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Mercenaries in Modern Peacekeeping: Wagner Group in Mali

 The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) offers a case study demonstrating the negative influence mercenary groups have on modern peacekeeping operations.  This article explains recent context and explores why the Government of Mali invited Wagner Group into Mali and what this means for the mission.  The UN has made limited efforts to counter the use of mercenaries and has struggled historically to cohere its strategy.  Nations contributing to UN missions seeking to limit the negative influence of mercenaries must be prepared to take a much harder military and political stance to ensure that missions are not impacted by these guns for hire.

‘I say, therefore, that the arms by which a prince defends his possessions are either his own, or else mercenaries, or auxiliaries, or mixed. The mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous, and if any one supports his state by the arms of mercenaries, he will never stand firm or sure, as they are disunited, ambitious, without discipline, faithless, bold amongst friends, cowardly amongst enemies, they have no fear of God, and keep no faith with men.’

Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince


After a separatist uprising in 2012 France (the former colonial power) intervened to secure Mali’s sovereignty.  Whilst successful in neutralising the immediate threat, the Government of Mali invited the UN to assist with stabilising the country.  Until August 2020 Mali was governed by the democratically elected Ibrahim Boubacar Keita who welcomed the UN’s presence.  However, a coup led by Colonel Assimi Goita brought an end to political stability and resulted in the arrest and resignation of President Keita.  A subsequent coup led by Goita in May 2021 was successful and Goita gained power and delayed elections until 2026.  In response to his refusal to hold elections, ECOWAS imposed sanctions on the military junta.  Goita maintains and encourages an anti-colonial stance against France that now extends towards MINUSMA.

In simple terms Mali is a battleground between two forces.  The Armed Forces of Mali (FAMa) are in a loose alliance with signatory armed groups.  They are fighting against Al-Qaeda affiliates and Islamic State in the Sahel Province (ISSP) who are based largely in the east of the country.  The nation is contested and which secessionists, jihadists, criminals, and strong-men vie for power.  Some do so within an established post-rebellion framework as signatories of the 2015 Algiers Peace Accord.  But others do so out with, advancing their aims through violence against rival armed groups or civilians from a tribal or ethnic ‘competitor’.  These actors regularly come into conflict with each other often resulting in atrocities.  MINUSMA have struggled to prevent the violence between this complex web of actors.

Islamist fighters in northern Mali. Wikimedia.

Faced with a deteriorating security situation and a peacekeeping mission without the resources to act decisively, Goita turned to the Wagner Group to help retain his grip on power.  In a move that blinded the UN to the influx of Wagner personnel into Mali, the junta closed their airspace in January 2022, grounding UN air and aviation.  This asserted Goita’s control and further hampered the UN’s ability to fulfil its mandate.  The result was to delay international condemnation of Wagner’s arrival which is only now becoming vocal months later.

The planned withdrawal of French forces in late 2022 will see the security situation deteriorate.  It is likely that the UN will be unable to replace attack helicopters and close air support.  The UN is likely to lack the will and ability to conduct offensive action to restricted terrorists’ freedom of movement meaning the mission is increasingly toothless.  This creates space for Wagner as Goita offers a ‘gold for goons’ exploitation opportunity.

Wagner’s operations in the Central African Republic started in 2018 and they were able to destabilise the nation as French and UN troops withdrew.  In Libya, around 1,200 Wagner mercenaries fought on the side of rebels prolonging the conflict.  They were subsequently accused of war crimes that include the torture and abuse of civilians, mass executions, and booby-trapping children’s toys.

There is no international legal framework for mercenaries and Wagner have immunity from prosecution from the Russian state.  Often operating in political voids, they militarily outmatch local forces and can therefore decisively influence conflicts.  Throughout the last decade the African continent has seen Wagner Group killing and maiming innocent civilians, creating instability as a deniable arm of the Russian state.  Wagner operate with no accountability or concern for human rights.

What are Wagner Group doing in Mali?

Since the arrival of the Wagner in December 2021 there has been a rise in the number of allegations of human rights violations.  Wagner’s presence has complicated the situation for the UN as Goita has a partner who is willing to act with impunity and support his hold on power.  71 of the 107 civilians killed have been linked to Wagner supported government forces.  Even as Russia seeks to reinforce their war in Ukraine by recalling mercenaries from Africa, Wagner have maintained around 1,000 personnel in Mali.  This force is bolstered by Russian gifted equipment, namely Mi-35M attack helicopters and advanced air radar systems.

Wagner have enabled the increasingly violent suppression of the people of Mali by Goita.  Operational areas are closed off by the military junta to hide their actions from scrutiny.  FAMa boast of significant engagements often with hundreds of ‘terrorists’ killed.  Wagner is enabling the extra-judicial killing of Malians, government opponents, and those from out of favour ethnic groups.

Russian mercenaries provide security for convoy with president of the Central African Republic.

To give two examples of Wagner’s negative influence.  In April 2022 a massacre was reported in Moura and it is alleged that over 300 civilians were killed by FAMa and ‘foreign soldiers’ almost certainly from the Wagner Group.  MINUSMA is still unable to gain access to investigate.  Wagner have also acted against the French in Mali.  They attempted to discredit them as they withdrew from Gossi.  France was quick to react to Wagner’s allegations of extra-judicial killings by publishing drone footage of Wagner mercenaries burying dead bodies outside of their former base.  This was a deliberate effort to discredit the French, a tactic which follows the Russian ‘disinformation playbook’.

Both examples are indicators that the junta is distancing itself from France and MINUSMA buoyed by the support of Wagner.  This makes it increasingly difficult for UN forces to operate in accordance with their mandate.  If the UN are rendered ineffectual and unable to influence the balance of power, then the void is filled by Wagner who will operate un-checked.

What can MINUSMA do about it?

Resolution 2164 states that MINUSMA’s focus is to support the Malian authorities ‘to bring to justice those responsible for serious abuses or violations of human rights or violations of international humanitarian law’.  Despite a clear mandate, the UN is struggling to counter Wagner Group in Mali.

In April 2022 the Special Representative of the Secretary General, El-Ghassim Wane, reported the mission sought access to the contested area to investigate claims of human rights abuses.  Authority was not granted to MINUSMA by the Malian authorities rendering the mission powerless.  The Malian Government instead ‘re-assured’ the UN that a military tribunal would take place.

This is a well understood problem with UN missions.  Contributing nations are unlikely to agree to becoming a more active participant without significant increases in combat power.  But the UN does not have to be ‘toothless’.  In the DRC, the new mandate instructed the mission to “carry out targeted offensive operations in the DRC to neutralise armed groups…either unilaterally or jointly with the Congolese security forces.”  This created a precedent for UN forces to conduct offensive actions if they remain impartial.

Politically, there have been calls from Niger’s President, Mohamed Bazoum, for the international community to do more help fight the insurgent groups.  Bazoum draws a comparison between the conflict in the Sahel with the fight against Islamic State.  “Against the same adversary, Daesh, in Iraq we saw a great international coalition.  Though today, we are not seeing the same mobilisation, through the UN in particular”.  MINUSMA or the EUTM could have become that coalition.  Goita, however, appears to have no desire for them to be his partner of choice.  Unless contributing nations are prepared to take a harder stance and deploy more combat power, and this sits mostly with France and the UK, then Mali looks likely to fall under Wagner’s influence.

The UN must be quick to support the international community by strongly condemning Wagner’s reported crimes to politically isolate them.  The United States, France, and the UK have now all demanded an investigation.  On the ground, however, MINUSMA is not empowered to allowed to conduct it without host national consent or the combat power needed to enforce its mandate. 

 So what for modern peacekeeping?

Wagner has demonstrated that it can accept greater operational risk undercutting UN efforts.  If the UN is not able to take this risk, both militarily and politically, then mercenary groups are likely to become the partner of choice and the UN will lose credibility.  It can change this by being, or at least being prepared to be, more robust with its use of force.

Contributing nations must invest in capabilities such as attack helicopters, medical evacuation, and close air support. Using the precedent from the DRC, the UN mission to Mali can use greater combat power to achieve mission success.  This provides the means to enforce its mandate moving towards ‘peace enforcement’ doctrine of the 1990s.

Soldiers from the Long Range Reconnaissance Group on Op Newcombe Mali. Photo: MOD

The real question for the UN is exactly how to generate this combat power.  Historically, nations with the combat power required have been reluctant to contribute to UN chains of command.

 One option is for the UN to employ mercenary forces itself.

 This would increase the market for military services but offers the opportunity for international regulation and control.  Doner states are likely to be uncomfortable with this and it also forms the core of a UN armed force undermining sovereign power.  Another idea is for the UN to buy the equipment needed to supply contributing states.  There is some precedent of this with UN funded peacekeeping training centres but none in preparing for assertive operations.  This would be costly in time and money but does keep the legitimacy of force with sovereign nations.

Looking more strategically, Mali also shows that the UN can no longer rely on political good will and needs greater international engagement to gain legitimacy.  In Mali, Wagner Group are largely condemned but not accepted as a target set.  The UN must build consensus around a peace settlement making it clear who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’ and who is deserving of international engagement.  Treating all parties as equal makes it difficult to enforce a mandate yet not all parties deserve respect.  Such a move requires international consensus that seems unlikely with the general paralysis in the Security Council, especially when the interests of a permanent member is threatened.  Endorsing mandates in the General Assembly is a bold move challenging the old order of power but may add legitimacy to UN military operations.

The problems within peacekeeping missions are well known.  In Mali both the lack of force and the lack of will to use it are evident.  The increasing influence of groups such as Wagner is degrading attempts to create peace.  Mercenaries aren’t going away.  The UN, and the international community, now face a question about what to do.  Creating both military and political cohesion is possible, it has been done elsewhere, but on the current trajectory it seems unlikely to happen in Mali.  As Machiavelli says ‘if any one supports his state by the arms of mercenaries, he will never stand firm or sure’.  Mercenaries will destabilise nations without efforts to control them.  If the UN is to remain the partner of choice, then it must be united and disciplined in its dealing with Wagner and take a harder military and political stance against their cowardly and faithless actions.

Cover photo: MINUSMA/Harandane Dicko

Joe Kite

Joe is a British Army Officer serving with 1st The Queen's Dragoon Guards. He has operational experience in Mali, Nigeria and Afghanistan as well as service at regimental duty and NATO eFP. His views are his own and do not represent the views of the Ministry of Defence.

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