Russia’s Increasingly Visible Military Presence in Mali

Map showing Russia and Mali.

Map showing Russia and Mali.

“‘You speak of mercenaries, it’s your business. For us, they are Russian instructors,’ said the Malian official.”  

Although Mali has longstanding military ties with France, Russia is filling the void left in the region following France’s withdrawal of forces from Mali.  According to a recent French-language article in, Russian personnel have replaced French troops at a base in Timbuktu.  The article further suggests there may be up to 400 Russians in Mali operating as military instructors.

The article contends there is also growing confirmation of Russia’s Wagner Group in Mali, implying that the Russians are, in fact, mercenaries rather than regular armed forces.  According to the article, a Malian official in Timbuktu noted mercenaries were what outsiders might call the Russian troops, but from the Malian perspective all that matters is that the Russians are instructing Malian soldiers.  Meanwhile, according to a 12 January report in Russian-language Interfax military, Russia denies any government role in Wagner Group activities in Mali and considers the company as having the right to independently pursue business interests in Mali.

The article also notes that France and UN forces in Mali remain suspicious of the Russian presence and have reportedly conducted flights over the Timbuktu base hosting the Russians.  The article states that this angered Russia and caused Mali to request that France discontinue flights over the base.


“Mali: les Russes présentés comme des instructeurs de plus en plus nombreux (Mali: Russians presented more and more as instructors),” 7 January 2021.,notre%20camp%20militaire%20de%20Sofara.&text=Mais%20un%20influent%20%C3%A9lu%20d,%C3%AAtre%20tu%C3%A9%20des%20mercenaires%20russes%22

Many Russian instructors have been deployed in Mali in recent weeks, especially on the Timbuktu base (north) recently left by French forces, said Malian military officials. One of these officials responded in the affirmative to the possibility that these instructors now number about 400 across the country.

The apparent strengthening of cooperation with Russia coincides with the reconfiguration of the French forces and the planned reduction of the Barkhane anti-jihadist force, which will drop from around 5,000 soldiers in the Sahel in the summer of 2021 to around 3,000 in the summer of 2022. Barkhane recently handed over three bases in the north to the Malians, the most recent in Timbuktu in mid-December. Russian instructors recently arrived in Timbuktu to accompany the delivery of Russian helicopters, a Malian official said. Another Malian official, also on condition of anonymity, confirmed the presence of “Russian military instructors in several parts of Mali. You speak of mercenaries, it’s your business. For us, they are Russian instructors,” said the chief official.

Source: “Москве неизвестно, сколько граждан РФ, сотрудников ЧВК “Вагнер”, находятся в Мали” (“Moscow does not know how many citizens of the Russian Federation and employees of Wagner PMC are in Mali),” Interfax (Russian language news service), 12 January 2022.

As a high-ranking diplomat stressed, “the officials of the Russian Federation have nothing to do with the activities of our private companies. This is capitalism. Everyone earns as they can,” he added. The interlocutor provided a negative answer to the question of whether, in principle, a register of Russian citizens in Mali is maintained.

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Image: Map showing Russia and Mali
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