As Europe withdraws from Mali, Russia gets the upper hand

When Mali’s government saw Tuareg separatists and jihadists storming from the north toward the capital Bamako in 2012, it turned to France—a former colonial power—for help. Operation Serval stopped the advance and was later transformed into a regional counterterrorism operation, dubbed Barkhane. France was gradually joined by other European countries, and the Sahel region had come to host the largest deployment of European forces abroad—with around eight thousand troops.

But now France and its partners are pulling the cord on Barkhane and the Takuba Task Force, claiming that “the political, operational and legal conditions are no longer met,” referring to the deteriorating relationship with the government in Bamako. The Malian junta itself is now pushing for a quicker end to French involvement, terminating the bilateral Defense Cooperation Treaty and the framework for hosting the two operations. France claims it’s leaving in accordance with the previously established plan and will evacuate its last military base in the eastern city of Gao sometime in August.

Whatever the case, Russia—by deploying the notorious Wagner Group mercenary force and leading a vast disinformation campaign—is gaining a strategic foothold against European interests at a critical time for Moscow. While all eyes are on the European theater, the competition with Russia is also playing out in the Sahel region—and now Europeans, in close coordination with local governments, need to find the right formula to adapt their presence and avoid leaving a vacuum that could be exploited even more.

Influence undone

The European withdrawal, announced in mid-February, wasn’t unexpected: After a May 2021 military revolt (Mali’s second coup in just ten months), Bamako’s relations with its neighbors, Paris, and other international partners gradually soured. Tensions peaked in early February of this year when the European Union (EU)—following sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)—leveled similar punishment against five prominent individuals it said were hampering the political transition in Mali.

That’s when Moscow, which had not been very visible in Bamako in recent years, stepped in to exploit this gulf between Mali and its European and regional partners. Facing increasing pressure from the international community, coup leader Colonel Assimi Goïta turned to Wagner to effectively help preserve his grasp on power. These contractors, widely seen as a shadowy force serving the Kremlin’s interests abroad, have been present in Mali since the end of last year, although in smaller numbers and deploying so far only in areas where European forces are absent or no longer engaged.

Even Russia may have been caught by surprise at how easily the deeply rooted French and European influence in the country crumbled: Simply by seizing local frustrations, building on European missteps, and introducing disinformation into the mix, it was able to harm European interests—and for cheap, without any major military, economic, or political engagement.

Now, Russia’s low-cost engagement with the junta opens it up to potential concessions for the extraction of Malian mineral wealth and the supply of military gear such as helicopters, both of which would weaken Western influence. Despite—or actually because of—the Russian military’s difficulties in Ukraine, we should expect a strengthening of Russia’s partnership with Mali. A quick succession of visits by the Malian defense and foreign ministers to Moscow in March and May, respectively, underline this. The visits also demonstrate that Moscow is not as isolated as the West would like it to be, and that it’s capable of harming Western interests at a limited cost.

Shattered ambitions, deteriorating security

The European military deployments were multifaceted and included direct support to Barkhane: the 1,100-troop European Training Mission (EUTM) in Mali and the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operation MINUSMA, which included 1,600 troops from twenty-three EU countries. Takuba, with its 800 troops (40 percent of them French), became an unprecedented coalition of European special forces whose mission was to advise, assist, and accompany Malian armed forces in counterterrorism missions.

But the end of Barkhane and Takuba, together with the uncertain futures of EUTM-Mali and European engagement within MINUSMA, underscore that Europe is losing ground in a region of key strategic importance. Bamako’s abstention from the UN’s vote condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine offers further proof—and is a direct result of Mali’s shifting political and security loyalties.

This end of an era in the Sahel could also close the door on the emerging model of joint European intervention, or the “European art of the coalition.” Europeans have deployed together in the past, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq, though seldom in such a demanding environment as the Sahel and typically with the Americans leading. Barkhane and Takuba may have offered some lessons, but they probably didn’t last long enough.

For Mali itself, further destabilization awaits. While the military junta and its Russian protectors will do their best to push out a positive narrative, the reality is already far more bleak. True, the Malian Armed Forces are better trained and equipped compared to a few years ago; but Wagner mercenaries do little to avoid civilian casualties, and ethnic minorities are already suffering from indiscriminate targeting. According to the latest MINUSMA report, the number of human-rights violations and abuses by the Malian defense and security forces grew from thirty-one in the last quarter of 2021 to 320 in the first quarter of 2022. Human Rights Watch claims that the late March killing of three hundred civilian men in the central Mali town of Moura by the country’s armed forces (and associated foreign soldiers “identified by several sources as Russians,” the group said) was the “worst single atrocity reported in Mali’s decade-long armed conflict.”

Wagner’s interest is not the stability of any particular country, but that of the country’s regime—which is why the security situation has deteriorated in most African countries that have let the group in. That’s why political trouble could also become a factor: Hiring Wagner, a drain on taxpayer funds, at a time when the Malian regime is under severe sanctions, may feed discontent from the Malian population. This is especially the case when those mercenaries are committing atrocities alongside the military.

Yet while the negative implications of Wagner’s costly involvement are clear, actually demonstrating this isn’t easy, given the power of the Russian-engineered disinformation campaign.

In February, our colleagues from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab revealed how a network of Facebook pages promoted pro-Russian and anti-French and -UN narratives, drumming up support for the postponement of elections after the May 2021 coup and for the mercenary group itself. Some of those campaigns were directly linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin who is considered to control Wagner. The Russians are also franchising the content to local creators, further complicating efforts to tackle it, while Facebook is only one of the many tools used by Russians for disinformation campaigns spotted throughout the region.

More recently, France denounced what it claimed was a false-flag operation by Wagner, whose troops allegedly buried bodies near a base in Gossi—recently handed to the Malian military by the French—in an attempt to discredit the European forces by implicating them in atrocities.

Fighting this kind of disinformation will likely become increasingly difficult without a military presence, and amid the junta’s attacks against press freedoms (which have included the suspension of France 24 and Radio France Internationale, and increasingly difficult accreditation procedures for foreign journalists). In its most recent index, Reporters Without Borders ranks Mali 111th out of 180 countries; last year, it was 99th.

Meanwhile, if Russia gets bogged down in Ukraine, a weakened Kremlin might look for an opportunity to destabilize European nations as revenge for their support for Ukraine. In the past, Moscow instrumentalized the war in Syria by sending refugees streaming into Europe; it might seek to do the same by building upon the instability in Mali. This would amount to a blow against Europe without engaging militarily.

Given the murky outlook, it can’t be completely ruled out that Bamako will turn to Europe again someday, especially if there is a change in leadership. But it took a lot for France to get its European allies into Mali, and here, history is unlikely to repeat itself.

The challenges ahead

While Barkhane might be over, European involvement isn’t quite yet.

For one, the ongoing withdrawal isn’t expected to be completed until the end of summer. During the coming weeks and months, European troops may be targeted by terrorist attacks. Dozens of heavy armored vehicles leaving Gao—likely the last base to be closed—might need to navigate improvised explosive devices. Meanwhile, Wagner mercenaries could deploy closer to European troops, adding extra risk to the process.

In the February joint statement announcing the withdrawal, the European signatories vowed “to remain committed in the region.” Since Takuba repeatedly proved its ability to deliver alongside local armed forces, setting an important precedent for future cooperation, this may be appealing for other security-compromised countries such as Niger and Burkina Faso. Yet the redeployment of European special forces in neighboring countries may drag on for political reasons.

For a Takuba-like task force to be set up somewhere else, it would require three elements: the host government’s invitation and a status-of-forces agreement (in April, Niger’s Parliament approved the deployment of more Europeans); convincing potentially reluctant local populations and getting civil society on board; and legislative measures back home allowing for Takuba members to legally operate outside of Mali. The latter might seem especially unattractive to European lawmakers when a war is raging in their own backyard.

Meanwhile, Europe’s continuous involvement through EUTM-Mali and the UN’s MINUSMA mission is also uncertain. The former had trained more than fifteen thousand Malian troops and also offers support to the G5 Sahel joint force—which Bamako recently left—while the latter’s mandate focuses on supporting the political process and helping stabilize Mali. But for both missions, it is becoming increasingly difficult to operate under the current circumstances, which besides the disinformation campaign and the presence of Wagner include new restrictions by the junta on the areas of operation and a potential lack of security guarantees after the Barkhane withdrawal.

MINUSMA was reportedly targeted by a Malian army rocket strike in April and saw its access to local airspace blocked. Bamako also imposed limitations on the mission’s movements on the ground, and peacemakers have been prevented from investigating the site of the Moura massacre. In this context, it is unclear how long Europeans will maintain their commitments to MINUSMA: While German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock recently confirmed her country would stay on, Sweden—which has a particularly strong tradition of participating in peacekeeping missions—announced that it will pull its approximately two hundred soldiers out of the mission by June 2023.

As for EUTM-Mali, the situation is even less clear. After several months of uncertainty, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced in April that the bloc will halt all military training missions, since the Malian authorities failed to provide sufficient guarantees that the EU-trained Malian soldiers would not be involved in operations with Wagner. There is reason for concern, given the recent past: A leaked European External Action Service report found that EU-trained troops in the Central African Republic had been cooperating with Russian mercenaries before the EU suspended its training mission in response several months ago.

Even if European military trainers remain in the country and the Czechs (who will assume leadership of the mission in July) appear ready for the challenge, the future of EUTM-Mali is anything but straightforward. Although the mission is not canceled, the EU is decreasing its presence so much that the mission is now a mere shell of what it used to be. Ultimately, the Europeans might prefer to withdraw their forces from EUTM-Mali or MINUSMA, or both, if they’re not confident that security is guaranteed.

What Europe should do now

Much remains to be discussed among the Europeans themselves, regional partners, and the Malian junta. Meanwhile, there are several points to bear in mind.

First, it will be critical for France to maintain, and further enhance, close coordination with its European partners (including the United Kingdom) over any major upcoming moves. Paris pushed for their growing involvement—and now it must take into account their concerns and priorities. Future decisions shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of France’s partners.

Second, having stated their “willingness to actively consider their support to neighboring countries in the Gulf of Guinea and West Africa,” the Europeans are considering extending EUTM missions to these areas. While the future of EUTM-Mali might be compromised, the EU could offer new training missions to countries that show interest. In May, Borrell said the bloc will reallocate its military resources to neighboring countries.

Third, while Takuba is unlikely to be fully replicated, the framework has been clearly gaining momentum, with more countries considering joining (and actually doing so). It marked a strategic shift especially for the Central and Eastern Europeans, who engaged more actively in the southern flank. Preserving this dynamic, which reinforces interoperability among the Europeans, will not be an easy task but is worth a try. It would demonstrate Europe’s ongoing commitment in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel, which—as Senegalese President Macky Sall recently put it—“cannot be the business of African countries alone.”

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, France and its European partners must closely study what went wrong, including in its communication with the local population. Russian-fueled disinformation nurtured Malian resentment toward the French armed forces, and experts believe Paris failed to engage public opinion effectively. French officials would do well to more closely analyze the weaknesses that Russia successfully exploited.

It is in Europe’s interest to continue supporting other countries in the Sahel. Indeed, the new EU Strategic Compass considers the future of the region to be of utmost importance, given Africa’s economic and demographic growth. But there are many problems to address. And while Ukraine has rightfully become the utmost security priority for the EU, it would be a mistake to forget about its major challenge in the Sahel.

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