The distance between Ukraine and Mali is measured in thousands of kilometres, but the geopolitical distance is much closer. So close, in fact, that it appears as if the ongoing conflicts in both countries are the direct outcomes of the same geopolitical currents and transformation underway around the world.
After the Malian government accused French troops of carrying out a massacre in the West African country, on 23 April the Russian Foreign Ministry declared its support for Malian efforts, pushing for an international investigation into French abuses and massacres in the country. “We hope that those responsible will be identified and justly punished,” said the ministry.
In their coverage of the conflict in Mali, Western media have largely omitted the Malian and Russian claims about French massacres; instead, they gave credence to French accusations that the Malian forces, possibly with the help of “Russian mercenaries”, have carried out massacres and buried the dead in mass graves near the recently evacuated French army base in Gossi, in order to blame France.
Earlier in April, Human Rights Watch called for an “independent, credible” inquiry into the killings, though it negated both accounts. It suggested that a bloody campaign had indeed taken place, targeting mostly “armed Islamists” between 23 and 31 March.
Media whitewashing and official misinformation aside, Mali has indeed been a stage for much bloodletting in recent years, especially since 2012, when a militant insurgency in the north threatened the complete destabilisation of an already unstable and impoverished country. There were reasons for the insurgency, including the sudden access to smuggled weapon caches originating in Libya following the West’s war on Tripoli in 2011. Thousands of militants who were pushed out of Libya during the war and its aftermath found safe havens in the largely ungoverned Malian northern regions.
With that in mind, though, the militants’ success — they managed to seize nearly a third of the country in just two months — was not entirely linked to western arms. Large swathes of Mali have suffered from prolonged governmental neglect and extreme poverty. Moreover, the Malian army, often beholden to foreign interests, is much hated in these regions due to its violent campaigns and horrific human rights abuses. No wonder the northern rebellion found so much popular support in these parts.
Two months after the Tuareg rebellion in the north, a Malian officer and a contingency of purportedly disgruntled soldiers overthrew the elected government in Bamako, accusing it of corruption and of failure to rein-in the militants. This paved the way for France’s military intervention in its former colony in the guise of “fighting terrorism”.
The French war in Mali, starting in 2013, was disastrous from the Malians’ point of view. It neither stabilised the country nor provided a comprehensive scheme for pacifying the rebellious north. War, human rights violations by the French themselves, and more military coups followed, most notably in August 2020 and May 2021.
However, its intervention was fruitful from France’s viewpoint. As soon as French troops began pouring into Mali, France began to tighten its control over the Sahel countries, including Mali, leading to the signing of two defence agreements, in 2013 and 2020. That’s where the French West African “success story” ends.
Although Paris succeeded in digging itself in deeper, it gave no reason to the Malian people or government to support its actions. As the French became more involved in the life of Malians, ordinary people throughout the country, north and south, detested and rejected them. This shift was the perfect opportunity for Russia to offer itself as an alternative to France and the West. The arrival of Russia on this complex scene allowed Bamako to engineer a clean break from its total reliance on France and its Western, NATO allies.
Even before France formally ended its presence in the country, Russian arms and military technicians were landing in Bamako. Attack helicopters, mobile radar systems and other Russian military technology quickly replaced French arms. It is no wonder that Mali voted against the UN General Assembly resolution to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council.
As a result of the Ukraine war and western sanctions starting in late February, Russia has accelerated its political and economic outreach, particularly in the Global South, with the hope of lessening the impact of the west-led international sanctions. In truth, though, Moscow’s geopolitical quest in West Africa began earlier than the Ukraine conflict, and Mali’s immediate support for Russia following the war was a testament to Moscow’s success in the region.
France officially began its withdrawal from Mali last February, but Paris and other European capitals have been increasingly aware of what they perceive to be a “Russian threat” in West Africa. How, though, can the West fight back against this threat, real or imagined, especially in the light of the French withdrawal? The further destabilisation of Mali is one option. It was, perhaps, no coincidence that Bamako declared on 16 May that it had thwarted a military coup in the country, claiming that the coup leaders were soldiers “supported by a Western state”, presumably France. If the “coup” had succeeded, would this have meant that France — or another “western country” — was plotting a return to Mali on the back of yet another military intervention?
Russia, meanwhile, cannot afford to lose a precious friend like Mali at this critical time of western isolation and sanctions. In effect, this means that Mali will continue to be the stage for a geopolitical cold war that could last for years. The winner of this war could potentially claim the whole of West Africa, which remains hostage to global competition well beyond the national boundaries in the region.