Why Russia and Mali are firm friends

Analysis - Anne Soy, BBC senior Africa correspondent

Sergey Lavrov’s is the first visit by a Russian foreign minister to Mali as he tries to expand his country’s footprint on the continent.

Relations first blossomed between the two in December 2021 with Russian forces being welcomed into the West African country in December 2021 to help with the fight against extremist groups.

The authorities in Mali describe them as security advisers, but Western officials insist they are mercenaries from the private security company, Wagner, which the US recently designated as an international criminal organisation.

Mali’s co-operation with these forces had led to a souring of relations with its traditional Western partners.

French forces, which had been in the country fighting Islamist militants for close to a decade, withdrew last year as did their partners, including US special forces.

In recent weeks, the authorities in Bamako expelled French ambassador Joel Meyer.

The US government told the BBC it could not exist in the same space as a group it accuses of committing crimes.

“That is not an organisation that would bring any value to the fight against terrorism,” the US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the BBC last month about Wagner.

She made the comment during a visit to the continent, which coincided with Mr Lavrov’s first tour of Africa this year.

Last week, UN experts published a report calling for the Malian army and their Russian partners to be investigated for war crimes, drawing the ire of the military junta in Bamako and culminating in their expulsion of the UN Human Rights Representative, Guillaume Andali, from the country over the weekend.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, has deplored the decision and asked Malian authorities to rescind it.

Analysts say the fallout with forces engaged in the fight against militants in the Sahel, including the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali (Minusma), complicates efforts to deal effectively with the problem.

Politically, the country has also found itself isolated in the region following successive military coups in 2020 and 2021.

But the military junta has found a friend in Russia. The realignment of alliances has been rather swift and in both countries’ current interest. Mali hopes this engagement enables it to boost and “diversify security and defence ties”.

Russia, on the other hand, has a foothold in Africa and it hopes to court more support amid its international isolation following its invasion of Ukraine.

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