Base Expansion in Mali Indicates Growing Wagner Group Investment

Audio Brief

A short, spoken-word summary from CSIS’s Catrina Doxsee on her commentary with Joseph Bermudez and Jennifer Jun, Base Expansion in Mali Indicates Growing Wagner Group Investment.

Audio file

Despite continued uncertainty about the future of the Wagner Group and its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, recent satellite imagery indicates that the private military company (PMC) is not only staying in Mali but is actively expanding its base capacity in Bamako and may intend to transfer additional valuable military equipment there in the near future. With Prigozhin’s and Putin’s goals aligned toward maintaining Wagner’s operations in Africa, policymakers seeking to disrupt Wagner’s presence should monitor and publicly highlight more subtle signs of security service disruption or incompetence, rather than waiting for Russia to gut Wagner or for the PMC to implode.

The Wagner Base in Bamako

Wagner personnel deployed to Mali in December 2021 with support from the Russian armed forces. Upon arrival, Wagner established an operating base adjacent to Bamako’s Modibo Keita International Airport, near Airbase 101, a military installation used by the Malian air force.

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Jennifer Jun
Project Manager and Research Associate (Imagery Analysis), iDeas Lab and Korea Chair
Remote Visualization

The construction observed in recent satellite imagery, north of the base and adjacent to the airport’s main runway, is of a new terminal at Modibo Keita International Airport by a Turkish contractor, scheduled for completion in March 2024. There is no evidence of a connection between this infrastructure project and Wagner operations. Similarly, though the Wagner base is next to an SA-3 Goa (S-125 Neva/Pechora) surface-to-air missile (SAM) base, the SAM base significantly predates Wagner presence and appears to be abandoned.

Base Expansion and New Construction

The Wagner base has undergone significant development in the year and a half since the PMC arrived in Mali. By the autumn of 2022, Wagner had constructed a series of new buildings, including replacements for temporary structures, expanded the base’s entrance area, and extended the base perimeter southward. Satellite imagery analyzed by CSIS shows that a wall was constructed along the western perimeter of the expansion around September 2022 and a southern wall was added between late September and mid-October 2022. Construction of perimeter walls continued through late 2022. Wagner is currently constructing a large 255-by-90-meter revetted storage area in the southern end of the base and has made improvements to the dirt road leading into the city. The series of images below examines the Wagner base development in closer detail.

Remote Visualization

The new revetted storage area is one of the most significant developments at the Wagner base. Areas of this type are typically used to store and protect valuable military equipment. As seen below, ground razing for the storage area started in late March 2023, and construction continues in the latest image—nearly a month after Prigozhin’s mutiny.

Remote Visualization

Implications

The ongoing construction is significant because it not only shows that base operations continued uninterrupted after Prigozhin’s mutiny in June, but also demonstrates Wagner’s sustained intention to expand its operations out of Bamako. In particular, the construction of the revetted storage area portends a possible increase in high-value equipment transfers to Mali in the near future. This contradicts a flurry of rumors alleging that Wagner may be forced to draw down its forces in Africa but is in line with Prigozhin’s remarks in a recent video released by Wagner-linked channels online, in which he promised that Wagner would refocus its attention on Africa.

The continuation of services in Mali is not surprising, given that Wagner and Moscow share the goals of both actual and perceived continuity of operations. Wagner’s operations in Africa—both the core paramilitary services and the broader network’s involvement in resource extraction, smuggling, influence operations, and other activities—are at the root of Prigozhin’s wealth and power. Similarly, Wagner’s involvement in Africa has been a fundamental tool for Moscow to expand its influence and achieve geopolitical goals on the continent in recent years. Both Prigozhin and the Russian state have too much to gain from continued Wagner operations and no real reason to pull out, especially since doing so would require abandoning the operational infrastructure and relationships Wagner has built with no replacement in sight.

Despite the messaging and best efforts of both Wagner and the Russian government, continuity of services is not guaranteed. Even if they attempt to preserve the operational infrastructure in partner countries, failures or gaps in service may become more likely as a result of any leadership reshuffling, limitations on recruitment or access to supplies, and personnel transfers between countries of deployment.

Regional actors and Western policymakers hoping to counter the spread of Wagner and contain the harm and insecurity that results from Wagner’s operations cannot wait for Russia to defang the PMC or for it to crumble from the inside. Opportunities for Wagner’s opponents therefore exist in those cracks—the differences between how Russia and Wagner hope their activities will be perceived and the realities on the ground. Policymakers can seek to exploit any transitional instability Wagner experiences by publicizing evidence of their failures and weaknesses, as well as working with local partners to develop viable alternative forms of security and governance assistance.

Catrina Doxsee is an associate director and associate fellow with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. is a senior fellow for imagery analysis with the iDeas Lab and Korea Chair at CSIS. Jennifer Jun is a project manager and research associate for satellite imagery analysis with the iDeas Lab and Korea Chair at CSIS.

Special thanks to William Taylor from the CSIS iDeas Lab for imagery markup design and to Rayna Salam for editing and publication support.