UN Security Council convoy drives through the streets of Mopti, Northern Mali.

Ten Days Ago, Mali’s Military Junta Made A Terrible Decision To Kick Out UN Peacekeepers and Turn to Prigozhin’s Wagner Group

One week before Yevgeny Prigozhin’s foiled rebellion against Vladimir Putin, the military Junta that leads Mali made a fateful decision to kick out UN Peacekeepers and rely more heavily on the Wagner Mercenary Group to provide regime security.

It was a bad decision at the time — and now in retrospect looks even worse.

On June 16th, the government of Mali formally ordered the 13,000 strong UN peacekeeping mission to leave the country “without delay.”  In my 18 years of covering the United Nations, I can think of only one other instance (Eritrea, 2005) in which a government kicked out an entire peacekeeping force. It is rare by design: peacekeeping missions only deploy with the approval of the Security Council, so when a government evicts a peacekeeping mission it is effectively contravening the resolve of the all the world’s major powers. There is typically a diplomatic cost to going against the collective will of the Security Council that can range from reproach to sanctions.

But this was a cost that the military junta in Mali was seemingly willing to bear.

Why? Because, Russia.

Since a 2021 military coup, the Malian junta has increasingly cast its lot with Moscow. This includes deepening ties with the Wagner Group. Russian mercenaries began arriving in January 2022 ostensibly to help train Malian armed forces, but in reality the mercenaries provide regime security and protect the Junta from domestic opponents. Internationally, Mali has embraced Moscow. It was one of just six countries (including Belarus, North Korea, Syria, Nicaragua and Russia) that voted against a February 2023 UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

By kicking out the UN Peacekeeping Mission, the Junta is betting that Russia will protect it from any meaningful sanction at the Security Council. All the while, Russian mercenaries would replace Blue Helmets as the dominant security guarantor in the Central Sahel.

At the time, this looked like a small victory for Russia. The Wagner Group was widely considered to be an expeditionary arm of Russian foreign and security policy — particularly in Africa. But with the split between Prigozhin and Putin it is unclear the extent to which Wagner actually supports the Kremlin’s interests — or if Wagner will even survive as an entity.

Mali’s military leaders sold out the long term interests of the people of Mali when they decided to kick out the United Nations Peacekeeping Force. They did so for their own short term gain: without the UN’s prying eyes, the regime could deploy Wagner with impunity to crush domestic political rivals and other perceived threats to their regime. But with the fate of Wagner now uncertain, the Junta looks as weak as ever.

This all portends major problems for the people of Mali, including the potential resumption of a major civil war in Mali that the UN peacekeeping mission had been fitfully keeping at bay.

UN Peacekeepers vs Prigozhin’s Wagner Group

The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, better known as MINUSMA, first deployed in 2013. At the time, an armed ethnic Tuareg separatist group sought independence for parts of Northern Mali. They joined forces with Jihadist groups active in the region and soon captured key cities, including Timbuktu, where Islamist extremists began systematically destroying ancient religious artifacts. Eventually, these erstwhile allies turned on each other with Jihadist groups gaining the upper hand.

Meanwhile, in the capital city of Bamako military officers toppled the democratically elected government in a coup — the first of what would be three coups in nine years. The new transitional government approved a Security Council-backed French military intervention, Operation Serval, which provided crucial support to the Malian government as it successfully evicted Jihadist groups from major cities in the north, including Timbuktu.

It was in this context that MINUSMA first deployed to help fill a security vacuum, support the protection of civilians, help with humanitarian relief, and back efforts towards reconciliation with rebel groups. In 2015, the main Tuareg rebel groups and the government of Mali signed a peace agreement in Algiers, many provisions of which MINUSMA was tasked with overseeing.

But all the while, MINUSMA remained a target of Jihadist groups. It soon became an exceptionally dangerous UN Peacekeeping mission, frequently targeted by IEDs, bombings, and direct attack by Jihadist groups. It is now the deadliest peacekeeping mission of all time, with over three hundred peacekeeper fatalities recorded since 2013.

Throughout this period, political inability persisted in Bamako with successive military coups in 2020 and 2021.

It was this point that the newest military Junta turned to Wagner—and more sharply against the United Nations. The Junta began to systematically impede MINUSMA through a variety of picayune bureaucratic obstacles and more substantial forms of harassment. This included using civil aviation authorities to prevent the UN from flying its aircraft across Mali’s vast airspace. According to Reuters, “nearly 500 UN flight requests – one in four – have been denied this year. 

Things came to a major head last month, when a report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights accused Wagner mercenaries and Malian soldiers of perpetrating a March 2022 massacre of 500 people in the village of Moura, in central Mali. According to the report, Malian soldiers and Russian mercenaries attacked this village as part of an anti-terrorist operation and over the course of four days systematically tortured, raped and executed hundreds of people. “Witnesses reported seeing ‘armed white men’ who spoke an unknown language operating alongside the Malian forces and at times appearing to supervise operations,” says the report. “According to witnesses, Malian troops were rotated in and out of Moura daily, but the foreign personnel remained for the duration of the operation.”

When the report came out, Mali PNG’d the top UN Human Rights official in the country. In hindsight, this appears to be a prelude to expelling the entire UN peacekeeping contingent one month later.

The exact process by which MINUSMA will draw down is unclear at this point. What is assured is that the provision of humanitarian assistance to beleaguered populations in Mali is about to become more difficult. Also of deep concern is the prospect that the 2015 Peace agreement between the government of Mali and ethnic Tuareg rebel groups will crumble as the main guarantor of that agreement leaves the country. A return to civil war is not out of the question. We can also expect that Wagner-backed military operations will be conducted with impunity. More mass atrocity events like the assault on Moura are likely to occur.

Before Prigozhin’s rebellion, the cold calculations of the regimes in Bamako and Moscow seemed to make sense: The military cabal running Mali would be strengthened through its alliance with Moscow. And Moscow, which lacks decent allies around the world, would have a partner in the Sahel. But with Wagner’s fate uncertain, the foundations of this alliance seem extremely brittle.  It now appears that the Junta sold out their country and weakened their own regime in the process.