Russian mercenaries have landed in West Africa, pushing Putin’s goals as Kremlin is increasingly isolated

A portrait of composer Richard Wagner, who has become a symbol of the Russian mercenary group Wagner, is on display as thousands of Malians gather to celebrate the departure of French soldiers from the country last month. (Paul Lorgerie/For The Washington Post)

BAMAKO, Mali — They wear army fatigues with no flag and carry Kalashnikov assault rifles. They guard the presidential palace and track extremists in the scrubland. Hundreds of Russian mercenaries have landed here over the last three months, according to regional and Western officials, providing a shadowy source of protection as this nation’s alliances with the West unravel.

The missions are unfolding as support for Russia surges in the capital, Bamako: Protesters wave Russian flags and photos of Vladimir Putin. Signs declare “I LOVE WAGNER” and “THANK YOU WAGNER,” referencing the Wagner Group, a Russian security organization targeted by U.S. sanctions that has been widely accused of war crimes.

“We think they’re here to clean up the mess,” said Diamano Dolo, a 41-year-old souvenir merchant whose gear with Russian letters (“Мали” for Mali) sells quickly.

Two coups and no election later, West Africa cuts off Mali

Wagner — seen by the United States as a covert extension of the Kremlin — arrived in Mali after a 2020 coup d’etat isolated the West African country from its democratic partners. As Russia invades Ukraine, the Kremlin is pushing to amplify influence worldwide, and ostensibly private military groups like Wagner offer a deniable way to advance its goals, researchers say. Since 2016, the Russian mercenary footprint has grown from four nations to a total of 28, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Eighteen are in Africa.

“Wagner comes in, further destabilizes the country, ravages the mineral resources and makes as much money as they can before they choose to leave,” U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Milton Sands, head of Special Operations Command Africa, told The Washington Post. “The country is left poorer, weaker and less secure. Every time.”

This story is based on interviews with 13 local, regional and Western officials who have reviewed intelligence, have access to internal reports or have been briefed on the details of Mali’s security partnership with Russia. Several spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters and avoid retaliation.

Mali’s military junta has denied hiring Wagner, saying it works only with army instructors from Russia, a “historic” partner. Putin, however, made no mention of a military agreement at a February news conference. When a reporter asked about mercenaries in Mali, the Russian leader acknowledged only “commercial activities,” saying the Kremlin has “nothing to do with the companies working in Mali.”

“If Mali has opted to work with our companies, it has the right to do so,” Putin said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov echoed that sentiment in an email to The Post. “We have nothing to do with the activities of private military companies abroad,” he said. Peskov did not respond to other questions about Russia’s military presence in Mali.

Officially, Wagner does not exist as a single registered business. Instead, analysts say, the group operates as a nebulous tangle of entities connected to the Russian military and Yevgeniy Prigozhin, an oligarch who is wanted by the FBI on charges related to interfering in the 2016 presidential election. Prigozhin has denied ties to Wagner, and he did not respond to a request for comment.

The controversial backup came after groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State upended life in the country of 21 million over the last decade. Thousands have died and millions have lost their homes as the conflict sweeps through two-thirds of Mali, which is double the size of Texas, and spills into neighbors.

France had sent the most troops of any country into the fight — backed by U.S. intelligence and logistical support — before announcing a total withdrawal from Mali in February, blaming soured relations and the arrival of Wagner. The U.N. has nearly 15,000 peacekeepers in the nation.

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Since the mercenaries began appearing in late December, new government rules have hindered international missions against the rapidly growing Islamist insurgency, according to five officials close to the operations: Surveillance flights now require 72-hour notice, and Mali’s military partners have been ordered to avoid areas where Russians are deployed. Western, regional and business leaders say the security contractors are performing a variety of duties, including embedding with Malian troops, upgrading telecommunications and running an off-limits supply hub out of the international airport.

The number of Russian security forces in Mali is a “defense secret,” said Adama Ben Diarra, a member of the transitional council and one of five Malian officials hit with European Union sanctions this year. Moscow sent them under a formal “state-to-state” agreement, he said, “and the world must prove otherwise.”

Junta spokesman Hamidou Belco Maiga declined to comment on allegations concerning Russia, mercenaries and their activities with the Malian army.

Wagner across Africa

After news broke last fall that Mali was considering a deal with Wagner, Western and regional leaders sounded the diplomatic alarm: Wagner is known to be more motivated by mineral wealth and other strategic assets than restoring peace.

In the Central African Republic, mercenaries enlisted to counter rebels since 2018 have abducted, tortured and killed people on an “unabated and unpunished” basis, according to a United Nations report, while a Russian company the U.N. said is linked to the group secured gold and diamond mining licenses.

In Libya, one of the continent’s oil giants, mercenaries operated in a “context of impunity,” the U.N. said, planting explosive booby traps in residential areas and committing summary executions in support of a warlord vying for control of the country.

In Sudan, researchers say, mercenaries teamed up with soldiers notorious for violently cracking down three years ago on crowds protesting the government of dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir — in exchange for gold mining rights.

As Wagner launched operations in Mali, pro-Russian rhetoric flooded Malian social media. One video offered a solution: Russian warriors with angel wings. The influx of propaganda in recent weeks has been “industrial,” said one Western official in the country.

Though pro-Russian groups in Bamako have long demanded stronger ties to Moscow, saying the Soviet Union was Mali’s first real ally after it asserted independence from France in 1960, demonstrations lately have burst with Wagner memorabilia. One February rally featured portraits of the 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner, whose stoic face circulates in mercenary circles online, nodding to a nickname for Soviet-era artillery: the orchestra.

“I’ve been saying this for years: My inspiration — my compass — was the relationship our first president had with the Soviet Union,” said Diarra, who gained prominence as a pro-Russian activist and social media star known as Ben the Brain. “But what I care about is Mali. Solving Mali’s problems is why we are here.”

A charged arrival

Between 800 and 1,000 mercenaries are now working in Mali, according to U.S. military officials focused on Africa. France has put the number at 1,000.

When French President Emmanuel Macron announced that Paris would shift troops from Mali to bordering nations, he cautioned that Wagner has “predatory ambitions.” A Russian military figurehead in the Central African Republic, Alexander Ivanov, responded that he was suing Macron for “flagrant defamation” to raise money for those hurt by “French neocolonialism.”

The Kremlin has denied involvement with soldiers of fortune, saying private firms are free to peddle services anywhere.

Yet Washington says Wagner is run by Prigozhin, an oligarch known as “Putin’s chef” for his catering empire and ties to the Kremlin.

“There are a lot of rumors around Mr. Prigozhin and the Wagner PMC attributed to him,” Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said in an email. “All of them are absolutely unfounded and unsubstantiated.”

The former head of Ukraine’s main government security agency has referred to Wagner as Putin’s “private army.”

“Russia could start looking at Wagner as a revenue source because the group has the ability to seize assets like gold, diamonds and bauxite,” said Samuel Ramani, associate fellow at the Royal United Service Institution, a British security think tank, and author of a forthcoming book on Russia’s presence in Africa. “You could see a more overt predation.”

How the mercenaries are being paid in Mali remains murky.

Most West African nations sealed their borders and ended all but essential trade with Mali in January after the junta unveiled a five-year plan to restore democracy. Members of the regional bloc known as ECOWAS froze the country’s assets in their commercial banks. Bamako soon after defaulted on domestic debts.

But the nation is Africa’s third-largest gold producer and boasts reserves of lithium, which powers smartphones, and uranium, a silvery metal used for nuclear reactor fuel.

“I have reason to believe that the Malian government tab for Wagner’s services is $10 million a month,” Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command, said on a recent video conference, adding: “I think they will have to trade in kind with natural resources such as gold and other minerals.”

The junta is negotiating concessions with Wagner, according to three Western officials who have reviewed intelligence on the matter. The junta did not respond to questions about a financial arrangement with Russia.

Combat missions and a cowboy bar

About a third of the Wagner agents in Mali have embedded with the army around the country’s center, where violence has surged in recent years, according to the five officials close to the operations. They have been tasked with cornering suspected fighters and staging strikes in overwhelmingly rural areas.

Since Wagner joined the Malian convoys, rights groups have flagged crackdowns they said hurt or killed innocent people — a problem that existed before Wagner touched down.

The junta has said it probes every report of abuse and is establishing a court to punish military wrongdoers. A spokesman for the Malian army did not respond to questions about the allegations.

European and West African security partners in Mali, meanwhile, have lost access to areas that Wagner patrols, the officials said. The 72-hour requirement for surveillance flights began in January, they said, preventing allies from sending aircraft above villages in danger of imminent attacks — a move meant to spook away assailants.

“We get the impression there is something to hide,” one official in the country said.

Farther north in Timbuktu, Russian contractors have moved into an airport previously used by French forces, the officials said. They were seen “doing telecommunications work” — setting up phone lines and Internet — and fixing the Malian army’s armored vehicles, according to a mining consultancy’s report obtained by The Post.

In the capital, mercenaries guard the presidential palace, according to the officials, and operate a military supply hub out of a sealed-off wing of the international airport.

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Wagner numbers in sub-Saharan Africa fluctuate. The U.S. military estimates that between 3,000 and 5,000 are active on the continent. Mercenaries tend to shuttle from one conflict zone to another.

The Central African Republic usually has the deepest bench, researchers say. Wagner agents there tail the president as bodyguards and attend public events — like the premiere of a movie last year about the heroics of Russian commandos.

Mercenaries in Bamako keep a lower profile. One diplomat told a Washington Post reporter to look for Wagner at a cowboy-themed bar. On a recent Friday night, the hits of Ricky Martin (“She Bangs”) and Britney Spears (“Toxic”) blasted as Ukrainian waitresses poured shots of tequila. Two men sat at the bar, eating pizza and chatting in Russian. When asked what brought them there, one replied in English: “My life is s---.”

A geopolitical collapse

Wagner’s arrival in Mali has hastened the breakdown of alliances with France and other European partners while straining relations with neighbors.

Ivory Coast’s president said in an interview with the Financial Times that hiring Wagner would be “suicide” for Mali. The country has directed more troops to its northern border, preparing for heightened turmoil.

“These are mercenaries,” Niger’s foreign minister, Hassoumi Massaoudou, told The Post. “We are absolutely against mercenaries in Mali and every other country.”

West and central African troops have flagged the need for more help. On their own, officers say, they lack the necessary manpower and equipment to end the conflict.

Since Paris deployed troops to thwart al-Qaeda extremists advancing on Bamako in 2013, the international intervention has failed to curb the bloodshed. Fighters have regrouped and scattered. Fatalities rose by 17 percent last year, according to the African Center for Strategic Studies in Washington.

Some in Mali feel pressure to silence their concerns about the junta’s new strategy, said one former Malian official. Distrust of Paris swelled after a U.N. report found that a French airstrike killed 19 civilians last year in the central Malian village of Bounti.

“Working with mercenaries,” the former official said, “we will have dozens more situations like Bounti.”

After Paris’s top diplomat accused mercenaries of “despoiling” Mali, Bamako shot back by expelling the French ambassador. Then Macron announced his troops would exit, and the 800-soldier European counterterrorism force meant to bolster the French effort said it would follow suit.

The junta invited France to leave “without delay,” saying the Malian army has made more progress against extremists in recent months than it had in years. And pro-Russian rallies continue in Bamako. Video showed demonstrators burning cardboard cutouts of Macron. Others brandished the face of Putin.

On the afternoon of the French ambassador’s expulsion, a group of friends gathered outside near the embassy in question, cracking jokes.

“We don’t even want to see the dust he leaves behind,” said Aminata Traore Bassadiki, a 46-year-old incense seller, slapping her knee.

She hadn’t joined the protests. She just liked the idea of a new partner replacing France.

Sidiki Magassouba, a 52-year-old energy company staffer, nodded along.

“The anti-French feeling is more than boiling today,” he said. “It is France who pushed us into Russia’s arms.”

“Russians, Wagner — we don’t care who they are,” Bassadiki said, pronouncing it Vahg-ner. “If it means we will get our peace, we would follow Satan.”

Mamadou Tapily in Bamako contributed to this report.