Mark Galeotti Mark Galeotti

Has Putin outplayed Macron in Africa?

As French forces leave, Russian mercenaries are arriving

(Getty)

While the world is focused on Ukraine, Emmanuel Macron has withdrawn all French forces from Mali. Last weekend, thousands of soldiers were flown out of the former French colony after nine years of fighting Islamist insurgents in the Sahel. Malian protesters bid the French soldiers farewell by shouting ‘Shit to France’ at the departing planes.

Following a military coup in May, Mali’s ‘interim President’ Colonel Assimi Goïta began to tire of the French and their calls for free elections. There were also lingering doubts over France’s motivation, stoked by a Russian disinformation campaign. So Goïta began looking for allies who could provide him with muscle to fight the Islamist insurgency without any lectures about democracy. He found such an ally in the Wagner Group.

Macron said last week that the deal between Wagner and the new Malian regime was behind his decision to withdraw troops. Wagner, he explained, was ‘arriving in Mali with predatory intentions… Because the junta which is in power after two coups d’etats considers them to be the best partners they can find to protect their power, not to fight against terrorism.’

In theory, Wagner is a private mercenary company. In practice, it’s part of Putin’s wider apparatus

In theory, Wagner is a private mercenary company. In practice, it’s part of Putin’s wider apparatus — able to set up shop in several countries, lending advanced technical equipment, advisers and hundreds of troops. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, says the presence of a thousand Russian mercenaries in Mali is a matter of business, not government policy.

Formed during the 2014 Ukraine crisis and later used during the Syrian civil war, the Wagner Group is an arms-length tool of the Kremlin’s geopolitical arsenal. Ninety-five per cent of its recruits come from Russia (with a smattering of Serbs and Abkhazians).

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