Cold War in Mali

Berlin considers beefing up the Bundeswehr in Mali. Background: Bamako relies on military instructors from Russia.

BERLIN/BAMAKO (Own report) – The chairwoman of the Defense Committee of the German Bundestag is raising the issue of arming the Bundeswehr soldiers with Boxer armored transport vehicles. “If that air becomes more leaded,” the “light and medium weight equipment,” currently at the Bundeswehr soldiers’ disposal may no longer suffice, according to Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann (FDP). Alternately, one must ask, whether the Bundeswehr’s withdrawal from Mali could provoke “large movements of refugees” or if the “Russians would broaden their presence” in the country, since Mali’s military government – like the government of the Central African Republic – is inviting military instructors from Russia into the country, possibly personnel from private military contractors. On the one hand, there is fear that once European troops withdraw, it could end up like the government in Afghanistan, and on the other, resentment is growing toward the European states’ neocolonialist policies, while Russia’s popularity is increasing. According to experts, “many Malians” are fed up with “sanctions and threats” from former colonial powers.

The Withdrawal Option

The Debate over the German Bundeswehr’s deployment in Mali and a potential withdrawal from that country has been intensifying, since western armed forces – including Germany’s – were forced to precipitously withdraw from Afghanistan last summer, thereby having to admit to the world’s public their total defeat. The situation in Mali, where the Bundeswehr has been intervening for nearly nine years, is steadily deteriorating. For years, comparisons between this West African country and Afghanistan have been made.[1] If the deployment continues, it could end in a similar defeat. Last December, the Bundestag’s Defense Commissioner, Eva Högl, visited Mali and neighboring Niger, in whose capital the Bundeswehr uses an airport as its transportation base. Upon her return, she called for “candidly analyzing” the situation in the Sahel and to accurately determine with the allies “the realistic objectives we have.” The option of possibly terminating the military intervention “must also be placed on the table,” Högl declared.[2]

Security Advisor in Bangui

For some time now, the debate has been complicated by the fact, that Russia has been able to significantly enhance its position in Mali. The development in the Central African Republic serves as an example. After that country was plunged into civil war, France intervened militarily in late 2013. Since 2014, the EU has also been present with a deployment that was soon transformed into a training mission. After elections were effectively held in March 2016, France withdrew its troops, prompting the Bangui government – still hard-pressed by insurgents, but no longer supported by Paris – to seek military assistance elsewhere. In early 2018, the initial arms deliveries and military instructors arrived from Russia and Moscow soon proceeded to expand its influence in the country. The Russian company Seva Security Services, for example, provides personal security for President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who is also employing a Russian security advisor. Other Russian private military contractors are probably operating in the Central African Republic. The EU suspended its training mission in the country in December out of protest.[3]

Protests Against Neocolonialism

Some time ago, Mali had also begun to enhance its cooperation with Russia. Already in June 2019, both sides had signed an agreement on closer military cooperation. In October 2019, the Executive Secretary of the G5 Security Alliance (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad) had, for the first time, raised the issue of Russian participation in their efforts to stabilize the situation in the Sahel.[4] On the one hand, Bamako is uncertain, how long the European troops will remain in the country. The Malian government does not want to suffer a similar fate to Afghanistan and, like the government of the Central African Republic, is looking for possible alternatives. On the other hand, France and the EU’s military intervention have become quite unpopular in Mali. Anti-French protests are being regularly held, criticizing the European powers’ neocolonialist policies. Russia is becoming increasingly popular. Russian flags were repeatedly seen at last year’s protest demonstrations.

Russian Military Instructors

Since last fall, it has become apparent that the military, which seized power in Bamako with its August 2020 coup, has begun to invite military instructors from Russia. The first among them are reported to have recently arrived. In Timbuktu, in northern Mali, they are already replacing French soldiers, who had been withdrawn by December 15.[5] Their exact number is unknown and their background not clear. Whereas western sources usually report that they are personnel from private military contractors, the Malian government insists that the Russian military instructors are active on the same basis as the troops from the European Union Training Mission (EUTM Mali) and that Bamako has concluded a state-to-state partnership with Moscow.[6] Possibly the two are not mutually exclusive.

“Pressure Does not Work”

Nevertheless, Germany, France and other states involved in the Mali deployment are now beginning to protest fiercely. December 13, the EU imposed sanctions on private Russian military contractors and on individuals and organizations affiliated or allegedly affiliated with them. The sanctions are officially directed against an alleged mercenary contractor named “Wagner Group,” which, so far, could not be identified in Russia and, according to western experts, does not exist.[7] The name has come to describe a network of military instructors and private military contractors. In a joint statement published December 23, 16 European and North American states, including Germany and France, “firmly condemn the deployment of mercenary troops on Malian territory.”[8] Bamako, on the other hand, is maintaining its cooperation with Moscow. “Many Malians” insist on the national sovereignty of their country and reject “sanctions and threats,” Ornella Moderan, Sahel expert of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) was quoted saying: “To treat Malian authorities as diplomatic subordinates, to ignore their declarations and hoping to put them under pressure, does not work.”[9]

The EU’s Interests

In this context, the Chair of the Defense Committee of the German Bundestag, Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, is raising the issue of significantly beefing up the German troops in Mali. Currently, they have only “light and medium weight equipment,” Strack-Zimmermann declared.[10] However, if “that air becomes more leaded,” the question must be raised “should we possibly also have to deploy Boxers [armored transport vehicles, editor’s note] to protect our people?” Alternately, it has to be clarified, “what would happen if we leave? Would the Russians broaden their presence to fill the vacuum?” “Major unrest and therefore large movements of refugees” are also “not in Europe’s interests.” If one follows that line of reasoning, one can expect the Bundeswehr to remain in Mali.


[1] See also Like in Afghanistan and Mehr Militär für den Sahel (I).

[2] Wehrbeauftragte sieht Ende von Mali-Einsatz als Option. 02.01.2022.

[3] EU suspends military training in Central Africa over Russian mercenaries. 16.12.2021.

[4] See also Russian Flags in Bamako

[5] Russian troops deploy to Mali’s Timbuktu after French exit. 07.01.2022.

[6] Mali denies using Russia’s Wagner mercenaries. 25.12.2021.

[7] „The first thing to understand about the Wagner Group is that there most likely is no Wagner Group.” Amy Mackinnon: Russia’s Wagner Group Doesn’t Actually Exist. 06.07.2021.

[8] Statement on the Deployment of the Wagner Group in Mali – December 23rd 2021.

[9] Claudia Bröll: Russische Söldner in Mali gesichtet. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 10.01.2022.

[10] Strack-Zimmermann: Schwerere Bewaffnung in Mali prüfen. 12.01.2022.

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