The White House National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby is unaware of the activities of Russian mercenaries in Mali, even as the Biden administration has been sounding the alarm about the Wagner group in Africa in the past few weeks and months, including on Wednesday.
“I don’t have a lot of insight into the Wagner Group’s activities in Mali. So I can take the question for you, and we can see if we can get you an answer. I just don’t have the insight on that issue,” Kirby said during a joint press briefing on Wednesday with White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
He added, “I’ll just say, broadly speaking, the Wagner Group is very active, of course, in Ukraine. We know that. They’re most active in the Donbas region, that northeast section of Ukraine right now, and that they have — and we’ve talked about this before — I mean, they have been recruiting fighters from North Africa, from the Levant area to aid their efforts on the ground. It’s a private military contractor, and they’re not above that kind of recruitment effort. But as to what they’re doing in Mali, sir, I just don’t have that.”
Kirby’s comments came on the same day a top U.S. diplomat Victoria Nuland warned that Russian Wagner mercenaries are wreaking havoc across Africa, particularly in Mali and the Sahel region, and pushing out United Nations forces.
Nuland, the Under Secretary for Political Affairs, U.S. Department of State, briefed reporters from Washington D.C. following her October 16-20 travel to Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.
On Mali, Nuland warned that although the interim government is committed to meeting the agreed timeline of elections in 2024, “however, there are going to be a number of challenges, largely having to do with security across the country.”
“And security is in fact, becoming more difficult as Wagner forces and others take on a larger role in the country and squeeze out UN peacekeepers and as incidents of terror have risen some 30% in the last six months,” she said.
Nuland described the decision by the interim government in Mali to invite Wagner mercenaries as “unfortunate and bad.”
She said, “And unfortunately, in the case of Mali, it has resulted in that government, that interim government, making some very bad choices in inviting Wagner forces to be part of their security mix. And we see the results. As I said earlier, with violence and terror going up and the UN forces being pushed out.”
On the assessment of the strength and presence of Wagner forces in Mali, and whether there are any indications that Burkina Faso’s government is considering any arrangement with Wagner group, Nuland said that in a meeting with the interim President of Burkina Faso, and his leadership team, including the defense minister, “he was unequivocal in saying that it is the Burkinabe who will defend the security of their nation and that they have no intention of inviting Wagner in.”
Nuland led an interagency delegation to the four African nations last week that included Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste Wallander, AFRICOM Major General Kenneth Ekman, Deputy Assistant Secretaries of State Michael Heath and Gregory LoGerfo, and National Security Council Director Matthew Petit.
Across the region, Under Secretary Nuland and the delegation met with government, military and civil society leaders to discuss security, governance, and development issues, and stressed the United States’ commitment to work closely with willing partners to tackle the growing threat of terror across the Sahel.
They also underscored that good governance, the rule of law, respect for human rights, education, and a vibrant civil society are key to breaking the cycle of violent extremism, she said.
Under Secretary Nuland and the delegation met with civil society activists, election officials, entrepreneurs, and young leaders promoting education, political inclusion, and human rights.