August 23, 2023 - 7:00am

After weeks of uncharacteristically gnomic silence, the latest video from Russian warlord and brief coup protagonist Yevgeny Progozhin is worthy of note. Standing in a Sahelian landscape (presumably Mali, judging from recent flight data), he promises to win Moscow new frontiers of glory in Africa. 

The recent crop of West African coups has won Russia some new allies in a region of negligible interest to the United States but of strategic significance to Europe. The publicity boost of African publics waving Russian flags is welcome to Moscow in refuting narratives of isolation, while privileged access to the region’s mineral resources is just as attractive. Yet the threatened intervention in Niger by regional ECOWAS powers, and the corresponding pledge to defend the country’s new junta by its allied military regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso, suggests that Russia may have bitten off more than it can comfortably chew.

Better at overthrowing its own governments than defending national territory, the Malian army is not a particularly effective fighting force. France’s lightning-fast 2012 intervention to defend the capital Bamako from a jihadist advance, like the decade-long counterinsurgency campaign France waged on Mali’s behalf, was after all testimony to the weakness of the Malian state. 

It is doubtful that the Malian armed forces have the capacity to defend Niger from ECOWAS intervention, and the distraction of deploying to do so risks threatening the stability of the Malian state itself. After all, the already worrisome jihadist insurgency in northern and central Mali has expanded in recent weeks, with the local al-Qaeda franchise JNIM now placing the city of Timbuktu under siege for the first time since losing control to French troops a decade ago.

On Monday, JNIM declared jihad against Wagner and the Malian state, alleging atrocities by the two forces against local civilians in their new campaign to retake the north — a not improbable claim given Wagner’s local counterinsurgency record. Both French forces and UN peacekeepers were sorely stretched by the regional jihadist insurgency, and Mali’s gamble that Russia’s scorched-earth methods will succeed where the West’s counter-insurgency strategy failed is fraught with risk. 

Yet squaring up against both JNIM and Islamic State militants and ECOWAS powers simultaneously is apparently not enough for Mali’s military junta. In a dramatic break with French policy, joint Wagner and Malian forces have now apparently extended their campaign of territorial reconquest against the CMA coalition of Tuareg separatists and secular Arab nationalists brought into a fragile truce with Bamako by French diplomacy. Joint Wagner and Malian forces seized the CMA-held village of Ber near Timbuktu this week, to exultation in the capital.

As the Sahel analyst Michael Shurkin notes, “the political question of the north has to be settled sooner or later, but the priority has to be [Mali’s central regions of] Ségou, Mopti, and the fight against JNIM and IS. Mali lacks the strength to deal with everything at once.” Mali’s junta may feel confident that Russia’s support is a silver bullet against the nation’s manifold woes, but fighting three separate wars at once would be a challenge for even a far stronger country.

Bamako is risking a great deal on Wagner’s success, and Russia may have embroiled itself in a turbulent situation beyond Moscow’s control. Forcing France out of Mali may have been a PR win for the Kremlin, but it could appear a Pyrrhic victory sooner than either Putin or Prigozhin anticipated.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.