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Russia vows to boost military cooperation with Mali

Isaac Mugabi (with Reuters and AP)
February 8, 2023

While on a trip to Mali, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced more military support for the Malian military junta. Moscow says it will assist Mali in its bid to defeat an Islamist insurgency in the Sahel.

 Mali's Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop (L) and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shake hands during a joint press conference
Russia is keen on strengthening ties with Africa after the west sanctioned it over the war in UkraineImage: Alexander Shcherbak/dpa/picture alliance

While on a visit to the West African country of Mali where he held talks with his counterpart Abdoulaye Diop and interim leader Colonel Assimi Goita, top Russian diplomat Sergey Lavrov praised the bilateral relations between Moscow and Bamako.

"Last year and at the beginning of this year, a large consignment of Russian aviation equipmentwas sent, thanks to which the National Army of Mali has recently managed to carry out successful operations in the fight against terrorists, who still remain active on Malian territory," Lavrov said.

"The second batch of aircraft for these purposes was delivered quite recently, on January 19."

According to the military authorities, this is the first time a head of the Russian Foreign Ministry has visited Mali. On the other hand, it is Lavrov's third trip to Africa since July 2022, part of a bid to expand Russia's presence on the continent amid broad international isolation after Moscow invaded Ukraine last year.

The meeting comes in the wake of a call last week by the United Nations for an independent investigation into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity by government forces and Russian private military contractor Wagner Group in Mali.

Three Russian merceneries with a Malian soldier walking.
Security analysts say Russia's Wagner private military group is expanding its presence in AfricaImage: French Army/AP/picture alliance

Stronger economic ties

Apart from military and defense ties, Mali seeks to reinforce its economic cooperation with Russia and get preferential access to essential products.

At a joint press conference, Lavrov further stressed that Russia "will continue to provide the necessary support to our friends not only in matters of economic and trade development but also with humanitarian assistance."

"Our Malian friends have specific wishes in this respect; they are systematically satisfied," Lavrov said.

Since coming to power in a 2020 coup, Mali's ruling military, the junta has turned to Moscow even as it sparred with neighbors and Western nations over election delays and its decision to work with Russian mercenaries to combat an Islamist insurgency.

Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin told Mali that Moscow was committed to strengthening cooperation to help eliminate the militants. It also promised fuel, fertilizer, and food shipments worth around $100 million (€93 million).

"We welcome all the steps taken by the authorities of the Russian Federation to create preferential conditions for my country to have access to basic necessities in a particularly difficult global economic context," Mali's foreign minister Abdoulaye Diop told reporters.

What is Russia doing in the Sahel?

Russia wins big after France fallout

Mali's growing friendliness with Russia has coincided with a breakdown in relations with France, the country's former colonial power. Last year, the rift led Paris to withdraw all its troops battling militants since 2013.

Diop said the collaboration with Russia had delivered tangible results in defense and national security as Mali continued its battle against insurgents.

Western governments are worried about the involvement in Mali of Russian private military contractor Wagner, which is also fighting alongside the Russian army in Ukraine.

Late in January, the US Treasury Department designated the Wagner Group a significant transnational criminal organization as it bid to crack down on an entity responsible for atrocities in Ukraine. Fighters of the Wagner Group, who have also appeared in Syria, are notorious for the brutality of their tactics.

Referring to Western criticism and the Wagner group, Lavrov downplayed the accusations, adding that he "was not aware of any UN experts who would be empowered to consider any aspect of war crimes, whoever committed them."

Despite such criticism, the Malian Foreign Ministry said in an earlier statement, as quoted by Reuters, "This high-level visit is in line with the political choice made by the Transitional Government to expand and diversify strategic partnerships."

Lavrov's visit shows "the firm will of the Malian and Russian heads of state to give new impetus to the relations of friendship and bilateral cooperation ... in priority areas, particularly defense, and security," the ministry said.

 A man holds a placard reading "Long live Russia" as people demonstrate against French military presence in Niger
Many Francophone African countries are turning to Russia as anti-French sentiments grow Image: BOUREIMA HAMA/AFP/Getty Images

A history of long-standing relations

After the proclamation of its independence on September 22, 1960, Mali established its first contact with Russia in economic, social, and cultural cooperation.

According to Daouda Tekete, author of the book Modibo Keita — portrait inédit du président (father of Malian independence, editor's note), "after the departure of the last French troops from Mali, on February 21, 1961, the Malian government sent a delegation to Moscow that signed the first agreements between Mali and the then Soviet Union.

As part of the agreement, Moscow equipped Mali with heavy weapons, fighter planes, and everything that Modibo Keita, Mali's first post-independence president, left as a legacy for the Malian army.

On June 25, 2019, Russia and Mali concluded, on the sidelines of the Army 2019 forum, held near Moscow, a military cooperation agreement signed by the Ministers of Defense of both countries.

In November 2022, on the sidelines of the visit of Mali's minister of security, Daoud Aly Mohammedine, to Moscow, Mali and Russia signed a cooperation agreement on security, intelligence, risk and disaster management, counter-narcotics, and personnel training. 

Alexis Kalembry, journalist and publication director at Mali Tribune, told DW that Mali is particularly interested in choosing the Russian camp in a divided world that has pitted the west against Russia because it invaded Ukraine.

"One might be tempted to say that the world is repolarizing. And with the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, every country has to reposition itself. Russia is becoming a pole around which all those who see the world differently are clustering. I believe that this is a wave on which Mali can surf."

Sahel - Inside the resistance

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu