Russian mercenaries may soon be training Malian soldiers under a deal – not yet signed – that would significantly weaken French influence in the region.
Paris has threatened to terminate military cooperation with its former colony if the agreement between Mali's Defence Ministry and private Russian security firm Wagner goes ahead.
Undeterred, Mali has defended its right to make sovereign decisions about how it deals with insurgents.
A Defence Ministry spokesman told Reuters that negotiations with Wagner – best known for working in conflict zones such as Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic (CAR) – were "close to signature".
The mercenaries employed by Wagner have been accused by France and a number of international NGOs of carrying out abuses, notably in the CAR.
"Mali intends to diversify its relationships in the medium term to ensure the security of the country," the Defence Ministry spokesman said.
"We haven't signed anything with Wagner, but we are talking with everyone."
While there are few details as to what the mission would entail, military and diplomatic sources told Malian media and Reuters that the Russian paramilitary group would be charged with training the Malian army and protecting individuals.
In principle, the Russian paramilitaries would not be directly involved in military operations. But France, which has spent the last eight years fighting terrorism in the Sahel, is far from reassured.
"Wagner is a militia that has been shown to have carried out abuses and all sorts of violations in Syria and CAR," French Foreign Minister Yves Le Drian said on Tuesday, adding it was "incompatible" with France's military presence.
Defence Minister Florence Parly said she was "extremely concerned" by such a deal in view of France's investment in the Sahel and its security.
Paris has reportedly begun a diplomatic drive to dissuade Mali's military junta – who took power in a coup in May – from sealing the deal, dispatching special envoys to Moscow and Bamako.
Should it be signed, Le Drian warned France could end its military cooperation with Mali altogether.
On Wednesday Germany struck a similar tone, saying the deal would "call into question" its deployment in Mali as part of the UN and EU missions.
Following France's tough talk, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday there were "no official discussions" on launching military cooperation with Mali.
"It was easy for them to deny," Russia specialist Igor Delanoë told RFI.
"Russia's military presence in Mali is very limited, and is centred around the mission of Russian defence at the embassy in Bamako.
"The issue is not about Russian uniformed staff but private companies, and in the case of Wagner it would be around 1,000 to 1,200 staff."
Trio of tensions
Franco-Mali relations are under strain. France suspended military cooperation with Mali in June this year after its second military coup in nine months.
Since the first coup in August 2020, Russia has been upping its diplomatic efforts, building on a history of cooperation going back to Mali's independence in 1960.
Several leaders of the current junta, including Defence Minister Sadio Camara and Interim President Assimi Goïta, were trained in Russia.
Camara visited Moscow this summer and oversaw tank exercises.
"Russia is interested in getting into military and political structures on the African continent to get influence and acquire levers," says Delanoë.
Providing security services that western countries, especially France, are not in a position to offer is clearly a good way in, he adds.
Russian mercenaries would be going into Mali just as France is scaling down its military presence in the Sahel.
As announced by President Emmanuel Macron in June, France is to halve its 5,000-strong Barkhane force by the end of the year in favour of the EU-led Takuba.
"This could lead to a security vacuum," says Delanoë, adding that Wagner hopes to fill it "by responding to Bamako's need for security guarantees".
Economically, Russia is already implanted in Mali with business interests in the energy and mining sector.
Given the country's insecurity, those companies have to protect their interests, Delanoë adds.
According to sources who spoke to Reuters, the Wagner contract – worth 9 million euros per month – would also hand the Russian company access to three mining sites.
A high-ranking French army official told RFI that would be a heavy cost for the Mali junta to bear, considering the existing military cooperation – whether it's Barkhane, Takuba or another involving the US army – is free.
A deal with Russian mercenaries stands to jeopardise that.
"If Mali were to turn to Russia, it would be very bad news," the military official said.