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How the Russian-Backed Wagner Group, Infamous for Sexual Violence and Pillaging, Is Failing in Mali

On Aug. 22, 2023, unidentified armed assailants fired on a Minusma convoy en route from Gao to Ménaka, in eastern Mali, in the same week that another convoy was attacked, leaving four peacekeepers from Burkina Faso wounded. That convoy was heading from a camp in the north, called Ber, and heading to Timbuktu amid the UN peacekeeping mission’s overall withdrawal from the West African country. The process is starting with the smallest, most remote camps and is supposed to culminate in a full exit by Dec. 31, as demanded by the Malian government. MINUSMA

With the death of Yevgeny Prgozhin, the leader of the brutal Wagner Group, Russia seems determined to allow the mercenaries to operate in Africa, particularly in Mali and the Central African Republic.

Murders, theft of resources and rape characterize the Wagner Group’s operations as it works closely with the leaders of certain African nations to prop them up against domestic rebellions and Islamic State fighters. The group finances itself by exploiting natural resources, such as small gold mines in Mali. But their presence in Mali is a failure so far.

Now what?

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a mandatory oath for employees of Wagner and other private military contractors was a clear move to bring such groups under tighter state control, reports Reuters.

Other analysts, including the Russian-born American journalist, Julia Ioffe, believe the G.R.U., or intelligence unit, may take over Wagner, as the unit already has an operation in Mali. At this point, its strategy is unclear.

One way or another, Russia wants to keep its foothold in Mali, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the Russia Today program on June 26. According to the Mali specialist Joe Penney, Lavrov said that Wagner would remain in Mali and the Central African Republic, adding: “This situation cannot change the strategic relationship between Russia and its African partners.”

Mali made international news in March 2022 when it battled Islamists in the town of Moura, killing everyone in sight. At least 500 people were murdered by the Malian army and Wagner fighters. Executions, rape and torture were common, subjecting at least 58 women to sexual violence.

Sanctions have been imposed against individual Wagner members by the United States and the European Union. But the group has not yet been listed as a terrorist militia.

How to relocate?

Now the agreed withdrawal of UN peacekeepers, known as Minusma, by Dec. 31, has brought to light other grave problems.

El-Ghassim Wane, the UN special representative for Mali, told the Security Council on Monday that closing the mission entails the repatriation of 12,947 uniformed personnel, the separation of 1,786 civilian staff, the repatriation and/or relocation of a load of approximately 5,500 sea containers of UN-owned equipment and almost 4,000 vehicles and the handover of 12 camps.

Mali’s junta, which seized power in coups in 2020 and 2021, welcomed Wagner in 2021. But there is no way Minusma can leave by the end of this year with all its equipment, so it will aim to carry out a full “liquidation” over 18 months into 2025. The UN mission also needs to traverse turbulent Niger.

It is rare for the UN to mention the Wagner group by name, referring to it instead as an armed militia or other euphemism. Not so the US, France, Britain and Albania in the Security Council publicly. A notable UN exception is the Geneva-based human rights office.

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As the first battalion of UN peacekeepers was withdrawing recently, their convoy was attacked twice at the Ber camp in northern Mali, injuring four soldiers and damaging three vehicles.

“Minusma’s withdrawal limits the ability of the international community to protect civilians from the predations of Wagner, whose activities contribute to greater insecurity in the country,” US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the Security Council.

France, a former colonial power in the Sahel region, had been ordered to pull its troops out a year before by Mali. Its deputy UN representative, Nathalie Broadhurst, called the clashes in Ber with the participation of Wagner mercenaries “a serious violation of the ceasefire.”

Despite the UN’s decades-plus emphasis on Mali, the literature shows that the Wagner group has been unsuccessful in the last year or so, especially compared with its intervention in the Central African Republic.

Who are the Wagner fighters?

Often they are Russians from poorer neighborhoods, but also Armenians, Kazakhs and Moldavians. Some are prisoners, induced by funds and a promise of parole if they survive their time in Wagner.

They have been called “the musicians.” The name was invented by Dmitri Utkin, a Wagner commander. He was on the same plane that crashed with Prigozhin.

The French news agency AFP describes Utkin as having had a Nazi SS symbol tattooed on both sides of his neck. Hitler was a huge fan of the German composer Richard Wagner and many observers see this nom de guerre as another indication of Utkin’s Nazi sympathies. (Paradoxically, one reason that Putin has launched his war on Ukraine, he says repeatedly, is to wipe out the “Nazis” in the country.)

In a new 104-page report, the UN panel of experts on Mali also avoided fingering Wagner but referred to the group as “The Whites/Les Blancs” or foreigners. The panel believes that violence against women and other forms of grave abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law are being used specifically by the foreign security partners to spread terror among populations. Islamic State extremists have almost doubled the territory they control in Mali in less than a year, the panel said, another indication of Wagner’s incompetency.

Central African Republic

In the Central African Republic (CAR), the Wagner Group, since 2018, has been propping up the weak government of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, whose writ extends little beyond the capital, against and gold mining licenses. The Russian security company has been widely accused of perpetrating severe human rights violations and harassing peacekeepers, journalists, aid workers and minorities.

“Wagner’s presence puts the CAR government at odds with the United Nations and the Western governments, which increasingly demand that the CAR end its dealing with the Russian company or risk losing their assistance,” the Brookings Institution said.

The Wagner Group expanded its role in Africa’s Sahel region by seizing on its years-long slide fed by widened extremist and ethnic insurgencies, seven military coups, populations uprooted and unsuccessful international interventions. “These conditions have let Wagner offer weapons, mercenaries and other support to a half-dozen authoritarian (mostly military-led) governments that face isolation,” concluded the US Institute of Peace.

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