Moscow is seeking to expand its influence in Africa as a diplomatic tug-of-war between global powers continues on the continent.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has pledged assistance to West African states battling armed groups, as Moscow seeks to expand its influence on a continent in a diplomatic tug-of-war between global powers.
Lavrov on Tuesday hailed the alliance that has been forged between Moscow and Bamako in fighting armed groups on his first visit to Mali, which Russia’s top diplomat described as “historic”.
“The fight against terrorism is, of course, an issue for the other countries in the region,” Lavrov told a news conference in the capital, Bamako.
“We are going to provide our assistance to them to overcome these difficulties. This concerns Guinea, Burkina Faso and Chad and the Sahel region generally and even the coastal states on the Gulf of Guinea,” he said.
Mali had long relied on former colonial power France for military assistance in fighting the armed uprising. But Paris pulled troops out of the West African nation last year as tensions with the military government reached a breaking point.
Since seizing power in 2020, Mali’s military government has brought in Russian planes, helicopters and paramilitaries to strengthen its fight against armed rebels.
France says the Russian operatives are Wagner mercenaries – a private military group that Moscow has deployed in Syria and Ukraine, experts say.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the United Nations have implicated Wagner and the Malian army in an alleged massacre at Moura in central Mali last March in which several hundred people were rounded up and killed.
The landlocked state is the epicentre of a conflict that began in northern Mali in 2012 and spread to neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso in 2015.
Thousands of civilians have died across the three countries, and millions have fled their homes.
Discontent within the military in Mali and Burkina Faso has spurred two coups in both countries.
Sporadic cross-border attacks have also taken place in Togo, Benin and Ivory Coast in recent years, spurring fears that the rebels are seeking to push southwards to the Gulf of Guinea.
After France wound down its long-running military presence in Mali, similar tensions have broken out with the Burkina Faso military government.
The French military contingent there, a unit of special forces numbering about 400 men, is to be withdrawn this month.
Lavrov promised Mali further military support and declared Russia’s wider backing for Africa in the face of what he described as the West’s “neocolonial approach”.
“We are going to provide our support for resolving problems on the African continent,” he said.
“We always start from the basis that African problems must be resolved by African solutions.”
While Moscow woos African leaders – some of whom have refused to publicly condemn the war in Ukraine – the United States has launched a diplomatic offensive on the continent, which is also being courted by China.
Before leaving Mali, Lavrov also met Colonel Assimi Goita, head of the government, who is due to attend a Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg in July.
At a joint news conference with his Malian counterpart, Abdoulaye Diop, Lavrov told journalists that, thanks to Russian support, “Mali has been able to carry out effective operations” against the armed fighters.
Diop also hailed Moscow’s provision of cereals, fertiliser, and fuel to the poor, landlocked nation. “Mali stands in solidarity with Russia on the issue of sanctions” it faces due to its invasion of Ukraine, he said.
The two men defended their alliance and dismissed accusations of human rights violations by foreign fighters in the country.
“We are not going to continue to justify our choice of partners … Russia is here at Mali’s request, and Russia responds effectively to Mali’s needs by strengthening its defence capabilities,” said Diop.
Less than 48 hours before Lavrov’s visit, the military government announced the expulsion of the UN’s human rights envoy to the country.
“Human rights are being instrumentalised, politicised for hidden agendas,” said Diop.