Russia already has “hundreds” of mercenaries in Mali, but there was no sign they were using EU-trained Malian soldiers, the EU foreign service has said.
“The presence of mercenaries from the Wagner Group is now confirmed by several sources. We understand that, so far, several hundreds of mercenaries are deployed in Bamako and in the centre of the country,” an EU spokesperson told EUobserver on Monday (17 January).
“Based on precedents in other countries, it is our opinion that this presence will only aggravate the crisis and pose serious risks to human rights,” they added.
Wagner Group is a Kremlin-linked mercenary force named after the military call-sign of its founder, Dimitriy Utkin, a Russian former special-forces officer.
The mention of “precedents” referred to the Central African Republic (CAR), Libya, Syria, and east Ukraine, where Utkin personally and his men stand accused of atrocities by the UN and EU.
The EU recently folded a military-training mission in CAR after it emerged that at least one EU-trained CAR battalion was fighting under Wagner Group’s command for the sake of “predating” the country’s mineral wealth.
The EU also has two military training and advisory missions in Mali – EUTM Mali and EUCAP Sahel Mali.
These have stayed open, alongside an EU embassy in Bamako, despite a putsch in May last year.
“For the time being, there is no indication that EU-trained Malian soldiers are being used by Wagner,” the EU foreign service told EUobserver.
But “the possibility of Malian soldiers operating alongside or under the control of Wagner mercenaries is a very serious concern, whether the units have been trained or not by EUTM Mali. This point will therefore be closely monitored,” the spokesperson added.
The EU missions were “continuing their advisory and training activities” and the EU embassy was still “engaging with the authorities”, the spokesperson said.
But the EU might have to “adapt their posture, depending of the evolution of the situation”, the foreign service said.
The EU missions were meant to help the Malian military to fight jihadist insurgents.
EU states also have soldiers in the so-called Takuba and Minusma international forces in the region.
But France was drawing down numbers, leaving what Russia’s ambassador to the EU recently called a “security vacuum”.
And Sweden might pull out of Minusma due to Wagner Group.
“It is our opinion that the EU should remain engaged militarily in the Sahel because the terrorist threat has not disappeared, to the contrary,” the EU foreign service told this website.
“But it is clear that, collectively with our member states, we will need to re-adjust what we do in Mali given the current circumstances,” it added.
In the meantime, EU countries are preparing to blacklist Malian individuals and entities linked to the junta.
They are also planning wider sanctions to “align” with those of the Economic Community of West African States, which recently imposed a travel and economic blockade on their neighbour.
Wagner Group’s arrival in Mali comes amid high tension between Nato and Russia in a return to Cold War-type geopolitics.
“We are witnessing a growing presence of our strategic competitors from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa,” the EU foreign service recently said in its draft ‘Strategic Compass’, a defence white paper.
Some of the Mali coup plotters were trained in Russia and Russian geologists have conducted field missions in Mali, according to reports.
And when asked by EUobserver if to leave Mali would be to hand it to Wagner Group and Russia on a silver platter, the EU spokesperson said: “We are and want to remain engaged in Mali and in the Sahel”.
“We do not speculate on future potential decisions,” they added.