Russians and Malian flags are waved by protesters in Bamako during a demonstration against French influence in the country on May 27, 2021. (Michele Cattani/AFP)
Russia is stepping up diplomatic ties with Algeria, a large oil and gas exporter and longtime Russian security partner in North Africa. On May 11, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited to meet with the Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune.
According to France 24, a French state-owned broadcaster, Lavrov and Tebboune discussed energy deals. But the meeting also came as the United States and Europe eye Algeria as a possible solution to skyrocketing fuel prices and an embargo on Russian oil in response to the Ukraine war.
In that context, on May 25, the Russian ambassador to Algeria, Igor Beliaev, remarked on what he characterized as a bright future for relations between Russia and Mali, the Algerian neighbor whose leaders invited Russian mercenaries from the so-called Wagner Group into the country last year.
“Just in a few months, the Russian presence in Mali brought security and stability,” Beliaev said.
That is false.
In fact, the Kremlin-linked private military group has reportedly had a destabilizing effect. Among other things, credible allegations say Wagner and government forces may have massacred hundreds of locals.
“According to data compiled by the NGO Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), as many as 456 civilians died in nine incidents involving Malian forces and Wagner between January and mid-April this year,” the Guardian reported on May 4.
Mali has experienced two military coups led by Col. Assimi Goita. The first, in 2020, followed protests against the government and corruption. In the second, in May 2021, Goita overthrew the interim government and was proclaimed interim president by a constitutional court.
The Western African country is also battling jihadist groups linked to Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaida in the Sahel region. Since 2013, French troops had been in Mali to help with security and fight jihadists, but President Emmanuel Macron announced a pullout in February.
The presence of Russian mercenaries in Mali first became known in September 2021, when Reuters reported that Wagner Group had been hired for $10.8 million a month.
In addition to Mali, Wagner forces are reportedly operating in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Mozambique and the Central African Republic (CAR). They’ve been accused of spreading disinformation and employing brutal tactics against protesters and others.
Last month, French officials released satellite photos they said show Wagner troops staging false evidence of mass graves in an attempt to accuse France of atrocities, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and others reported.
“Russian-linked social media accounts quickly blamed French forces for the killings in a series of inauthentic posts – the latest in an ongoing campaign to discredit French efforts in West Africa and instead promote Russian partnerships,” the CSIS said.
France’s military released the evidence after a Twitter account under the name Dia Diarra posted images of corpses being buried. France’s general staff said the Twitter profile was “very probably a fake account created by Wagner.”
On April 5, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Malian forces and the Wagner Group executed 300 civilians in the town of Moura in central Mali between March 27 and 31.
The Malian army denied the allegations and said in a statement it had conducted a special operation against Islamist militants in Moura. But 27 witnesses told HRW a different story.
They described scores of non-French-speaking white men participating in operations around several central Malian towns. During the operation in Moura, witnesses said, more than 100 Russian soldiers and several Malian troops arrived in helicopters and blocked the town's exits.
“Over the four days, the soldiers ordered the detained men in groups of 4, 6, or up to 10, to stand up and walk for between several dozen and several hundred meters. There, the Malian and foreign soldiers summarily executed them,” HRW reported.
On May 3, HRW said that since 2019, forces identified by witnesses as Russian “appear to have summarily executed, tortured, and beaten civilians” in the Central African Republic.
The rights watchdog said it interviewed 40 people who said they witnessed or were victims of abuses committed by Russian-speaking white men.
France 24 reported in 2019 on a man who said he was detained and tortured by Russian mercenaries for five days.
Mahamat Nour Mamadou told United Nations investigators that Russian mercenaries held him on suspicion of being a militia member. He said they tortured him and cut off his fingers.
“There is compelling evidence that Russian-identified forces supporting the Central African Republic’s government have committed grave abuses against civilians with complete impunity,” Ida Sawyer, HRW’s crisis and conflict director, said on May 3.
“The failure of the Central African Republic government and its partners to forcefully denounce these abuses, and to identify and prosecute those responsible, will most likely only fuel further crimes in Africa and beyond.”
The spread of extremism in Africa has created more opportunities for Russia to deepen its involvement in the continent. But Russia has also worked for years to form economic partnerships, and reverberations from the Ukraine war are now turning Europe’s attention south in the search for fuel.
At the same time, the war threatens to worsen food and fuel crises in Algeria and other North African countries, a majority of which import agricultural products from Ukraine and Russia. On May 20, the U.S. said it would provide $215 million in food aid to Algeria and Nigeria, among other countries.
According to The Africa Report, an English pan-African magazine, Europe is looking to Algeria for alternative sources of fuel to replace those lost from embargoes on Russia. Algeria has natural gas and relative proximity to Europe.
On April 11, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi announced his country had reached a deal with Algeria to increase Italian gas imports as an alternative to Russia’s gas. Draghi predicted that “others will follow.”
The U.S., facing the highest fuel prices since the mid-2000s, also has had meetings with the Eni and Total oil companies, which operate in Algeria, The Africa Report said.
Back in Mali, efforts to schedule eventual elections have split the transitional government and the Economic Community of Western African States, which has sanctioned the country with border closures. The U.N.'s April situation report said there had been little or no progress on reconciliation and security matters. Regarding human rights, the report states:
"The human rights situation remained precarious, mostly because of deliberate and widespread attacks on civilians by presumed extremist armed groups. In some instances, counter-terrorism operations also had dire consequences for the civilian population, especially in central Mali. Women and children in conflict-affected areas continued to be the victims of violence. The right to due process of individuals arrested or detained in connection with alleged terrorism-related offenses remained under significant strain."