Russian disinformation is often said to be based on the so-called Gerasimov Doctrine even though, according to some analysts, Russian hybrid warfare is more precisely based on the Primakov Doctrine, which states, among other things, that hard power and soft power (including online manipulation operations) must be combined to counter US power and achieve a multipolar global balance.
In 2014 Russia was sanctioned for annexing Crimea, and decided to rebuild its influence in Africa. It is Eugene Prigozhin, head of a conglomerate nicknamed "the company" ("Компании") by its collaborators, including in particular the Wagner Group and the Internet Research Agency, who leads the operations that should allow this return to Africa. Dossier's (Досье) investigators disclosed a strategy document drawn up by Prigogine's conglomerate propagandists revealing a hybrid strategy based in particular on the development of "negroid racial chauvinism" ("негроидного расового шовинизма"). Prigozhin's 2018 strategic note to the head of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Federation outlines the priority strategic goals of the "company", including in particular:
"1) Russia's presence on the African continent;
2) Interaction with the power structures of African countries, as well as the integration of high-ranking officials into them , including presidents; "
"4) Gradual "squeezing out" of the US and the EU from the spheres of influence on these countries;
5) The Central African Republic is of particular attention, as it has great prospects of becoming the first African country that plans to get out of the influence of France in 2018-2019;
6) Preparing the basis for "Negroid racial chauvinism" to counter the United States, since the racial issue as dangerous as for Russia Islamic factor"1
In February 2016, the Group of Patriots of Mali (GPM) held a press conference calling for Russian assistance, arguing that MINUSMA was not fighting terrorism and drug traffickers. In September 2016 the GPM demonstrated in front of the Russian embassy, asking for Russian help and claiming a "united Mali", and denounced the incapacity of French forces. A Russian diplomat told them that Russia would respond favourably to their request.
In January 2017, the GPM held a press conference, during which its President recalled that the group was born out of an observation made in January 2016: MINUSMA, Barkhane and the Algiers Agreements had not put an end to the crisis and "Mali runs a real risk of partition". In October 2017, claiming 8 million signatories to a petition asking for Russia's help, the GPM asserted that France "is not for peace in Mali".
Prigozhin's conglomerate activities targeting Africa on social media are expanding in 2018, following the closure of its accounts targeting the US. This time, the "company" seems to be trying to rely on local actors, which makes the detection of its operations more difficult. In April 2018 the Russian ambassador participated in a press conference of the GPM, whose president accused the international community of "slowing down the operationalisation of the Malian army".
In April 2019 the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman mentions the GPM's requests and assures that Russia will train Malian forces: this support is then mentioned at a GPM press conference attended by the Russian ambassador, who declares that his country is 'committed to the unity of Mali' and announces the forthcoming signing of a defence agreement. In June 2019 Mali and Russia sign a military cooperation agreement. In October 2019, at the call of the GPM, a demonstration gathering about a hundred people in Bamako demands "Russia's intervention to help the Malian army recover the integrity of the territory", the departure of French and UN forces, and the sovereignty of the Malian state over Kidal and its region. Furthermore, the President of the GPM accuses "Western forces" of supporting terrorism, and the Plateforme des Jeunes Musulmans et Patriotes du Mali denounces the "current status of Kidal" and calls for a "diversification of military cooperation with other friendly countries, particularly in Kidal". Clément Dembélé then justifies the request for a Russian intervention "because we need to liberate Kidal, the centre of the country and all the occupied areas of Mali". In November 2019, the GPM's facebook page states "France is a terrorist state!!! Long live the cooperation between Mali and Russia". Then Salif Kéïta publishes a facebook video in which he says "it is France that posts people to kill Malians. It is France that pays people to do this, and then spreads rumours that they are jihadists". And in December 2019, in an interview with Libération, the GPM claimed that "France is capable of paying rebels to confront the Malian army" and that it "is there to plunder the country's resources".
In January 2020, during a demonstration of a thousand people demanding the departure of foreign armed forces, the GPM mentioned the case of Kidal, claiming that 'the French military prevented our forces from entering there when it was liberated in January 2013', and the Yerewolo collective accused France of wanting to seize Mali's mineral resources. The xinhua agency repeats its 2013 amalgam by quoting a demonstrator who claims that France is "covering up for terrorists in Kidal". Mali's employers' council denounces the manipulation of opinions, and claims that "money is being transferred to opinion leaders for the organisation of marches and the galvanisation of anti-French sentiment". In August 2020 IBK was overthrown in a coup. Some analysts note that several officers involved in the coup had just returned from training in Russia. In particular, Colonels Malick Diaw and Sadio Camara are said to have begun coordinating the coup while in Russia.
On 27 May 2021, after the second coup, a pro-Russian and anti-French demonstration takes place in Bamako: an investigation by the Daily Beast reveals that the demonstration was prepared by the army, at the military base of Kati. On 29 May, the GPM organises a demonstration in Kayes in favour of cooperation with Russia "for the total recovery of territorial integrity". On the same day, the Russian ambassador's advisor attends a GPM press conference. In September 2021, on the initiative of Yerewolo and Urgences Panafricanistes, led by Kémi Seba (whose ideas are described as close to those of Alexander Dugin, but who ended his collaboration with Prigozhin following a meeting in St. Petersburg), a demonstration in support of the Malian junta gathered thousands of participants in Bamako. The GPM reiterated its request for Russian intervention in Mali.
In November 2021, an investigation by The Africa Report into Russian influence operations in Mali mentions the activity in Bamako of the "African Back-Office", an informal think-tank launched by Prigozhin, which appears to be an African extension of the "Back-Office", the political division of the Prigozhin conglomerate based in St. Petersburg, from where the external activities of the "company" are coordinated. The "Back-Office" is composed of a few dozen "political technologists" ("политтехнологов") working in St. Petersburg, and groups operating in about twenty African countries. The "Back-office" is said to be headed by Petr Bychkov and Yaroslav Ignatowski, Prigozhin's chief political advisor.
On 7 February 2022, in front of diplomats invited to the Prime Minister's Office, including the Russian ambassador, the Malian Prime Minister presented the latest coup d'état as a "popular uprising" authorised by Article 121 of the constitution, and accused France of having partitioned Mali: "the current authorities also remember the ban imposed in 2013 by the French authorities on the Malian army to occupy part of the national territory" ... "the intervention turned into a de facto partition of Mali, which consisted of the sanctuary of a part of our territory, where the terrorists had time to take refuge, to reorganise themselves, in order to come back in force from 2014 onwards".
On the collapse of Libya: "unanimously recognised as one of the main causes of instability and the establishment of separatist and terrorist movements in Mali and the Sahel".
And, about the French leaders: "they never told their public opinion when they intervened in 2013 that they were going to divide Mali to create a sanctuary for terrorism." "Why did France arrive in northern Mali and forbid the Malian army to occupy the whole territory?" About the French: "they don't know that it was their government that cut Mali in two, creating a sanctuary where the terrorists went to rally and organise themselves".
By accusing French leaders of having hidden from the French in 2013 that they were going to divide Mali to create a terrorist sanctuary, the Malian Prime Minister joins the conspiracists and loses all credibility in the eyes of many international actors. However, the evolution of discourse shows a continuum from political judgement on facts to conspiracy nonsense: France prevented the Malian army from returning to Kidal, Mali's territorial integrity is threatened, French forces are incapable, Westerners support terrorism, France is covering up for terrorists in Kidal, France wants to seize Mali's mineral resources, France is paying people to kill Malians and make it look like jihadists are killing, France had a plan to divide Mali to create a terrorist sanctuary there.
The only truth in this continuum is that when the MNLA independence fighters recaptured Kidal from the Ansar Dine jihadists, the MNLA and the people of Kidal demanded that a political negotiation take place before the return of the Malian army, which had also resumed committing abuses and summary executions. It is this fact that leads to the claims that France has divided Mali. The fact is that Tuareg independence has existed not since the fall of the Libyan regime, but since independence, and that Mali has never managed to solve this problem.
Topological disparities between France and Bamako are the central factor in the current crisis. France distinguishes between Tuaregs and jihadists, while Bamako conflates Tuareg separatists and terrorists. The question is: is that conflation a simple error of analysis, or is it voluntary? By making that conflation, some Malian leaders are trying to instrumentalise the French army and enlist it in a war against Tuareg separatists that Mali has never managed to win since 1960. France is not at war with the Tuaregs, but with jihadism.
Confronted with the failure of this attempt at instrumentalisation, the same actors are trying an alternative plan: replacing the French army with Russian forces, mercenaries or not, who would not hesitate to wage war against the Tuaregs, rebels or civilians.
Analysis highlights two types of topological disparities: false or pretended disparities, with the aim of instrumentalising Operation Barkhane, and sincere disparities, among actors who do not have enough information, or who are vulnerable to manipulation. Russia benefits from the development of these disparities, and from the beginning understood that it was necessary to communicate its intention to help Mali regain its territorial integrity.
The objective of the Russians and Bamako would be to create an additional war, between Tuaregs and Russian forces, whereas only political negotiations would allow the resolution of the Tuareg question. Sending Russian mercenaries - whose barbarity is well known - to Kidal against the Tuareg population would be a major mistake: the Malian army's abuses against civilians have already led to Tuareg rebellions, but Russian abuses would undoubtedly provoke much greater reactions, possibly leading to a sub-regional conflagration reaching the Gulf of Guinea.
In the end, the French state is guilty above all of having failed to consider perception disparities, and of having perceived neither the evolution of Malian perceptions, nor the continuous increase in divergences and power of emerging collectives. From a cindynical point of view, considering topological and systemic disparities and divergences, as well as monitoring of weak signals such as the evolution of actors' power , are basic steps in the analysis of conflict situations, and this French geopolitical defeat in the sub-region is logical.
Regarding the sub-region populations, the most important conclusion is the need to develop their resilience and capacity for emancipation from manipulations, particularly online, which are nothing but enslavement processes. That said, the implementation of institutional policies aimed at such an objective would require a relevant conceptual tool.