Mali Orders Russian Helicopter Gunships as it Evicts Western Forces

On March 31 the government of Mali announced that it had received two helicopter gunships from Russia, which would be used to support ongoing counterinsurgency efforts against Islamist militant groups in its desert regions. Defence Minister Sadio Camara received the helicopters on March 30 in the country’s capital Bamako as well as other Russian equipment. 

What was particularly notable about the acquisition was that it came after the West African country had evicted Western military forces that had long been based on its soil, after a change in government in 2020. Widespread anti-European and particularly anti-French protests have continued to sweep the capital, often with Russian flags, as Moscow and reportedly neighboring Algeria have supported the erosion of the longstanding French sphere of influence in the region.

 Mali’s increasingly close defence ties with Russia, which has included deployment of security contractors from the Russian Wagner Group rumoured to be financed by Algeria, has received highly negative coverage across the Western world much as the decision to evict Western forces did. 

The Malian government reported its new acquisitions as “combat helicopters, the latest radars, and much other material needed for the fight against terrorism and extremism… the fruit of a sincere and very long-running partnership” with Russia. 

The equipment is reported to have been provided free of charge as aid from Russia, which retains very large reserves surplus of Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters among other classes. Those delivered to Mali are thought to be Mi-17s, a derivative of the Mi-8 design for export. At the beginning of 2022 the Malian Air Force only fielded six combat aircraft, all Russian designs, forming a single squadron including 2 Mi-24D and 4 Mi-35M Hind platforms. The service includes only 2000 personnel, although this could potentially be expanded as more aircraft are received.

Mali’s neighbour Algeria deploys what is widely considered the most capable helicopter fleet in Africa or the Arab world, and as ties continue to improve it has the potential to provide considerable support for the Malian fleet supplementing that provided by Russia. The Malian Army is very lightly armed, with an estimated 230 armoured personnel carriers and just six tanks - Soviet PT-76s which first entered service over 70 years ago during the Korean War.

 The potential for the country’s armed forces to benefit considerably from receipt of Russian surplus equipment remains significant. At over $850 million, the Malian defence budget is also not insignificant and could help finance acquisitions and operational costs of equipment particularly if pressure on the budget from combat expenditures is reduced.

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