Squeezed by Western sanctions — first in response to its illegal annexation of Crimea and then its subsequent invasion of Ukraine — Vladimir Putin’s regime has increasingly turned to new partnerships across Africa for greater global influence and economic lifelines. These new partnerships have yielded diplomatic support for Putin’s regime at the United Nations, advanced favorable views of the war in Ukraine in sections of African public opinion, landed new client states for Russian arms and mercenaries, and offered pathways for Moscow to evade sanctions. In 2019, Putin, following the playbook of his geopolitical rivals in the region (United States, France, Turkey, and China), launched his own summit with African leaders. The Kremlin professes to be an equal partner to the African continent, one that firmly rejects foreign meddling or imposition in the affairs of a sovereign nation — an indirect criticism of Western nations — and one without colonial baggage.
This belies the Russian empire’s failed colonial projects of the 19th century and Soviet operations and satellite states in the region during the Cold War. But these new alliances between the Kremlin and its African partner regimes have been detrimental to the citizens of the countries concerned. Russia’s private mercenaries and hunger for natural resources has exacerbated human rights abuses, democratic erosion, corruption, and organized crime in total impunity. Simultaneously, ordinary citizens suffer the consequences of Russian disinformation campaigns and economic hardships from shortages of grain and fertilizer imports from Ukraine.
In this blog series, Russia’s Influence in Africa, we will explore three case studies — Mali, Sudan, and the Central African Republic — to understand the methods of the Kremlin and private mercenary groups to become the main international partners of these countries.
By Kristen Anna and Mohamed Keita
Illustrations by Lucian French
The friendship between Mali and Russia dates back to the early 1960s, during the socialist regime of Mali’s first president, Modibo Keita, one of the few African leaders hosted by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow. But Mali and Russia have never been as close as they are today, with Moscow as the main international political and military partner of Mali’s military regime since 2020. In Mali — a state fragilized by a decade of worsening insecurity, bad governance, and military coups — Vladimir Putin’s regime has found its strongest sphere of influence in Western Africa.
Mali, like many countries in the Sahel region, has faced complex political, security, and humanitarian crises since 2012 due to the destabilizing regional consequences of the collapse of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011. In 2012, former Tuareg rebels once sheltered by Gaddafi fled Libya with an arsenal of weapons and attacked northern Mali, reviving their armed struggle for an autonomous state in Mali’s north. The rebellion aligned itself with various terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Ansar Dine.
The rapid collapse of the Malian army in the face of the rebel attacks fueled public anger against the government of democratically elected President Amadou Toumani Touré, leading to his deposition in 2012. With Tuareg rebels and terrorist groups occupying the entire north of Mali, the transitional Malian administration of President Dioncounda Traoré turned to France, the former colonial power, to intervene militarily. In January 2013, French troops launched Operation Serval, liberating the north of Mali. At the time, Malians overwhelmingly supported the French intervention, and French troops remained in the country to support Malian troops in fighting a persisting terrorist insurgency through Operation Barkhane. The United Nations (UN) also deployed international peacekeepers to the region.
The country returned to democratically elected civilian rule in 2015 with Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, who signed a peace agreement with a coalition of Tuareg groups. The terrorist groups who were excluded from the agreement, however, expanded control further in central Mali, staging increasingly deadly attacks against Malian military bases and civilians — including on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali in 2015, which left 21 dead.
Despite the combined efforts of Malian, French, and UN peacekeeping forces, local armed groups proliferated, massacres of Malian soldiers and civilians increased, and insecurity spread across the country. With growing public anger toward Keïta’s administration and his French and international security partners, Malian support for Operation Barkhane plummeted.
It’s in this context that the Kremlin began to exploit growing public distrust of the French military presence to tout itself as an alternative to France and the West.
Starting in September 2017, a civil society group called Groupe des Patriotes du Mali (GPM) canvassed communities to promote Russia-Africa cooperation, held public meetings attended by Russian officials, and posted pro-Putin and pro-Russia photos on its Facebook page. GPM claimed to have collected eight million signatures in a petition demanding Russia’s military intervention.
The pressure appeared to work. In June 2019, ahead of the Russia-Africa summit in Sochi, Malian Foreign Minister Tiébilé Dramé held bilateral talks with Sergey Lavrov in Moscow to expand cooperation in a wide range of areas, including military and defense. During this time, Keïta’s government was pressured to drop its military alliance with France in favor of Russia. In January 2020, another pressure group, the Yerewolo movement, staged massive demonstrations, demanding the withdrawal of French and UN troops while echoing pro-Russia rhetoric.
Concurrently, Malian military officers arrived in Russia for several months of training, Colonel Malick Diaw and Colonel Sadio Camara among them. In August 2020, they returned to Mali and joined another officer, Colonel Assimi Goïta, in deposing Keïta on Aug. 20. The following day, Goïta received Russian ambassador Igor Gromyko as the first diplomat of the new junta. Meanwhile, the military leaders of the 2020 coup installed a transitional government, promising to hold elections in 2022 and return to civilian rule.
A month before the coup, Russia was suspected of being behind fake social media photos purportedly showing French soldiers looting gold in Mali. Following the coup, disinformation campaigns against France and Western interests ramped up. In March 2021, the fact-checking news site Benbere debunked stories circulating online that falsely claimed the UN peacekeeping mission, the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), was colluding with terrorist insurgents in the center of the country. Putin’s operatives also cultivated pro-Russian sentiments. A report by Digital Forensic Research Lab found that during this time, a coordinated network of Facebook pages in the country promoted Russia as a “viable partner” and “alternative to the West” and encouraged the postponement of elections.
In May 2021, Goïta initiated another coup, ousting the transitional civilian president Bah Ndaw and naming himself as the interim president of Mali. International backlash ensued, further isolating Mali from African and Western allies. Following the second coup and a breakdown of relations, French President Emmanuel Macron announced France would end operations in Mali.
After France’s announcement, Malian media outlets such as Maliactu touted intervention by the Wagner Group, a private mercenary organization, to solve the country’s security crisis. In October 2021, Maliactu published an exclusive interview with Alexander Ivanov, linked to Wagner in the Central African Republic. In the interview, Ivanov stated they were “destroying the neo-colonial system” that was “extracting the resources of African countries.” The article was published alongside a 28-minute video, during which Maliactu publisher Sega Diarrah pitched Wagner’s capabilities to Malians.
A pro-junta and pro-Russia group called Collectif pour la défense des militaires (CDM) successfully lobbied the junta in April 2022 to ban the French government-funded public broadcasters RFI and France 24 from Mali’s airwaves. Meanwhile, social networks such as Russosphère were gaining traction with posts accusing Ukrainians of “Nazism” and France of modern-day “colonialism.”
In August 2022, France completed its withdrawal of forces from the country. And in June, the UN Security Council voted to end its peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA, in Mali. Earlier that month, Mali asked the UN peacekeeping force to leave “without delay,” citing a “crisis of confidence” between Malian authorities and the UN mission. Later reports would suggest that Wagner helped engineer the UN’s departure.
Russia Reaps the Benefits
Since 2021, Wagner has continued to operate in Mali on behalf of Putin’s regime. The agreement between the Malian junta and Wagner allegedly involved Wagner receiving $10 million a month for its services and gaining access to three gold mines in the country. Gold is Mali’s most important export, comprising more than 80% of total exports in 2021. Most of Mali’s gold is smuggled to Dubai, the largest market for illegally mined African gold and a haven for laundering Russian money.
Gold is an attractive investment for Putin’s regime. Since the first tranche of sanctions on Russia for the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the regime has sought to increase its gold reserves. Gaps in the regulation of gold allow for easier money laundering and sanction evasion.
The agreement also buys Russia political influence. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Mali was one of several African countries that abstained from a UN vote condemning Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian territories. Russia and Mali continued to strengthen their ties, with Putin promising fuel, fertilizer, food shipments, and security assistance in 2022.
In February, Lavrov traveled to Mali, where he announced additional military support for the junta. In a press conference with Lavrov, Mali’s Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop said he would no longer justify the country’s alliance with Russia. That same month, Mali was one of six countries that voted against a resolution by the UN General Assembly calling for Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine.
And in May, the US Department of State reported that Wagner sought to transit military supplies through Mali to supply Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. Mali is providing several avenues of support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Mali Pays the Cost
While Russia has reaped the benefits of its deal, it has come at a great humanitarian cost for Mali.
Since Wagner arrived in 2021, atrocities committed against civilians have increased. In early 2023, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) reported more than 2,000 civilians had been killed since December 2021, compared with about 500 in the previous 12 months. A third of those deaths recorded were from attacks involving the Wagner Group.
The worst atrocity occurred in March 2022, when Malian and Wagner forces enacted an operation against an Islamist extremist group, Katiba Macina, in the central Malian town of Moura. According to witness testimonies, forces spent several days rounding up individuals to execute them. Original estimates put the deaths at 300, though a recent UN report found more than 500 were summarily executed. The Malian government claimed they killed only jihadists, but evidence shows the majority were civilians. In addition, at least 58 women and girls were subjected to sexual violence.
The violence has continued into 2023. In July, Human Rights Watch reported that Malian and Wagner forces have summarily executed and forcibly disappeared several dozen civilians in Mali’s central region since December 2022. Some in Mali have said they fear the Russians more than the extremists. The extremists, in turn, have used Wagner’s presence to increase recruitment and retaliatory attacks. In 2022, a third of propaganda statements issued by the JNIM, an al-Qaeda affiliate, listed the Wagner Group as a target or used their presence to justify anti-army attacks.
The Future of Mali
Mali is just one example of Russian involvement in Africa. Russia can’t compete with the large amounts of US foreign aid or China’s investments in the continent. But Russia is driven by both “opportunity and necessity” to advance in Africa. Russia can provide resources such as weapons, training programs, and mercenaries to unstable countries in exchange for political influence and resources.
The partnership between Putin’s regime and the Malian junta is an example of two regimes united by their pariah status. Both are on the receiving end of international sanctions following Mali’s coup and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Most recently, US sanctions have targeted Malian officials and Wagner operatives facilitating Wagner’s activities in Mali.
For Mali’s regime, Russia and the Wagner Group offer a new approach to the country’s security crisis. It may be too early to tell if Russia’s presence will turn the tide, something France and the UN have been unable to do. However, the human cost of Russia’s involvement has been high for Mali and detrimental to the country’s return to democratic rule.
Kristen Anna is a research fellow with the Human Rights Foundation. Mohamed Keita is the Africa senior policy officer at the Human Rights Foundation.
Russia’s influence and operations in Africa have significantly expanded in the last five years. In the cases of the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Mali, Moscow has exploited openings created by the failures of Western efforts to stem security crises or the imposition of Western sanctions. For Moscow and its partner authoritarian regimes, alliances offer political, economic, and diplomatic lifelines. But the alignment that the Kremlin and its African partner regimes project is an untenable contradiction: Putin’s regime is waging a brutal war against Ukraine, a sovereign nation, while railing to Africans against Western military interventionism. The authoritarian leaders of the Kremlin’s partner regimes have also pushed back against foreign meddling while inviting Russia to intervene militarily in their countries.
As part of its soft-power package, the Kremlin offers scholarships, professional training opportunities, and humanitarian aid to citizens of Mali, CAR, and Sudan. But the detrimental costs are much higher: summary executions, extrajudicial killings, corruption and organized crime, illicit smuggling of natural resources, disinformation, and democratic erosion in a culture of total impunity. The big losers of these alliances are undoubtedly the citizens living under these authoritarian rulers.