If the name Ivan Aleksandrovich Maslov doesn’t ring a bell, that is perfectly normal. The head of Wagner in Mali and alleged war criminal is a discrete man who doesn’t want to receive too much attention. But Wagner Group is now well established in Mali and it is more than ever necessary to take a step back and take a look at who is in charge of the infamous PMC.
Former GRU agent turned mercenary
Ivan Maslov was born on January 3rd 1980. Little is known of his early career but he reportedly served a time in the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. This institution is involved in a wide range of operations, from intelligence gathering to targeted assassinations and deception campaigns.
We don’t know what Maslov’s activities in the GRU were, but it is no surprise that such a high ranking figure of Wagner has a past there. Links between the agency and the PMC are well documented. Wagner chief of operations Dmitry Utkin himself has a similar background. Furthermore, the mercenary main training camp in Molkino (north Caucasus) is located next to a GRU-Spetsnaz base, which can’t be coincidental. Wagner also certainly relies on GRU intelligence and equipment for its interventions.
Maslov transitioned from the GRU to mercenary life at the latest in 2014, with the start of the war in Ukraine. This was the time of Wagner’s incubation, when Russia started experimenting ways to deploy troops abroad while retaining a plausible deniability capacity. Maslov then reportedly took part in the assault against Lugansk airport in the Donbas at the start of the civil war. The claim is made by Myrotvorets, a Russian NGO listing all individuals accused of crimes against Ukraine’s security and sovereignty.
Expanding Wagner in Africa – at all costs
The whereabouts of Maslov in the years immediately following are unknown. No tracks are publicly available for this period so we don’t know whether Maslov participated in Wagner deployments in Syria and Libya.
However, we find him again in what is Wagner’s main target area today: French-speaking Africa. Maslov was already a key actor of Wagner’s progressive deployment in the Central African Republic from 2018 onward. The PMC gained a solid foothold on the landlocked country following the departure of French troops from operation Sangaris by playing a prominent role in repelling a major rebel offensive on the capital Bangui.
Since then, the mercenaries have gained a tremendous level of influence over the country’s military and civilian authorities. It allows them to operate largely unchecked in the country, working on securing natural resources to commit exaction on civilian populations without restraints.
In July 2018, three Russian journalists tasked by newspaper TsOuR to investigate Wagner’s actions in CAR were killed under mysterious circumstances. It is widely believed that Ivan Maslov took an active part in the assassination of these reporters Orhan Djemal, Alexander Rasstorguëv and Kirill Radchenko. The preservation of the veil covering the PMC activities was at stake, an essential feature to keep avoiding any form of control. There, Maslov proved he is a man willing to go to any length to get what he wants.
A head of Wagner in Mali known for being authoritative and racist
In 2021, Ivan Maslov was handed new responsibilities. The Central African Republic is generally regarded today as a fields test for Wagner more ambitious and ongoing goal of taking France’s place in Mali, a country more exposed to international inquiry. Maslov’s African experience enabled him to become a key player in the group’s negotiations with the Malian junta throughout 2021. In July 2021 he was notably seen alongside Colonel Alou Boi Diarra, the chef of staff of the Malian air force and one of Russia’s most outspoken supporters in the military government.
When Wagner finally started to send personnel and equipment in Mali in December 2021, Maslov was one of the first executives on the ground. Since then, he is likely heading the operations for the whole country, answering directly to Dmitry Utkin.
But the relation between the mercenaries and local forces is already destabilized. Some FAMa (Malian armed forces) soldiers are already getting vocal about the behavior of Maslov himself and his men. Currently deployed in the center of the country, the mercenaries consider the Malian not as partners but as subordinates supposed to only follow orders.
Witnesses even report the use of physical violence to submit the FAMa into following the PMC’s manoeuvers. Racist behavior is also denounced with the Russians considering themselves superior to the Malians, justifying Maslov’s lack of consideration for local officers.
The junta currently does its best to conceal this disturbing side of the new “partners” it desperately needs to consolidate its power. It is however not certain that the mercenaries will manage to dominate the Malian elements on the field as successfully as it did in CAR. In any case, the figure of Maslov is a perfect demonstration that the myth of an equal and fair alliance only exists in the speeches of the government in Bamako.