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US and Brussels sanctions on Moscow's mercenaries will be tested in Africa

European Union will block co-operation with Russian mercenaries in Mali, CAR and Libya

United States diplomats have welcomed the European Union's imposition of sanctions on the Russian mercenary Wagner Group, and eight of its senior commanders, under its Magnitsky human rights regime. It adds a new dimension to Washington and Brussels's rivalry with Moscow in Africa.

The first clash will be in Mali. On 15 December, the US State Department condemned the Mali junta's deal with Wagner, saying its US$10 million monthly fee would be better spent building the capacity of the national army.

Brussels's sanctions on Wagner follow several reports that the paths of EU's military and defence officials have crossed with Wagner mercenaries in training local forces in Central African Republic (AC Vol 62 No 19, Moscow tilt poses risks). A leaked report from the EU foreign service said that Wagner had taken command of at least one EU-trained battalion which was then used for illegal mining.

The European Commission says it is recalibrating its involvement in and support for the Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en République centrafricaine (Minusca) to ensure that its military personnel avoid all contact with the Wagner group.

But Commission officials haven't given any detail on how it would work on the ground in Africa. Brussels's stance fits into a wider pattern of increasing pressure on Moscow over its military build-up on Ukraine's borders.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin insists that the Wagner Group, which also has 7,000 fighters in Libya, does not represent Moscow. And Putin's close business associate Yevgeny Prigozhin, widely reported to own Wagner, has distanced himself from the company. Yet in many African countries, as well as in Brussels, Wagner is seen as a creature of the Russian state challenging EU and US interests in the region.

It is testing EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen's aim to build a 'geopolitical Commission' with Brussels adopting more muscular policies. 

Brussels sees the EU's offer of military cooperation to African states dealing with civil conflicts and insurgencies as a means to wield political influence. Russia is indirectly challenging the EU presence in Mali, CAR, Libya, Sudan and Mozambique. For those governments, relations with Moscow strengthen their hand in negotiations with the west.

By imposing sanctions on Wagner, the EU has escalated the rivalry with Moscow.

Mali's junta said it was talking to Russia because of the lack of progress against the jihadist insurgency by EU and French forces (AC Vol 62 No 23, Meeting Moscow, battling Brussels). France threatened to withdraw its troops if Mali hired Wagner. Mozambique and Congo-Kinshasa, where Wagner has been offering similar services to those in CAR, are closely watching the outcome in Mali (AC Vol 61 No 13, Frelimo’s belated cry for help).

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