In it for the long haul? Russia's engagement with Africa is likely to continue. Image: Courtesy of AP / Alamy
Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny was quashed in one day inside Russia, but the implications for Africa are unclear. As African leaders make their way back from the Russia–Africa Summit in St Petersburg, will we get hints about the company’s future on the continent and how should others respond?
On 27 July African leaders made their way to St Petersburg for the second Russia–Africa Summit. The first summit four years ago majored on trade, investment and development. These are issues of concern to Africa but the agenda was Moscow’s. Discussions this time will be tainted by African states’ growing agitation at their place in the world, the economic costs of the Ukraine War, and by persistent problems of insecurity across Africa.
The Wagner Group has been one of many imperfect answers to insecurity in Africa, or at least regime insecurity. Starting in Sudan, Wagner has been developing its presence on the continent since 2017. Under the Omar Al-Bashir government the company trained the Sudanese armed forces, guarded mineral resources and helped to suppress political opposition. In what has become a familiar pattern, Wagner received exclusive access to mineral and resource extraction by occupying mines and agreeing special deals and concessions.
Working alongside front and sister companies, since then the company has sold a menu of services to embattled African governments, including strategic communications, close protection, military training, offensive military operations and logistics. The Touadéra government in the Central African Republic (CAR) signed a contract with Wagner in 2018. Although now fully reliant on Wagner for regime security, it has survived despite effective state failure. In 2019 an ill-fated Wagner deployment to Mozambique saw company fighters bested by an Islamist insurgency. The company also supported rebel Libyan Arab Armed Forces. In Mali since 2021, Wagner has propped up the military government with force and crafted strategic communication campaigns that helped to exacerbate anti-French sentiment.
Understanding the Appeal
In some cases, Wagner has been effective in quelling insurgency and bolstering government authority, although not necessarily legitimacy. It has faced accusations of human rights abuses and international humanitarian law violations on several occasions. In Mali and CAR the UN working group on the use of mercenaries called for investigations following a number of reported rapes, attacks and killings of civilians. Among other things, in Libya in 2020 Wagner was accused of using landmines that killed civilians.
In some cases, Wagner has been effective in quelling insurgency and bolstering government authority, although not necessarily legitimacy. It has faced accusations of human rights abuses and international humanitarian law violations on several occasions
At the country-level, Wagner’s services are marketed by Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) representatives within embassies. Host governments such as CAR and Mali have agreements not with Wagner but with the Russian government. The government-to-government negotiations have allowed Wagner and linked Russian companies to benefit financially. Exploitation of commodities such as gold or timber in Sudan or CAR has in turn contributed to Russia’s sanction-busting efforts.
But Wagner has also proven an effective foreign policy tool. In recent years, Africa was not high on Moscow’s priority list, but the Ukraine War gave it added significance. Russia has tried to win the narrative argument with key African states to avoid isolation. Both the St Petersburg Summit and Wagner are part of a ‘charm offensive’. With some success, Russia brands itself as an anti-colonial friend to African governments, untainted in comparison to France, the UK and the rest. The Wagner operation in Mali for example helped to change attitudes to the UN and French security missions, paving the way for France’s humiliating exit.
For selected African governments, then, the package of services on offer has proved appealing. Lectured by domestic and external critics, unable to persuade the UN or allies such as France to fight and die at scale in the face of insurgencies, they have been offered regime protection – at a price. Investigations have illustrated the risks associated with Wagner, but these are largely borne by marginalised populations in the periphery of host countries. Lawlessness may actually be an attraction in some cases.
Implications of the Prigozhin Mutiny
Moscow knows that African host governments viewed its handling of the mutiny closely. Two days later, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov used Russia Today to reassure Mali and CAR that Wagner’s ‘work’ in both countries would continue. It was therefore reassuring that around 500 new personnel arrived in CAR on a scheduled rotation in mid-July.
So far, so good? Perhaps. But behind the scenes at the summit a sub-set of African leaders will press for clarity on Wagner’s continental operations. Yevgeny Prigozhin was on hand in St Petersburg to meet government representatives, and presumably to court new suitors. The target list could include a dozen or more states with whom there have been reports of Wagner interaction, from Zimbabwe, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar and South Africa. The embattled military government of Burkina Faso and the fledgling junta in Niger will be front-runners.
The Kremlin will not ‘abandon’ Africa – that would taint its burgeoning brand as a trusted partner for needy governments. But that tells us little about Wagner which is being restructured and largely absorbed into the Russian military.
The Kremlin will not ‘abandon’ Africa – that would taint its burgeoning brand as a trusted partner for needy governments
One scenario is that the company is disbanded. There are around 20 other companies linked to the Russian government that could play ‘host’ to Wagner personnel and services. Three are controlled by Gazprom, one by Rosatom. By going down this route, the Russian government would retain Wagner’s capabilities and might even enhance the aspect of deniability that has proven useful in the past. But the move would be disruptive. African field operations are managed by men loyal to Prigozhin, such as Dmitri Utkin or Ivan Aleksandrovich Maslov.
Alternatively, if Wagner is downsized in Europe but licensed to continue its overseas operations, perhaps Prigozhin could remain at the helm in Belarus. The Kremlin could also reduce any residual risks that it felt around Prigozhin’s leadership by hiving off some of the ‘menu’ of services to sister companies.
Several factors will shape the direction of travel from now on. The fate of Russia’s combat operations in Ukraine will be one. A sound defeat for Russia in Ukraine would probably spell an end to Wagner’s Africa operations. But this is looking very unlikely.
Second is resourcing. Until now, the Russian government has not had the bandwidth or resources to invest heavily in Africa and has had to subsidise the company nearly $1 billion per annum despite its income-generation schemes. With the Russian economy in a growth phase, there could be fresh resource on offer to promote or to support Wagner in Africa.
A third issue will be the Kremlin’s overall prioritisation of Africa. The continent has been a low priority overall, hence the ‘outsourcing’ of policy to the MFA. Whether or not the Kremlin takes a stronger hand in future, the tone and the commitments announced at the summit indicate a sharper focus by Russia. But the events in Niger also highlight the importance of elite and public opinion on the continent.
Wagner in Context
Last week a UK Foreign Affairs Committee report charged the UK government with having for a decade ‘under-played and under-estimated the Wagner Network’s activities, as well as the security implications of its significant expansion’. It lamented the early withdrawal of UK troops from Mali in 2022 and pushed for further information on how the government will ‘tackle the challenge of states’ malign use of proxy PMCs’. The UK and the US have now sanctioned Wagner members.
Hopefully the report, coupled with events in St Petersburg will prompt some reflection. Wagner is a player in selected parts of Africa, and a feature of Russia’s foreign policy toolkit. But its wider importance can be exaggerated. A quick internet search throws up a small selection of the numerous private security and military operations in Africa which originate everywhere from Israel to France, and the UK.
Wagner may be projecting Russian foreign policy goals but it is useful to see it in this wider context. Wagner is one of many private military companies operating in Africa. When taken together with other admittedly very different ‘non-state’ security providers and interventions (peacekeeping and stabilisation missions, train and equip projects, private security companies and community militias) it is striking how little has been achieved in improving security in decades.
In the meantime, Western countries and the UN should be reflecting. They will not and should not match the Wagner offer. Sending troops or mercenaries to fight and advise during aggressive counterinsurgency operations is not on the cards for most. But hard thinking is needed about the persistent insecurity that Wagner and others latch on to. Better external security assistance – well mandated and overseen – can help. But there are also some uncomfortable truths that need airing about everything from state corruption, to extractive economic relations, destabilising military interventions as well as previous reluctance to resource peacebuilding or to back the regulation of private military and security operations. It may be too early to predict Wagner’s next move but the continent will remain open for the security business until all this changes.
This Commentary was updated on 2 August 2023 to reflect the correct author details.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Senior Research Fellow, African Security