Russian Flags in Bamako

The debate on the future of the German Bundeswehr mission in Mali is taking place as Russia and Turkey noticeably increase their influence in the Sahel.

BERLIN/PARIS/BAMAKO/MOSCOW (Own report) - The West's significant loss of influence in Mali is affecting the debate on the future of the Bundeswehr mission in the Sahel. While Berlin - in light f the defeat in Afghanistan - is suggesting that the intervention in the Sahel should not become "the next 20-year mission," the transitional government in Bamako is contemplating recruiting mercenaries from Russia's Wagner Group, as Plan B, in case there is a partial or complete western withdrawal. Plan B is linked to the expansion of military cooperation between Mali and Russia launched in June 2019, with the signing of an agreement. The prospect of closer cooperation with Moscow is met with growing sympathy within the Malian population. At the same time, Turkey is also consolidating its position in the Sahel by expanding its economic and cultural influence and training Malian officers. Following Syria and Libya, Mali is, therefore, the next country, where the Western powers are losing their influence while Russia and Turkey are enhancing theirs.

"Puppet of Neocolonialism"

The debate on the future of the military intervention in Mali and the prospect of a deployment of Russian mercenaries is occurring as this West African country's public mood is changing. This has even been repeatedly pointed out by Western experts. On the one hand, this is due to the fact that particularly France has been trying to dictate Bamako's political decisions and on the other, because the situation in Mali has not improved since the military intervention began in 2013, but rather has deteriorated, with a growing number of civilians being killed or having to flee.[1] Public opinion in Mali now largely views France's Operation Barkhane as unable to bring about security and rather as a tool of French neocolonialism, according to Mady Ibrahim Kanté from the Université de Bamako.[2] In February the International Crisis Group (ICG), a western Think Tank explicitly noted that demonstrations against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, in the run-up to the coup on August 18, 2020, had attacked Keïta not only because of blatant corruption but also as a "puppet of neo-colonial France."[3] Primarily in Mali, but also well beyond, there is "widespread resentment of Western intervention in the Sahel," according to the ICG.

Russia and the Sahel

At the same time, public opinion in Mali is increasingly looking toward Moscow as a potential security partner - particularly if France reduces its military presence in the country, Kanté reports.[4] Already in June 2019, the Bamako government signed an agreement with Moscow, providing for a certain range of military cooperation.[5] On the Russian side, cooperation with Mali is part of Moscow's efforts to intensify its relations with African countries in general. A truly pivotal event was the Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum, held in Sochi on October 23–24, 2019. At the meeting, the Permanent Secretary of the G5 Sahel (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad), Maman Sambo Sidikou, expressed his hope that Russia, at a certain point, would play a role in stabilizing the Sahel.[6] In turn, Russian President Vladimir Putin emphasized that Moscow is determined to broaden cooperation with African countries in the realm of security, including in the fight against terrorism. Alluding to the neocolonial influence of Western powers, Putin added that Russia could thereby help African countries "protect their independence and sovereignty."

Mali's Plan B

The Russian propositions are increasingly eliciting a positive response in Mali. In November 2019, demonstrators in Bamako urged Russia to repel jihadi attacks in Mali like it did in Syria.[7] Following the August 18, 2020 coup, and again following the May 24, 2021 coup, at demonstrations in Bamako, protesters were waving Russian flags and calling for closer Russian-Malian cooperation. It was recently reported that Bamako's transitional government was engaged in negotiations with Russia's Wagner Group. If France partially or completely halts its "Operation Barkhane," it is planned that up to a thousand mercenaries would be dispatched to Mali, and would also take over security for Malia's top government officials, according to reports.[8] France, Germany and the other western powers have reacted with extreme indignation, and are sparing no efforts to force Bamako to abandon the project. Prime Minister Choguel Maïga protests against this political interference. Mali cannot be prohibited from cooperating with a particular country, "simply because another country disapproves."[9] Maïga explicitly refers to his cooperation plans with Wagner as "Plan B."

Hospitals and Mosques

However, Russia is not the only country seeking to roll back the influence of former western colonial powers in Mali. Recently, a comprehensive analysis by the ICG drew attention to the activities of Turkey in the Sahel region.[10] Ankara is energetically expanding its relations to that region, also to Mali, as well as to other countries and regions of Africa. In Mali, Ankara is building hospitals, clinics, and mosques, creating a suitable environment for sales of Turkish exports. Trade between Mali and Turkey, for instance, increased from US $5 million in 2003 to US $57 million in 2019. Direct Turkish Airlines flights have been attractively scheduled from Bamako to Jeddah to serve Muslim pilgrims, as well as launching direct Turkish Airlines flights from Istanbul to Bamako, which entices Malian entrepreneurs - deterred by Europe’s increasingly strict border policies - to Turkey. In 2018, Ankara began training Malian officers in Turkey and supplying Mali’s army with light weapons and ammunition. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu became the first senior foreign official to meet with leaders of the August 18, 2020 coup.

"Not the Next 20-Year Mission"

The looming loss of European powers' influence complicates the German debate on the Bundeswehr mission in Mali. Since the West's defeat and headlong departure from Afghanistan, the discussion has gained momentum. Parallels between the two interventions are all too obvious. As at the Hindu Kush, the longer the mission lasts, the stronger the insurgents are growing also in Mali. France, whose military has long been considered overextended, intends to reduce the number of its troops stationed in the Sahel by half, and to terminate its combat mission. At the beginning of September, the Bundestag's Armed Forces Commissioner, Eva Högl (SPD), called for a "very rapid reflection," on whether the Bundeswehr's mission is "sustainable."[11] Johann Wadephul, Deputy Chair of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, said one "must take a new look at Mali": Even though "it is not yet possible to withdraw," it "must be clear that this is not the next 20-year mission." After Bamako's plans to possibly cooperate with mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group became known, Germany's Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer raised the possibility, for the first time, of pulling the Bundeswehr out.[12] Of course, unlike Afghanistan, this would mean a direct loss of influence in favor of Russia.


[1] See also Putsch in the Theater of Operations

[2] Michele Barbero: France Bids Adieu to Its Military Mission in West Africa. 07.07.2021.

[3] International Crisis Group: A Course Correction for the Sahel Stabilisation Strategy. Africa Report No 299. 1 February 2021. See also Die Dauerkriege des Westens (I)

[4] Michele Barbero: France Bids Adieu to Its Military Mission in West Africa. 07.07.2021.

[5] Russia, Mali: Moscow Inks Defense Agreement With Sahel Nation. 27.06.2019.

[6] Sergey Sukhankin: Terrorist Threat as a Pre-Text: Russia Strengthens Ties with G5 Sahel. 20.03.2020.

[7] Samuel Ramani: Why Russia is a Geopolitical Winner in Mali's Coup. 16.09.2020.

[8] Mali-Russie : Bamako sur le point de signer un contrat avec une société du groupe Wagner. 14.09.2021.

[9] Fatoumata Diallo: Mali : Bamako ne fléchit pas et n'exclut pas de collaborer avec le groupe Wagner. 20.09.2021.

[10] Turkey in the Sahel. 27.07.2021.

[11] Markus Decker: Nach dem Afghanistan-Desaster: Mali-Einsatz soll überprüft werden. 02.09.2021.

[12] Kramp-Karrenbauer stellt Mali-Einsatz in Frage. 15.09.2021.