Russia-Mali: Limited state-to-state relation to cover mercenary engagement

On the 27th of April, the CNT (National Transition Council) once again communicated on its military superiority over terrorist group, mainly thanks to its control of Mali’s airspace. This theme occupies the majority of the public discourse on cooperation between Russia and Mali, a “state-to-state” partnership supposedly for the best of the Malian people.

Since the delivery of Russian aircrafts late 2021, the FAMA (Armed Forces of Mali) communicate broadly on their increasing autonomy and aerial control. These aircrafts include MI35 but also, as shown below, MI171 (here the TZ-42H, TZ being Mali’s immatriculation code).

In front of the helicopter, the Russian Ambassador and Russian defense attaché in Mali

In a report published by ORTM (the Malian Office for Radio and Television) ), the air force elite is shown as autonomous for troop transportation, aerial evacuations ; and equiped for day and night operations against terrorist groups. To emphasize the partnership with Russia, several Malian officers were interviewed:

Colonel Sariba Yacouba Coulibaly, head of the center of coordination for aerial operations in Central-Eastern, commander of the 2nd aerial region
Lieutenant-colonel Adam Demba Dembélé, skipper of the Super Tucano
Captain Boubacar Dembélé, captain of the MI35
Captain Hamidou Traoré, MI117 pilot

Airspace control is a major stake for the CNT and its Russian partners. This has been proven again late April when French technological superiority allowed Barkhane, France’s military operation in Mali, to reveal the fabrication of a mass grave by Russian mercenaries from Wagner Group.

The focus on this theme was not an obvious choice. Mali has indeed not many setbacks in this domain. These include the Super Tucao downed by the dijadhi in 2020 causing the death of the two pilots, captain Moussa Maïga and second-lieutenant Mamadou Boubacar Traoré, and the MI35 damaged on April 26 during the combined terrorist attacks on Sevare, Niono and Bapho.

MI35 with rifle impacts from the 26th jihadi attack

The control seems therefore far from granted. Furthermore, accusations against France’s right to fly over Mali are in contradiction with article 5 of the 2013 agreement on free circulation and movements for the French army. This whole communication is thus largely disproportionate in comparison with the reality on the ground.

Glorifying etatic cooperation, covering Wagner actions

But this overglorification serves a purpose: hiding the cooperation between the FAMA and Wagner mercenaries that is now well documented. And on that topic, Prime Minister Choguel Maiga keeps denying any presence of the PMC in Mali. This, even though the Malian airforce supports them in their mission, and Sergei Lavrov himself confirmed that Wagner was present in Mali “on a commercial basis” and “without links with the Russian state”.

The pictures below clearly reveal this cooperation. We can see Wagner mercenaries using a MI171 and a HOWO sinotruck, both property of the FAMA. It proves also that captain Traore’s team is busy refueling the helicopter and checking the engine.

Pictures declassified by the French military showing Wagner personnel in Sevare, central Mali

Exacerbating the division between Barkhane and the FAMA

Other pictures circulating online and on international media show the mercenaries alongside FAMA soldiers. The government’s denial of this partnership allows it to cover their activities. The mercenaries use their liberty of action to mount fake accusations against France, such as the fake mass grave of Gossi. The goal is to play on the already existing defiance between the FAMA and their French counterpart.

The delivery in early April of a radar “Lradar 3D mobile 59N6-TE” is part of this scheme. Such equipment, with its 450km reach, is obviously not fit to fight against terrorist groups, but more likely to monitor French movements and especially prevent a drone from spying on Wagner’s operations.

While the war in Ukraine is raging, ministry of Defense Colonel Sadio Camara and Chief of Staff of the Airforce, Colonel Alou Boi Diarra, visited Russia to discuss new equipment delivery. There again, we may wonder what is the destination of these equipments. Especially after the junta denounced the defense agreement on May 3rd.

The instrumentalisation of tensions between France and Mali is a deliberate strategy of both Wagner and the junta. Anti-France discourse is indeed the only selling point of the government at a time where it fails to conduct significant reforms, and to weaken the insurgency. However, this politics is a dangerous one, as an increasingly isolated Mali slowly finds itself entirely dependent on the mercenary group.

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