Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov Heads to Mali

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, was scheduled to arrive in Mali on Monday, making his third trip to Africa in about six months as Russia seeks to extend its influence and maintain support among non-Western countries for its invasion of Ukraine.

Mr. Lavrov’s two-day visit to the West African nation is aimed at strengthening defense and security ties, the Malian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Russia has already supplied Mali with military aircraft including helicopters, as well as hundreds of military advisers and operatives, many of whom Western officials say belong to the Wagner mercenary group.

Before traveling to Mali, Mr. Lavrov visited Iraq on Sunday. He is scheduled to travel next to Mauritania and Sudan, according to the Russian news agency Tass.

Russia, Africa’s largest arms dealer, has longstanding ties to nations on the continent, many of which have supported President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The relationship with Mali is just one of several military alliances that the Kremlin has strengthened in recent years, a mutually beneficial strategy that has made Russia a favored security partner for many African nations.

Last month, Mr. Lavrov visited South Africa, days after the government there announced that it would hold joint military exercises with Russia and China in February.

Russia provided about 45 percent of major arms to Africa between 2012 and 2021, according to a study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In recent years, a growing number of countries have established contracts with Russian mercenary groups, including Wagner, whose fighters are active in the war in Ukraine. In most African countries where they have deployed, Wagner operatives have been accused of widespread abuses, including killings of civilians, sexual violence and torture.

In Mali, United Nations experts have said that Wagner mercenaries may have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity along with the country’s military. On Sunday, Mali’s government said it was expelling the head of the human rights division of the U.N. peacekeeping operation stationed in the country.

Since a 2020 military coup in Mali, the junta in Bamako has drawn closer to Russia. At the same time, its relationship has soured with France, its former colonial ruler, which ended a nine-year military operation in Mali last year as anti-French sentiment rose. The military junta in neighboring Burkina Faso also has vowed to strengthen ties with Russia, while ordering France to pull out troops stationed in the country.

For the Malian authorities, the visit also offers a show of foreign support amid tensions with Western nations, and some West African neighbors, over the coup and its use of mercenaries.

“The presence of the Russian foreign minister is an opportunity for the Malian authorities who need a powerful ally on the global stage,” the daily Le Pays newspaper wrote on its front page.

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