A ceremony held at Bamako's Modibo Keïta international airport celebrated the reception by the Malian Armed Forces (FaMa) of a new batch of air assets. Most of the aircraft are attributed to Russia, which is pursuing a policy of penetration in the region that is paying off handsomely in Mali.
The military junta that has ruled Mali since the last coup d'état in 2021 is progressively strengthening its relationship with Russia, while French forces are leaving the country and its diplomacy is losing its footing in Africa. After the collaboration with the Wagner mercenary group, the new Russian arms shipments reinforce this narrative in Mali.
Sadio Camara, Mali's defence minister, took the floor during the event to applaud the Malian government's relationship with the Russian Federation, which he described as a "win-win" relationship. These new arms deliveries "strengthen the strike capabilities of our armed forces," the defence minister continued.
Mali has been caught in a turbulent spiral of violence since armed extremist groups mushroomed in the north of the country, spurred by instability in neighbouring Algeria and poor governance in Mali. An in extremis military intervention by France together with an African coalition tackled the threat with Operation Serval in 2014, but its predecessor, Operation Barkhane, was unable to maintain peace in the country.
L’Armée de l’Air comblée ce mardi 9 Août 2022 par une des plus grandes acquisitions qui leur permettra de se déployer large au ciel pour assurer pleinement la surveillance des 1 241 238 km2. pic.twitter.com/cg42KyiN5m— Forces Armées Maliennes (@FAMa_DIRPA) August 10, 2022
In this struggle with Islamist terrorism, which draws strength from poverty and lack of state control in a country of 1,240,192 km of mostly desert, the transitional government has shifted from relying on France to increasingly turning to Russia for its security needs. Russia has exploited the growing unpopularity of the former French colonial power to strategically penetrate a Sahel that is key to North African and European security, breaking through on the southern flank through its Wagner subsidiary.
Attack aircraft and helicopters
The communiqué released by the FaMa command gives some details about the equipment received, which together with photographs of the presentation event can be listed as at least 5 Czech-made L-39 Albatros training and attack aircraft; 4 S-25 ground attack aircraft; at least 2 M-35P attack helicopters -export- and 4 Mi-8m transport helicopters -export- and several radars. In addition, the communiqué mentions a C-295 transport aircraft, which is not of Russian but of European origin and which Mali ordered in 2020. The authorities must have decided to show it to the public along with the other latest acquisitions.
The surface attack capabilities of the AMF are growing with these new assets. The material received in this batch can be of great use in attacking ground positions, thus in inland operations against insurgent groups, Mali's main need as far as is known so far. They join the A-29 Super Tucano aircraft, from Brazil's Embraer, that Mali received in 2019.
None of the weapons systems obtained by the FaMa would be aimed at air superiority, as groups opposed to the government do not have air assets. This is another reason why the MIG-21s of the FaMA are seen ageing in a compound annexed to the military airport of Bamako, as can be seen through Google satellite images and as revealed by Jesús Manuel Pérez Triana's blog Flanco Sur. Mali acquired the first of these Soviet-made aircraft in 1973 and progressively upgraded the arsenal. But in 2012 it abandoned efforts to maintain its fleet of MIG-21s, and since then they are presumed to be non-operational.
The latest delivery of L-39 Albatros, Su-25s and helicopters is not the first in recent history by Russia. Even before Assimi Goïta's coup in 2021, the government of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta received a batch of helicopters a few days before the coup, just as the military officers who carried out the coup were receiving training in Moscow, including Defence Minister Sadio Camara and Assimi Goïta.
Russian instructors reinforce presence in Mali
With the arrival of new aircraft in Mali, the question of who will operate these systems has been raised. The training of the pilots must be carried out by someone, and it is a long and costly process for the FaMa. Although it has not been specified, it appears that the training of Malian pilots will be carried out by Russia, directly or indirectly. The Russian ambassador was the only diplomatic delegate mentioned in the event's communiqué, but it has not been confirmed whether members of the Russian armed forces will provide the training or whether contractors close to the Kremlin will do so. If they are Russian uniformed personnel, they would further strengthen Moscow's foothold in Mali.
There is reason to suspect that Mali will be dependent on Russia to operate these aircraft in the short to medium term. In April 2022, following an incident in which a Malian MI-35 fired six rockets near a position occupied by British troops of the UN peacekeeping mission, a French diplomatic report, quoted by AFP, suggested that the FaMa MI-35 was piloted by a Russian national, accompanied by a Malian at second command.