Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says the military junta in Mali has turned to "private Russian companies" for help in its fight against Islamist insurgents in the Western African country.
"This is activity which has been carried out on a legitimate basis," Lavrov said during a press conference at the United Nations headquarters in New York on September 25. "We have nothing to do with that."
The move comes despite warnings to Mali's military junta by the European Union, France, and Germany against hiring the Russian private security firm Vagner to fight against Islamic militants.
Vagner is believed to be controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Although private military companies are illegal in Russia, observers say Vagner has in recent years played an increasingly important role in buttressing the Kremlin's ambitions abroad.
The group has been active for several years in combat operations in different countries -- including in Syria, Libya, Sudan, and the Central African Republic.
The group’s presence in Africa has been growing in recent years as the Kremlin seeks to expand its international influence amid a global retrenchment by Washington, analysts say.
Mali slid into political turmoil last year, culminating in a military coup in August 2020 against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
After overthrowing Keita, under the threat of sanctions, the military junta appointed an interim civilian government that was tasked with steering the country back to democratic rule by holding elections in February 2022.
But army strongman Colonel Assimi Goita overthrew that government in May and was later declared interim president.
Although Goita has pledged to respect the February 2022 deadline for civilian elections, observers say the likelihood of the vote taking place on schedule is increasingly in doubt.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly told reporters on September 20 after meeting in Mali with Defense Minister Colonel Sadio Camarag that hiring Vagner to fight Islamic militants would lead the country to "isolation."
But with Paris planning to reduce its troop numbers across the region by early 2022, the military junta has accused France of "abandonment."
It has said "everything had to be considered to secure the country."
Germany has also warned that it will reconsider its deployments in Mali should the government strike a deal with Vagner.
The European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also warned earlier this week that the EU's ties with Mali could be seriously affected if it allows Russian private military contractors like Vagner to operate there.