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Malian Human Rights Abuses Linked to Russian PMCs

What’s happening?

In recent weeks, Malians have been fleeing to Mauritania in record numbers to escape the threat of soldiers that experts believe are part of Russia’s Wagner Group.

According to local reports, Russian soldiers have indiscriminately looted shops and killed civilians across Mali. Nearly 7,000 refugees were recorded in March and April in Mauritania—and while not all refugees cite Wagner activity, many of them blame Russian mercenaries for Mali’s worsening conditions.  

Hundreds of Malian civilians have been killed in Russian-related incidents, including the execution of almost 400 people in the village of Moura in March 2022.

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The Malian military has been fighting for over a decade in a war that started as a separatist rebellion and has evolved into a conflict against al-Qaeda and Islamic State-affiliated groups. Wagner mercenaries started arriving in Mali in late 2021 to support the country’s military. Researchers connect Russian involvement to a spike in human rights violations.

French forces initially supported the fight against armed militants in Mali but are now withdrawing, creating a void that experts say Wagner mercenaries are filling.

The term “Wagner Group” describes a network of Russian private military companies (PMCs) and logistics networks. The Group is allegedly funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a powerful Russian businessman closely linked to Vladimir Putin. The U.S. Treasury Department describes the Wagner Group as a proxy force of Russia’s defense ministry.

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An analysis by the Foreign Policy Research Institute says that Russian PMCs use an international law that allows contractors to provide local assistance abroad—like supporting natural resource extraction or providing security services. This loophole is then exploited to serve Russia's foreign policy agenda in target regions.

What’s the impact?

Russian PMCs in Mali have an impact not only on local populations—who are suffering civilian losses and being forced to flee—but also on the stability of African countries and the United States' regional interests more broadly. 

PMCs enable Russia to gain regional influence. Africa presents major economic opportunities for Western countries, with promising technology ventures and an abundance of natural resources. Russia has realized the continent’s potential for years and is likely using PMCs to leverage political relationships, military involvement, and resource extraction in the region.

This strategy undermines international law and US interests as a global power. The Wagner Group has been accused of human rights abuses across several other African countries and has been linked to atrocities in Ukraine. PMCs could have an even wider impact should their activities become more widespread.

Russia’s growing presence in Africa—and its use of PMCs—should be a cause for concern in the United States. The way in which Russia has utilized PMCs in CAR, Sudan, and Libya demonstrates one aspect of its developing strategy not just in Africa, but also in Syria, Ukraine, and Venezuela. 

This perhaps is the broader implication with Russian PMCs: they serve as a useful tool to chip away at the U.S.-led global order by eroding the norms of behavior when Moscow knows that it cannot confront the United States directly. As policymakers think of great power competition with Russia and China, this is something that they cannot ignore

The Washington Institute Senior Fellow, Anna Borschevskay

How can OSINT help?

Publicly-available sources like social networks and messaging applications are valuable for monitoring PMCs around the world. These networks are used to discuss PMC activities, including visual media that can help identify and geolocate mercenaries.

This information is valuable for intelligence analysts investigating Russian activities in Africa, Ukraine, and other regions of interest. However, this content isn’t always easy to find. Wagner Group activities can’t be identified by using the name “Wagner Group” as a keyword, and the networks they use aren’t offered by many commercial data providers.

Intelligence teams can address these challenges by using advanced open-source intelligence (OSINT) software like the Echosec Systems Platform. These solutions make it easier to search across regional social networks, monitor accounts of interest over time, and investigate in multiple languages.

To learn more about search techniques and OSINT tools for investigating PMCs, book a call with Echosec Systems today.