WASHINGTON ― America’s top commander for Africa said Thursday he personally urged Mali’s ruling military junta not to invite in Russian mercenaries the Wagner Group before it did just that.
The West African country’s transitional government has reportedly allowed in as many as 1,000 mercenaries from the Russian private contractor since December, highlighting competing efforts by Russia and the U.S. to wield influence in the region. The private military company has been linked by the U.S. government to a former Russian intelligence officer with deep Kremlin connections.
Mali had been the center of western counterterror efforts, and instability in the Sahel is expected to rise as France ends its nine-year troop presence there. France maintains 4,300 troops in West Africa and is repositioning troops that had been in Mali.
At a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday, U.S. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command, said Mali’s transitional government invited Wagner because it thought it would do a better job than the French against violent extremist groups plaguing the country.
“When I learned of this, I traveled to Mali and I met with the president there ― the junta president there, and I explained that I thought it was a bad idea to invite Wagner in because we’ve seen them in Syria and other places in Africa,” Townsend said of his meeting with the junta’s leader, Col. Assimi Goita.
“Wagner obeys no rules. They won’t follow the direction of the government,” Townsend continued. “They won’t partner more effectively. I think they will only bring in bad.”
According to Townsend, the president said he was dealing only with Russia’s defense ministry. That conflicts with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statement last month that the state has nothing to do with Russian military contractors in Mali, Townsend noted.
The Wagner Group, which is establishing its base camps, may make some initial gains, but it’s already suffered some casualties at the hands of violent extremist groups there, Townsend said.
“Mercenaries from the Kremlin’s Wagner Group offer their services for profit: regime protection resource exploitation, and horrific violence against Africans such as we see in Ukraine today,” Townsend said.
United Nations experts last year urged the Central African Republic to cut ties with Wagner, accusing the private security force of violent harassment, intimidation and sexual abuse.
In a sign of Russia’s potential influence on the African continent, a U.N. resolution this month to condemn the invasion of Ukraine saw just 28 of the 54 African countries ― or roughly half ― vote in favor of the resolution, Brookings noted in a recent report.
In the Mideast and Africa, there are fears that war between two of the globe’s main producers of grain will create food insecurity and then instability. Townsend and U.S. Central Command’s Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said they expect Ethiopia, Egypt and Jordan to need added humanitarian aid as a result.
Amid the war, McKenzie said he hasn’t seen much movement of fighters from Syria, where there are thousands of Wagner Group mercenaries. Earlier this month, Putin approved bringing volunteer fighters from the Mideast to Ukraine.
The Wagner Group tried to enlist some of its units in Africa to fight in Europe, Townsend told Voice of America this week. Townsend said those units would likely transfer primarily from Libya, where hundreds of Russian mercenaries are supporting eastern-based military commander Khalifa Haftar.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.