Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) personnel will remain deployed in the West African nation of Mali, mainly as part of French-led counter-terrorism efforts there, in view of the wider, current security situation. Laanet had previously said that EDF personnel would be withdrawn, after Russian private security firm Wagner started operating in the Sahel nation.
However, the thinking now is that withdrawal would hand over the country to the Russian sphere of influence, a development which would be unacceptable both to Estonia and its allies in the region.
The EDF has been contributing an infantry platoon on a rotational basis to Mali for several years. The platoon is based in the western town of Gao and conducts patrolling and related activities. In addition, EFF special forces (ESTSOF) personnel are reportedly deployed in the north of the country, as part of Operation Takuba, a counter-terrorism mission.
Laanet said Monday that: "The whole security picture, not only in Africa, including Mali, but also in our own region and in our neighboring regions, has transformed completely. And as we can see, Russian aggression has increased."
"As a result, we have agreed today with our partners and allies, who we are with in Mali and in [Operation] Takuba, that we will make these decisions jointly," Laanet added.
Laanet has said on more than one occasion since September that were Wagner personnel to be operating in Mali, the EDF would withdraw its participation in French-led operations there. This was to put pressure on the leadership of Mali, which now consists of a military Junta headed up by Assimi Goïta following a coup last year, so as not to enter into an agreement with Wagner.
Further statements cannot be made yet as decisions depend highly on a range of different circumstances, the defense ministry says.
"This is certainly not a matter of days, but rather a longer period in which we can make decisions," Laanet said.
"What the situation is with Wagner in Mali, what the allies' opinion on remaining there is - this concerns not only the French-led Takuba Task Force, but also EU missions - there are a lot of nuances according to who we are talking about and what mission," he continued.
One of the most important and unacceptable decisions made by the junta currently in power in Mali is that it postponed democratic elections for five years, which, Laanet said: "Is in no way in line with the agreements reached on supporting the fight against terrorism in Mali."
"And since Mali has not adhered to its agreements at all, as allies we are facing a very serious challenge as to how we proceed. But we certainly do not want to simply hand over the sphere of influence to Russia next," the minister added.
The withdrawal of some Swedish forces from Takuba is not related to the current situation, Laanet added. The personnel being removed were supplementary to the main forces – Sweden is the lead nation in the operation, in fact.
Authorities will continue to monitor the situation in Mali, and new decisions on the way forward are to be made later: "We will have more clarity in the coming weeks. Next week, there will be an allied meeting of Takuba, where we will discuss what our common decisions and common moves could be," Laanet added, noting that wherever there is a crisis, Russian military boots on the ground, or those of private military contractors as in Mali, are sure to be in evidence.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has opted to impose economic sanctions on Mali due to the suspension of democratic elections in that country, while the EU has suspended payment of a subsidy to the country, for the same reason and also for the military cooperation with forces affiliated to the Russian government.
Takuba Task Force advises, assists and accompanies the Malian Armed Forces, in coordination with G5-Sahel partners and other international actors on the ground, while Operation Barkhane is a French-led counter-terrorism and anti-human-trafficking endeavor, covering a vast area of terrain and several other Sahel region countries, all of them former French colonies, such as Chad and Mauritania, in addition to Mali.
The French ministry of defense says seven countries are taking part in Takuba, in addition to Estonia, Sweden as lead nation and France itself – these are: Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal.
The Mali Junta has accused Paris of abandoning the country, hence its calling on the Wagner troops.
The 2021 coup in Mali led to the overthrow of Ban Ndaw as president. Ndaw was released from house arrest in late August last year.
Editor: Andrew Whyte