Western officials told the Guardian earlier this year that the Wagner mercenary group was the thin end of the wedge and a Trojan horse for a Russian effort to extend its influence covertly in resource-rich and unstable parts of Africa.
In Mali, the group is filling a gap left by departing French troops who led international efforts to counter a decade-long insurgency. That effort, which included one of the largest UN peacekeeping missions in the world, failed, and the violence has spilled over the Sahel region, displacing tens of millions and destabilising fragile countries such as Niger and Burkina Faso.
According to Jared Thompson, research associate with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, Wagner is one of the ways Russia is using to spread influence and advance economic and other interests in Africa. Wagner arrived in Mali at the same time that Malian officials went to Russia and as Moscow was selling arms to Bamako the capital of Mali. This suggests that Wagner's deployment is part of a larger effort. Last weekend, Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, told Italian TV that Wagner was present in Mali and Libya on a commercial basis and reiterated Moscow s official position that Wagner has no influence on the Russian state. The intervention in Mozambique against Islamic militants was a bloody and expensive debacle.
And analysts say that Wagner's tactics in Mali risk a backlash among local communities, which would make Islamist extremist violence worse in Mali.
Corinne Dufka, a Sahel-based researcher with Human Rights Watch, said Russians are like a bull in the china shop and seem not to be aware of or care about the crucial ethnic dynamics. Their behaviour with the clear complicity of the Malians is deepening ethnic tensions and creating new jihadists by way of these exactions. The intervention of Wagner was part of a larger offensive launched by Malian forces across central Mali after gains made by insurgents in areas closer to Bamako. Analysts are sceptical that will succeed.
A military response alone is not likely to be successful, and especially not if it risks exacerbating existing problems relating to impunity in Mali, said Catherine Evans, a director at Independent Diplomat, and a former British ambassador to Mali.