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  • Writer's pictureKorotoumou Diarra-Méchain

Russia and Mali partnership: a new battleground to oppose France and European powers?

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

The relationship between Russia and Mali has been growing stronger in recent years, with Moscow providing support and training to the West African nation. The partnership has raised concerns among Western powers, who fear that Russia is using Mali as a foothold to extend its influence in the region.

Historical legacy

Despite gaining independence from France in 1960, Mali maintained close economic links with its former colonial power. Indeed, exports of raw materials such as gold and cotton have been essential to sustaining the local economy; however, it has contributed to keeping Mali vulnerable to French economic policies. Indeed, Mali needs France as a financial partner even though the latter imposes conditionalities not necessarily beneficial to Mali. For instance, Mali's currency CFA Franc (which also literally means "French Colony of Africa"), has had a fixed exchange rate tied to French Franc and, later on, the Euro. Furthermore, 50% of the national reserves had to be kept in the French Treasury, patronising Mali's use of its own money. In addition, Mali is an aid-dependent country, with aid accounting for around 10% of its GDP from the 2000s to 2013. Similarly, France plays a major as one of the biggest donors. The latter implies that France has been able to impose conditionalities on aid which trapped Mali in an asymmetric relationship with its donor.

More recently, Mali has renewed its partnership with Russia, with the latter expected to send shipments of fuel, fertiliser and food worth around 100 million dollars to Mali in 2022. Nonetheless, the relationship between Mali and Russia is not recent. Indeed, it started in the 1960s. On the one hand, soon after their independence, young African countries needed economic partners apart from their former colonial powers and found them through various partnerships with Russia. Economic and military alliances were at the forefront. Notably, the Soviet Union emphasised the importance of education and training. Therefore, the USSR provided multiple university scholarships to Malian students. Military aid was also prevalent in the form of diverse training and provision of equipment.

On the other hand, Russia's interest was fuelled by a desire to have a pivotal role in a multipolar world while securing exclusive access to resources in African countries. Paradoxically, Russia has symbolised anti-imperialism and freedom to newly independent nations since the 1960s. With Russia's rising participation in Mali, this symbol has been revived, incentivising the Malian people to support this new cooperation.

Russia, a viable alternative partner

Russia’s involvement in Mali skyrocketed after the coup d’état in 2020. What characterised the latter was the population condemning corruption but particularly the role of France in it and how France's involvement in domestic politics shifted the accountability of Malian politicians towards France instead of its citizens. With the military junta in power, ties with France were cut: in 2022, the French ambassador was expelled from the country, France withdrew its extensive military operation in the North of the country in March 2022 and almost stopped sending aid. Thus, Russia was quick to seize the opportunity and fill the power vacuum left by France. To grasp the magnitude of Russia's involvement and its significance, this article looks at Russia's partnership with Mali under three dimensions: ideological, economic and military.

Ideological Dimension

First and foremost, Russia established itself as a symbol of anti-imperialism since the Cold War. It has always provided aid to newly independent states. What differentiated it from Western powers is that they supported socialist leaders who were also supported by the population. Unlike the Soviet Union, Western powers tried to impose their own puppet leaders. For example, Thomas Sankara, a Marxist leader adored by its people, was killed and soon replaced by Blaise Compaoré, a politician loyal to France. In the same fashion, Patrice Lumumba was assassinated by Western forces and replaced by a more compliant leader in DRC. Hence, as Mali needed new allies, Russia appeared to be a viable alternative to Western powers. Indeed, Russia is among the only countries powerful enough to realistically oppose Western actors, as infamously illustrated with the war in Ukraine, while possessing enough financial capabilities to provide aid to other countries. Furthermore, the constant rivalry between Russia and Western powers enacted the latter as a common enemy, strengthening ideological ties between the Malian government since the coup d'état and Russia. The war in Ukraine also reinforced the belief that Russia was a power able to provoke former colonial powers, making it a key ally to the military junta.

Economic Dimension

Second, the economic dimension is significant as France, and other European countries reduced the amount of aid they have been sending to Mali since the 2020 coup d'état. The Economic Community of West African States, the African Union and the United Nations enforced isolation and strict sanctions to motivate a return to civil rule in the country. The sanctions cut Mali off from the regional financial market and central bank without mentioning its detrimental impact on individual lives. In desperate need of powerful economic partners, Malian leaders turned to Russia once again. In 2021, the Malian foreign minister met in Moscow with its homonym to discuss bilateral cooperation in economic sectors. Finally, last October, the Malian Minister of Economy and Finance visited Russia once more to finalise this cooperation. By the end of the year 2022, Russia is expected to send shipments of fuel, fertiliser and food worth around 100 million dollars to Mali. In exchange, Russia successfully secures access to minerals, gold, and other resources critical to its own economy.

Military Dimension

Third, Russia proved to be a significant ally, militarily speaking. Since 2013, France has provided considerable military aid to the Malian government to help it manage the conflict raging in the North of the country with mission Barkhane. Nonetheless, forces in the Sahel proved to be relatively tenacious, and the conflict is still raging. As the French completely withdrew their troops in 2022 to sanction the military junta, it created a major power vacuum in the Sahel that Russia was quick to fill. In combination with military equipment, such as a few helicopters, weapons, and an advanced air radar system, Russia sent 1000 officials and instructors to train the Malian military, in addition to the presence of the Wagner Group, the Russian parastatal private military organisation. Hence, Russia was able to take advantage of the chaos and establish itself as a staunch and powerful ally.

In line with their allyship with Russia, Malian leaders have abstained in the United Nations vote condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine, signalling a willingness to prioritise its relationship with Russia. The Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop even left the G5 Sahel claiming that France was conducting a policy of double standards by privileging Ukraine. At the same time, countries in West Africa were subjected to a similar level of violence in the Sahel yet received less public attention. While the situation in Ukraine is at the centre of most preoccupation, Russia is steadily increasing its dominance over the Sahel region, reinforcing its rivalry with European countries. Ultimately, it is essential not to look at Mali and Russia's partnership as a mere proxy war between Russia and European powers because it oversimplifies the situation while removing the agency of Malian actors.

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