Despite stringent sanctions after invading its neighbouring Republic of Ukraine since February 24, Russia has been struggling to strike friendship in Asian and African regions. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited the southern African countries late January, and this was followed by another snap visit to the Republic of Mali. It is a landlocked west African country with an estimated population of 21.9 million, and the eighth-largest country in Africa. Russia aims to expand its Sahel foothold, so Sergey Lavrov went Bamako, and continued to Mauritania.
Here are a few take-aways connected to the Sahel trip.
- In contrast to its usual official pre-travel announcements, the Russian Foreign Ministry did not give this scheduled travel information. It appeared only with news of his trip to Iraq and the two – Republics of Mali and Mauritania – both Sahel African countries emerged. It was the foreign minister’s second visit, this first quarter, to Africa. On his first swing through the continent, Lavrov visited South Africa, Eswatini, Angola and Eritrea.
Lavrov’s second trip to Africa was all over in global reports. Other than Africa, “where else would he fly?” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, which advises the Kremlin. “Before he was constantly in Europe, attending various conferences. That’s all over.”
The US has been pressuring the United Arab Emirates and Turkey to curb trade ties with Russia, and is seeking to persuade Middle East allies to help push Libya and Sudan to expel Russian mercenary group Wagner, the Associated Press reported. Mali has also hired Wagner contractors. “There’s a big fight” taking place to try and stop Russia from developing its influence in the Middle East and Africa, Lukyanov told Bloomberg News.
- On February 7 in Bamako, the capital of Mali, Lavrov held talks with Mali’s transitional president Colonel Assimi Goita and Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop. According to several information sources, Russia aims to raise its economic profile, pursue its military-technical cooperation and has access to exploiting natural resources in the region.
Mali has moved away from cooperating with France as the bilateral ties no longer satisfied its national interests, Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop said following talks. “As for France, we have come to all the conclusions that this cooperation failed to meet the aspirations of the Malian people.” According to Diop, “our goal is to foster our country’s autonomous and independent capability to defend Mali’s integrity, and we are quite capable of doing so.”
The Malian foreign minister insisted that any country seeking to cooperate with his country must necessarily observe the principle of Mali’s sovereignty and respect its right to choose a partner it needs. Russia re-assured to render further assistance to Mali to enhance the combat capability of its armed forces, and meet their requests on a systematic basis.
According to Diop, Russia has made critical decisions to ensure Mali’s access to grain, electricity, and fertilizers. “All of this will contribute to the comfort of our people,” he continued. Mali’s Foreign Minister also mentioned Russia’s interest in several Malian goods. Russia aims at improving the economic aspect of the relationship, work together to strengthen trade and economic relations. It will develop a unique structure for organizing these long-term projects and programmes.
According to Lavrov, Moscow and Bamako agreed that security provision is a key challenge for the Malians at this point. He added: “It is by addressing these issues that we should be able to establish a solid foundation for holding future events, including regular elections. We will support Mali in every possible way in the implementation of the set goals and we will do so while discussing relevant issues at the United Nations Security Council.”
Taking his turn, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed hope that deliveries of Russian wheat, fertilizers and petroleum products to Mali would start in the near future. “We are continuing humanitarian assistance to Mali, including, in the first place, through the bilateral line. I hope deliveries of wheat, fertilizers, petroleum products and other strategic goods will start in the near future,” Lavrov said.
The official website information indicated explicitly that Moscow intends to improve military ties with Mali and boost Malian officer training at Russian military universities. Therefore during their discussions, the two parties listed expanding trade, economic and investment ties, the development of mineral deposits, energy, and agriculture as possible scope for cooperation.
- The Sahel countries are rich in underdeveloped or untapped resources that could be used for raising the living standard of the impoverished citizens. On the other hand, these natural resources are bartered for Soviet-era and Russian military equipment. The primary aim, first and foremost, is to fight against frequent Islamic attacks in the region. In terms of the cost of military operation, the Wagner Group was contracted at a cost of $10 m (£8.3m) per month – but has not publicly commented on its activities there. This will be paid for by exploiting natural resources.
As widely interpreted, Mali has now become Russia’s foothold, in fact an entry point into the entire Sahel region after its government started working with the Wagner Group. As the country lacks direct sea access, it is necessary to build relations with other “entry points” to the region, and this possible through Mauritania, Algeria, and Morocco. Lavrov’s trip to Mauritania was aimed at setting up a foundation for this port access, as well as specific technical solutions.
- Lavrov has outlined Moscow’s ambition to provide military backing for governments across West Africa in the battle against Islamist militants. The interim military government consistently moves away from criticism of this shift to Russia. But evidence suggests that they have not been any more successful than other forces in dealing with the decade-long jihadist threat and insecurity may have worsened. Civilian casualties as a result of violence more than doubled last year, according to data from the crisis mapping organization Acled Info.
Rights groups have documented reports of torture, summary executions and sexual assaults during joint counter-insurgency operations dubbed Keletigui that began in December 2021. Analysis of data from Acled shows that civilians died in larger numbers than militants in such operations in 2022. At least 700 people were killed in incidents involving the mercenaries, largely in the volatile central regions of Mali. One of the highest death tolls came in March 2022 when at least 300 people were reportedly killed in week-long counter-insurgency operations in the central town of Moura.
Last year, Mali turned its back on former colonial power France favouring help from Russia instead. People and organizations trying to scrutinize Russia’s influence and Wagner operations have come under attack, which has led some to fear for their safety. In March, Mali banned broadcasts by French public media outfits RFI and France 24 over their reports on alleged atrocities by Wagner and Mali’s army. The government accused them of “sowing hatred and ascribing an ethnic angle to the insecurity in Mali.
British Broadcasting Corporation has reported that ther has been widely spread on social media and the pro-Wagner messages gain some public appeal when they were shared by those Malian pressure groups which have held protests agitating for increased co-operation with Moscow. Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin has cheered the propaganda campaigns as “the new era of decolonization”, exploiting long-standing distrust of former colonial power France.