A deal is close that would allow Russian mercenaries into Mali, extending Russian influence over security affairs in West Africa and triggering opposition from former colonial power France, Reuters reported citing seven unnamed diplomatic and security sources said. Paris has begun a diplomatic drive to prevent the military junta in Mali from enacting the deal, which would permit Russian private military contractors, the Wagner Group, to operate in the former French colony, the sources said.

A European source who tracks West Africa and a security source in the region said at least 1,000 mercenaries could be involved. Two other sources believed the number was lower but did not provide figures. Four sources said the Wagner Group would be paid about 6 billion CFA francs ($10.8 million) a month for its services. One security source working in the region said the mercenaries would train the Malian military and provide protection for senior officials. Reuters said it could not confirm independently how many mercenaries could be involved, how much they would be compensated, or establish the exact objective of any deal involving Russian mercenaries would be for Mali’s military junta.

France’s diplomatic offensive, the diplomatic sources said, includes enlisting the help of partners including the United States to persuade Mali’s junta not to press ahead with the deal and sending senior diplomats to Moscow and Mali for talks. France is worried the arrival of Russian mercenaries would undermine its decade-old counter-terrorism operation against al Qaeda and Islamic State-linked insurgents in the Sahel region of West Africa at a time when it is seeking to draw down its 5,000-strong Barkhane mission to reshape it with more European partners, the diplomatic sources said.

As relations with France have worsened, Mali’s military junta has increased contacts with Russia, including Defence Minister Sadio Camara visiting Moscow and overseeing tank exercises on 4 September. A senior Malian defence ministry source said the visit was in “the framework of cooperation and military assistance” and gave no further details. Russia’s defence ministry said Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin had met Camara during an international military forum and “discussed defence cooperation projects in detail as well as regional security matters related to West Africa.” No further details were released. Germany has also expressed reservations about the Malian proposal, raising the prospects of a new front opening up in worsening Russia-EU relations.

Contrary to what many think, Russia’s involvement in Africa goes back a long time and much of it has been motivated by at least three reasons. First, to gain a strong presence on the continent. Second, to counter and where possible, undermine Western Europe and by extension NATO’s influence on the continent. Thirdly, to have some influence of its own in African issues. Following decades of relative absence on the continent, Russia began to take seriously its initial desire to have a foothold in Africa first with a 2019 meeting in Sochi co-hosted by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin and his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – the first-ever Russia-Africa Summit. All 54 African countries sent representatives to the summit, with 43 heads of state or government in attendance.

The summit highlights Russia’s interest to do business in Africa, which President Putin says is “worth billions of dollars”. Some of these business opportunities range from agriculture, nuclear energy to mineral extraction. Much more obvious is Russia’s growing military interests. As France seeks to withdraw its troops from the troubled Sahel, Mali is already positioning itself to work with other partners. Russian affiliated private armies or proxy groups like the Wagner Group – infamous for supporting putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar in Libya – has a long history of interactions with many countries on the continent. Some reports indicate that 180 Russian army instructors are currently based in the Central African Republic or elsewhere in Africa.

Also, Mali has a long-standing military relationship with Russia; around 20 Malian soldiers are trained on Russian soil every year. With a market share of 37.6%, Russia is the top weapons supplier to Africa, followed by the US (16%), France (14%) and China (9%). Algeria is reportedly the biggest recipient of Russian arms on the continent, followed by Egypt, Sudan, and Angola. Since 2015, Russia has had military agreements with 21 African countries. In leaked documents, the Kremlin is said to have “contractually assured” it would be allowed to build military bases in six African countries: the Central African Republic, Egypt, Eritrea, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Sudan.

Three key issues come to mind – the financial burden a $10.8 million monthly payment to the Wagner Group would have on Mali’s budget, a country that has a GDP of just $14 billion. Secondly, is the possible implication of having foreign military contractors in a region plagued by insurgencies and no real cooperation among countries fighting these non-state actors. In May this year, a clash between the Chadian armed forces and Russian mercenaries in the village of Bitoye, 25 km from the Central African Republic border, left six Chadians dead. Thirdly, Mali’s move sends a clear message to the Western who are trying to ensure that Russian and Chinese influence dwindles globally – we are not going anywhere. Africa’s place as a theatre in the global geopolitical chessboard is all but assured.