Russia on Wednesday vetoed an attempt to keep inside military-run Mali a team of UN experts who had charged that foreign forces -- a veiled reference to Moscow-linked Wagner mercenaries -- were involved in widespread abuses.
Thirteen of the UN Security Council's 15 members backed a proposal that would have extended by one year targeted sanctions in Mali, which expire this week, and kept the experts in place.
But Russia exercised its veto power to block the proposal led by Mali's former colonial power France and the United Arab Emirates. China abstained.
Russia's ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, noted that the sanctions were first put in place in 2017 to support a peace agreement in the long-troubled Sahel country.
"It is fundamentally important that UN Security Council sanctions deal purely with that issue and not be used as a means of foreign influence on Mali, and that is something that the panel of experts of the Security Council has been involved in," he said.
Western powers accused Russia of retaliating after the panel spoke critically about actions by Malian forces and their "foreign security partners" -- a clear reference to Wagner.
A report submitted to the Security Council in August said violence against women "allegedly committed by the Malian Armed Forces and their foreign and local allies is systematic and organized."
Sanctions without experts to monitor them would make the entire effort "ineffective," US envoy Robert Wood said.
"Russia seeks to eliminate the panel of experts' mandate to stifle publication of uncomfortable truths about Wagner's actions in Mali which require attention," Wood said.
"Too many people continue to suffer from the ongoing violence and due to Russia's actions, this Council has failed to renew some of the most important international initiatives for addressing this crisis," he added.
- Last-minute diplomacy fails -
The expiring sanctions ban travel and freeze assets of violators of a 2015 peace agreement. Implementation has been limited, with only eight people hit with sanctions.
Russia had accepted an extension of the sanctions but insisted it would be for the last time and it sought an immediate end to the expert panel.
Diplomats at the Security Council broke away for a closed-door huddle but returned after failing to break the deadlock.
Russia put forward its own resolution, which it alone supported.
Wood called the Russian efforts "disingenuous and lamentable," saying Moscow introduced an alternative resolution with no opportunity for discussion.
Nebenzia insisted that Russia offered a "constructive approach and a sensible compromise" but that Western powers ignored concerns of Moscow and Mali.
"There was every chance and opportunity for this to work up until the last minute," he said.
- Emerging Russian ally --
Mali has shifted sharply to Russia after back-to-back coups in 2020 and 2021, becoming one of the few nations to back Moscow at the United Nations over its invasion of Ukraine.
Mali's junta has kicked out French forces battling jihadists and UN peacekeepers, lacking government support, ended a decade-long mission in late June.
Wagner -- whose leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was killed in a plane crash last week after leading a revolt against Russian President Vladimir Putin -- has been ruthless in its support of Malian and other African militaries that hire the group.
UN rights investigators say Malian troops and foreign forces -- presumed to be Wagner -- were behind the massacre of at least 500 people in the central Malian town of Moura in March 2022.
The Malian junta had urged an end to the sanctions regime, saying a previous government's support for it to back the peace process was no longer relevant.
But tensions have been rising between the government and the Coordination of Azawad Movements, which brings together predominantly ethnic Tuaregs who in 2012 mounted a revolt in northern Mali.
The draft resolution vetoed by Russia would have voiced concern over "threats to the ceasefire" and urged full cooperation with the UN peacekeepers as they move ahead with their departure by the end of the year.
Pointing to rising uncertainties in Mali, British envoy James Kariuki called Russia's veto "reckless."
"This will reduce the Council's oversight and engagement on Mali's peace process at a critical juncture," he said.