in three months; it is unclear if this request will be approved by the Security Council]

Soon after Mali’s demand that the UN mission leave the country, though, the foreign military force that Mali relies on to secure its political survival, the Wagner Group, stormed Russia’s southwest command post in Rostov-on-Don and marched north toward Moscow, all within 24 hours, starting on June 24. After the mutinous Russian mercenary troops made an about-face about 200 kilometers south of the Russian capital, their leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, headed to Minsk, the Belarusian capital, according to the Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov. Prigozhin reportedly arrived on June 27 in Belarus, where President Aleksandr Lukashenko contended that he had talked Putin out of killing Prigozhin during the mutiny.

In West Africa, Wagner’s rebellion has thrown a wrench into the Malian military’s plans as they were consolidating their power for potentially the next decade. Some 1,000 Wagner soldiers have been based in Mali since 2021, after a military junta took power in a coup and kicked out the French armed forces, which had been operating there since 2013. Malian officials have always insisted the Wagner troops were regular Russian soldiers, even as Russian officials stated otherwise.

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It’s unclear who the Russian soldiers in Mali will answer to now, given that Peskov said that Wagner troops would be incorporated into the regular army. Prigozhin went public on June 26, after the weekend chaos, describing the events that led to what he called the “march of justice.” He said that only two percent of his militia had agreed to be absorbed into Russia’s defense ministry ranks, before the “protest” by Wagner began.

It’s also unclear whom Mali will interact with in Russia, because although all official exchanges between the two have been done with Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, it’s Prigozhin’s troops who are on the ground fighting jihadists in central Mali. Putin himself, already isolated internationally, now has his back further against the wall, facing a potentially serious domestic threat and drawing his attention away from his international projects.

The mood in Mali after the weekend’s events in Russia was watchful. “The junta will be worried about what happens next in Russia,” said an influential businessman who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation by the Malian government. Even the government’s supporters said they were worried.

“If Russia were unable to supply Mali with ammunition and spare parts, more than 90% of Malian military operations would be significantly affected for some time,” tweeted Cheick Tidiane Diarra, a prominent pro-government voice. “If Russia were destabilized in this stormy period hovering over Mali at the UN Security Council, the first move of our former partners would be to place the Malian people under their tutelage.”

Russia’s Lavrov sought to quell such concerns, telling RT, the Russian news site, on June 26, “I have not seen any sign of panic or any sign of change in these African states’ relations with Russia.” He affirmed that Wagner would remain in Mali and Central African Republic, adding: “This situation cannot change the strategic relationship between Russia and its African partners.”

A tweet by Mali’s military president in October says, per Google translate: “I had a rich telephone conversation with HE Vladimir Putin. We discussed the ways and means of strengthening bilateral cooperation, particularly economic and security. I welcome a win-win partnership based on mutual respect.”

Minusma has not been useful in combating insecurity in Mali, where according to the data tracker Acled, more than 4,000 people died from violence in the last year alone. Yet the UN mission provides a main source of income for Malians in the north, as well as being the only reliable air link between Bamako, the capital, and the major towns of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. Minusma’s peacekeepers, who hail primarily from Africa, perform important logistical and security missions in rural civilian areas.

Indeed, the UN departure will leave a major logistical and security vacuum, especially in the north. Thousands of Malians will lose jobs and contracts, and government workers will lose their main way of reaching the north, a vast territory whose road links face constant attack. A drawdown of peacekeeping forces will not only take at least six months to happen but will also require many rounds of negotiations among the Security Council, peacekeeping contributing countries, the UN peacekeeping department and Bamako.

Most important, Minusma is the main body monitoring the progress of the Algiers Accord peace agreement, signed in 2015 between the Malian government and the mainly Tuareg and Arab rebel groups who occupied the north of the country in 2012. A spokesman for the rebel groups said that the withdrawal of Minusma “will be a deliberately aimed, fatal blow to the peace agreement, whose implementation has been sluggish since its signature, and for which the Malian government bears full responsibility.”

Some analysts believe that Mali has been deliberately chipping away at the accord since the military seized power in 2021. Mali’s rapprochement with Russia starkly contrasts with Mali’s former alliance with France, and Russia has not ruled out support for a renewed Malian offensive against former rebels. A constitutional referendum passed on June 23 with the score of 97 percent — Kremlin style — has consolidated the power of the presidency and paved the way for the military to contest next year’s scheduled elections. This will allow the Malian leaders to stay in power and avoid regional sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States on unelected regimes.

But removing Minusma and launching a new war in Mali against the rebels is a feasible course of action only if more Wagner troops start operating in the country and more Russian support is given to fill the sudden loss of staff, logistics and modicum of stability that Minusma provides. By demanding Minusma’s removal, Mali has retrenched further into Russia’s orbit as its own stability is shaken deeply by domestic chaos and the flagging war in Ukraine.

Bamako may be hoping that a strong alliance with Russia, however, will influence whatever decision Putin makes regarding Wagner troops in Africa. Although those stationed on the continent could have an impact by leaving to fight in Ukraine, it’s likely that Putin will want to keep the important revenue that Wagner reaps in Mali (mostly from small gold mines), the Central African Republic and Sudan flowing, as the West’s economic sanctions continue to bear down.

“Sixteen months ago, Russian troops were on the doorstep of Kyiv in Ukraine, believing they would take the country in a matter of days and erase the country from the map as an independent country,” United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on June 25. “Now what we see is Russia having to defend Moscow, its capital, against mercenaries of its own making.”

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on Mali's future with Russia?

Joe Penney is a writer, filmmaker and photographer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Lagos. He directed a documentary, “Sun of the Soil: The Story of Mansa Musa,” about the reign of Mali’s 14th-century king. Penney’s articles and essays have been published by The Intercept, The New York Times, Quartz, Reuters and Paris journals. He was West African photo bureau chief for Reuters, and his pictures have appeared in Geo, Jeune Afrique, Le Monde, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Time, among others. He has photographed presidential elections in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone as well as the 2012 coup in Mali and the French military intervention in 2013, Mauritanian refugee camps, mining sites in Niger, migrants in the Sahel, counterterrorism campaigns in Cameroon, the 2013-2014 conflict in Central African Republic and the people’s coup in Burkina Faso in 2014. Penney co-founded, a news company covering the Sahel region, in 2013. In Africa, he has lived in Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal. He graduated from McGill University in Montreal and speaks English, French and Spanish.

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