Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov (R) and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Mali, Abdoulaye Diop (L), attend a joint press conference following their talks in Moscow, Russia, 28 February 2024. EPA-EFE/MAXIM SHIPENKOV


EU troops depart Mali, giving Moscow free rein in the Sahel


The last EU soldier will leave Mali May 18 following a decision not to extend the mandate of the EU Training Mission (EUTM) there.

The EU’s departure is expected to create a vacuum which Russia will fill as it has done in other countries in the Sahel region.

Mali and its West African neighbours are rich in minerals, and strategically important.

During talks held late in March, the EU was unable to find common ground on retaining a military presence in the region.

France, which for decades was the leading European voice on military matters in West Africa, now opposes further engagements in Mali.

As unanimity was needed to extend the mission, the 11-year-old military presence now will end May 18.

The mission’s goal was to train local forces in military skills.

The region’s governments have been struggling with an unprecedented rise in jihadist terrorism and a notable expansion of trafficking in weapons, drugs, and immigrants.

At the mission’s peak the EU and UN hosted thousands of European troops in the region, but EUTM Mali currently only has 160 soldiers, 134 of them Spanish.

In December 2023, the UN withdrew 14,000 blue helmet-wearing UN peacekeepers from Mali, 1,000 of them German.

European deployments in Niger also halted.

The withdrawals followed a string of revolutions in African countries, where the new regimes all took hostile stances toward Europe, and toward France in particular: an old coloniser that maintained a large presence.

Instead of relying on France, the new regimes looked for support elsewhere, mainly to Russia, which offered to send its Wagner mercenaries to “clean house” and get rid of rebels and jihadists alike, without awkward questions regarding good governance, anti-corruption or human rights.

At the same time as the EU announced its plans to leave Mali entirely, Russia and Mali announced they would work more closely together. They said they would enhance cooperation on counterterrorism. This follows the March 24 Crocsu City Hall attack in Moscow that killed at least 137.

Putin and Mali’s President Colonel Assimi Goita also discussed strengthening “cooperation in energy, agricultural and mining projects,” the Kremlin reported.

Over the last two years, Wagner’s mercenaries have helped the Malian Armed Forces retake territory from Islamists and Tuareg rebels.

The EU’s decision to halt its Mali training operation was prompted by Wagner’s increasing influence.

On March 27, Francis Béhanzin, former Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace, and Security of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), issued a warning over the growing threat of terrorism in the Sahel region.

“There is no coordination; no national strategy coordination, political coordination, military operation cooperation,” lamented Béhanzin, a retired general. “Things are worsening every day.”

ECOWAS, a regional political and economic union of countries in Western Africa, is increasingly the only African force trying to preserve peace and security.

The juntas controlling Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso have each left the bloc after it imposed “illegitimate, inhumane and irresponsible” sanctions on each of them after the three military governments seized power, they said in a joint statement in January.

But despite growing Russian pressure, terrorist activity remains high in the Sahel region.  Local affiliates of Al Qaeda or the Islamic State rule sizeable areas where government authorities have been driven out.

Immigration towards Europe also originates from the Sahel. Human traffickers take advantage of the threats of terrorism, repression, and instability, and the lack of economic prospects.

The European Council launched EUTM Mali in January 2013, responding to pleas for aid from the then-Malian president, and a mandate from the UN Security Council. This mission aimed to train and advise the Malian army, enhancing its capacity to combat terrorism and safeguard the nation’s territorial integrity.

Concurrently, France initiated Operation Serval, later renamed Barkhane, deploying military forces to counter jihadists making incursions into Mali’s northern territories and prevent them from seizing the capital, Bamako.

Over a decade later, both the EU and France withdrew, with observers questioning what exactly either had achieved.