A Russian chief pledged military support to Mali during his first visit to the West African nation this week and dismissed criticism of Moscow's growing influence on the continent. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's move is proof Vladimir Putin is running scarce of allies as he tries to diminish Western powers' efforts against the war on Ukraine.
Commenting on the trip, lead Russia research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, Dr Stepan Stepanenko told Express.co.uk: "Lavrov's trip through the African continent is both a sign of a Russia desperate for international clout and one that is seeking to harm peaceful processes.
"With all but a few countries in Europe rightly shunning Russia, The African continent remains fertile ground for Russian diplomatic ambitions. The undiscerning leaders of African nations that welcome Lavrov are far removed from the atrocities committed by Russian troops in Ukraine and, perhaps, have a stronger stomach for such actions than the older democracies of Europe.
"Abusing the needs of his hosts in financial and humanitarian support, or even military support for weak governments, Russia is doing exactly what it is blaming the West for."
He added: "We have to see the Russian's African "safari" as an attempt to gain influence and find an international platform to voice his anti-Ukrainian statements in the only places that will take him."
Russia has delivered "very large supplies of aviation equipment" to Mali over the past few months which has "significantly increased" the capability of local forces to fight extremists, Lavrov told journalists.
He said: "We will now be planning additional steps in the field of education through military higher educational institutions and in the field of supplies of weapons and military equipment."
Lavrov's trip to Bamako, Mali's capital, comes as Western countries express their concerns about alleged human rights abuses committed by Russian mercenaries working for the private military contractor Wagner Group.
The Russian foreign minister made no mention of Wagner by name during a press conference, but criticised unnamed Western powers of "neo-colonial approaches and double standards."
He added: "We see the reaction of the Western states on the evolution of our relations and we see with regret that it is again negative, a negative attitude of the West to the principles of parity and mutual respect."
Russia's presence in Mali has expanded as the role played by former coloniser France has diminished.
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After spending nine years helping Mali's army curb the spread of Islamic insurgents, France withdrew its forces last year after relations soured with the country's ruling junta.
Col. Assimi Goita seized power in a 2020 coup and disappointed international partners when he failed to hold elections on the timeframe he originally agreed to. As French support waned, Goita enlisted help from Moscow.
Mali's foreign minister Abdoulaye Diop on Tuesday again defended the government's cooperation with Russia, saying that collaboration with France "does not meet the objectives of Malians".
Diop said: "We are not going to continue to justify our choice of partners.
"This decision is a decision of the Malians and a decision that is taken with full responsibility. And Mali wants to work with Russia."
Independent human rights experts working with the UN have called for an investigation into possible abuses, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by government forces in Mali and the Wagner Group, which is owned by an oligarch with close ties to Russia's president.
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The Pentagon has described the Wagner Group as a surrogate for the Russian Defence Ministry. The Kremlin denies any connection.
Western officials say hundreds of fighters from the Wagner Group began working more than a year ago alongside Mali's armed forces to try to stem a decade-long insurgency by Islamic extremists in the West African country.
Diplomats, analysts, and human rights groups say indiscriminate violence against civilians has grown since the mercenaries arrived, warning that extremists linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have only become stronger.
However, Mali's foreign minister said that it should be Malian authorities and not outsiders assessing the reports of human rights violations.
Diop added: "Human rights groups must stop being instruments used by those who want to destabilise Mali.
"We are accused of human rights abuses often by disguised terrorists themselves."2023-02-08T14:17:23Z dg43tfdfdgfd