It's Business as Usual for Wagner Group in Africa, despite Russian Turbulence – Africa Center for Strategic Studies – Africa Center for Strategic Studies

By Joseph Siegle
July 2, 2023
In the wake of the recent short-lived mutiny, Putin faces a dilemma: He can allow the Wagner escapades to continue in Africa unhindered—thereby generating further influence and some resources for the government—or he can attempt to take over these operations but lose the influence and benefits Wagner brings the Kremlin.

The short-lived Wagner Group mutiny in Russia about a week ago has had Russian President Vladimir Putin and his propagandists go into action by launching a media blitz aimed at making this episode – which laid bare the total lack of governance in the federation – fade from public memory and have it replaced with a narrative that “unity of the nation prevailed over polarization.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry has launched its own messaging campaign, dialing up Wagner Group clients in Syria and even more so in Africa and letting them know that the activity of the mercenaries will continue even though now they will have to report directly to the Kremlin.
In the week following the clashes, the roughly 6,000 Wagner Group forces stationed in Africa have continued their operations without having to endure the turbulence of their comrades in Russia. “We have been following the impact the mutiny may have had on the region [Africa] but so far we have yet to see any significant change, apart from rumors on movement in Libya,” the All Eyes On Wagner (AEOW) project, which monitors the group’s activities, told Israel Hayom. “Our contacts on the ground indicate that it is business as usual in Mali and the Central African Republic,” it added.
The Wagner Group was initially created so that Russia would not be directly implicated in the fighting against the Ukrainians in the Donbas as early as 2014. It then expanded its operations to Syria, where it has been fighting against the Islamic State at the behest of the Bashar Assad regime – which has given it as a quid pro quo concessions to extract oil from the fields it had liberated from the radicals. The group arrived in Africa in 2017 when a 500-strong force was sent to Sudan to help its then-President Omar al-Bashir quash the protests against him. Like Assad, he gave the mercenaries a valuable consideration in this transaction: Commander Yevgeny Prigozhin got exclusive mining rights for gold.
Sudan was only the beginning. In 2017, Moscow took advantage of the French withdrawal from the Central African Republic and ultimately sent Wagner Group “military instructors ” to help the leader Faustin-Archange Touadera fight the local rebels. This has helped him consolidate his grip on power, to the point that even his protection detail is partially composed of armed Russians (including its chief). As a result, Wagner struck gold – literally and figuratively. It got exclusive mining rights for gold and diamonds and a 30-year concession to clear areas with tropical forests in the Congo Basin, exploiting the high demand for timber in the West and among rich Gulf clients. According to AEOW, using some 30% of the concession area in the Congo Basin will result in some $890 million funneling into its coffers. According to the Financial Times, during the years of operation in Africa before the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Prigozhin made some $250 million.
Unsurprisingly, the atrocities committed by the group in Ukraine have been as gruesome in Africa. When they were deployed to Libya in 2019 to help the rebel general Khalifa Haftar, they mined populated areas. In 2020, some 1,000 Wagner Group mercenaries arrived in Mali to help a military junta in its fight against the Islamists; the number of civilian deaths spiked almost overnight. According to a UN report, in one operation in the Malian town of Moura, they massacred some 400 noncombatants with helicopters.” Civilian casualties in the country have risen disproportionately since Wagner’s arrival, following clear patterns of the group’s violence against local populations in Central African Republic, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine,” Paul Stronski, a senior fellow in Carnegie Endowment’s Russia and Eurasia Program, wrote.
Now the force has its sights trained on Burkina Faso, Mali’s neighbor, where stability has long been absent. The mercenaries have reportedly already reached the country, even though the junta’s leaders in the capital Ouagadougou have denied this.
Israel Hayom spoke with Dr. Joseph Siegle, the director of research at the US-based National Defense University’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies to learn what has made the Wagner Force so successful in the continent and to see how the recent events could impact its operations there.
Q: Will the activity of Wagner mercenaries be affected after the recent standoff in Russia, especially in light of its somewhat anticlimactic end?
Wagner has become a very useful tool of Russian foreign policy in Africa – gaining significant influence with limited costs. Keep in mind that Russia is achieving this influence while investing very little in Africa, accounting for less than one percent of the FDI going into the continent. Therefore, Russia will be highly reluctant to give this up, when it has such little appeal otherwise around the world.
In addition to the reassurances noted in the Business Insider article, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has publicly said that Wagner (and the Russian government) will continue its “support” to keep the African regimes it is working with in power. Lavrov went so far as to say that Wagner is “doing a good job” in Africa.
So, the interest on the part of Moscow is there. The question remains on how this will be implemented. The Russian government may try to take on all of the functions that Wagner employs to gain influence in Africa: combining the deployment of paramilitary forces, disinformation, election interference, and resource deals to prop up isolated and unpopular African regimes. However, the government lacks the networks, agility, and plausible deniability that Prigozhin brings. So, sidelining Prigozhin could be costly to Russian influence. In addition to influence, Wagner’s irregular engagements in Africa have at times been very lucrative with billions of dollars in revenues generated from gold and diamond mining in Sudan, CAR, Mali, and elsewhere. While there are surely many in the Russian state oligarchy that would welcome the opportunity to tap these resources, they lack the array of businesses Prigozhin operates to achieve the outcomes he has.
In short, Putin faces a dilemma. He can allow Prigozhin to resume his Wagner escapades in Africa unhindered – thereby generating further influence and some resources for the government. Or, Putin can attempt to take over these operations through government functionaries and in the process lose the very influence and benefits Wagner brings the Kremlin.
Q: What are the basic interests of Russia in Africa? Or, to put it differently, what are the prominent spheres of Russian activity?
Russia has 4 main strategic priorities in Africa:
Gain a foothold in North Africa along the southern Mediterranean. By establishing an enduring military presence in this region, Russia would be in a position to menace NATO along its southern flank as well as control and disrupt maritime traffic through this important waterway.
Enhance Russia’s global posture and perception as a Great Power. By being seen as an important actor in Africa (and elsewhere around the world), Russia is able to present itself as an important global actor whose interests need to be considered. This has taken on greater importance for Russia following its isolation after its annexation of parts of eastern Ukraine and Crimea in 2014 and the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. By being welcomed in Africa, Russia is able to contend that it is not a pariah. The unwillingness of many African leaders to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the UN serves as n important tangible demonstration of this. Underscoring the importance of this African support further, FM Sergei Lavrov has made roughly 8 trips to Africa since the invasion of Ukraine.
Undercut democracy and normalize authoritarianism. Russia has mostly gained influence in unaccountable authoritarian regimes in Africa. By coming to support these unpopular regimes and protecting them from sanctions and UNSC condemnations, Russia is able to quickly gain influence without significant investments. Propping up these regimes also serves Russia’s interest of preventing democratic (or colored) revolutions from gaining traction. This limits Russia’s isolation and pressure for democratic reforms in Russia itself. In other words, supporting authoritarians is both a means to gain influence and an end or Russia’s strategic objectives. (For reference, here’s a related infographic on this we just put out.
Reshape global order away from a UN-based system that respects territorial integrity, and sovereignty, and upholds the rule of law. This is the central premise of the Ukraine invasion. If Russia can get support globally for this aggressive, imperial action, then it’s a direct challenge to the rules-based UN system that Putin has long railed against. Russia is at a fundamental disadvantage under the current system. So, Putin is trying to reshape the international order to a more transactional, lawless system where might makes right that plays to Russia’s interests and enable Russia to cut deals with regimes violating UN norms without reputational or financial cost. To the extent more African regimes sign on to this worldview the more it is validated.
Q: Can we talk about whether there is a common denominator for countries in which the Russians are present, especially with boots on the ground?
Russia, mostly through Wagner, has troops on the ground in Libya (supporting the rebellion by Khalifa Haftar), the Central African Republic, and Mali. Typically, this amounts to just 1-2,000 troops in each theater. There are also close ties in Sudan and Burkina Faso. The common denominator is that these are unaccountable, authoritarian regimes that have been able to cut deals for Russia to bring in troops in exchange for Russian access to resources without gaining popular support. The effect has been to prop up and enrich these leaders, while dramatically enhancing Russian influence at the expense of sovereignty and the strategic interest for these countries.
An important takeaway here is that while often presented as a security service, the relatively modest levels of Wagner troop deployments do not fundamentally change the security realities in these countries. Rather, Wagner is, for the most part, a political tool to help keep these regimes in power – and thereby extend Russian influence.
Q: I guess the ties of African countries with Moscow go back to the Soviet era and there is something of a tradition in the relations. But speculation aside, has the ongoing war changed relations? (Surely, Africa is not homogenous, but is there any pattern that you can point to?)
While some African countries will cite these historical ties, in fact, the Russian engagements today are far different than the Soviet era. Indeed, there is a lot of selective historical interpretation, including ignoring that Ukraine also has strong historical ties to Africa. So, we need to assess Russia-African ties vis-à-vis the interests they serve today. As you note, these are highly varied.
There are a handful of African regimes (mentioned above) that are highly dependent on Russia. They, therefore, have a direct self-interest in maintaining these ties. There is another category of African regime (Zimbabwe, Uganda, South Sudan, Mozambique, Republic of the Congo, Gabon, and Cameroon) that is authoritarian and sees value in gaining Russian protection at international forums and are very open to striking a deal for greater Russian engagement.
A third category are countries that see Russia-West tensions as an opportunity to hedge and try and leverage more support and concessions from each side.
A fourth category would be African countries that genuinely believe in non-alignment and are loathe to take a position.
A fifth category are African countries that are appalled by Russia’s imperialist actions and the threat they pose to the rules-based international system. While they may not make high-profile movements in this way, they will not support Russia’s global ambitions.
Q: Are there any risks for African leaders in pursuing deeper cooperation with Moscow under the current circumstances? Can it, for example, backfire considering the collective stance of the West towards the Russian aggression?
For the most part, African leaders striking deals with Russia/Wagner risk losing sovereignty and self-determination. We have seen that once Russia has become established (in Libya, CAR, and Mali, for example) that they become autonomous and pursue their own interests and engage in political gamesmanship within these countries. This includes threatening local communities, intimidating government officials who raise concerns over undue Russian influence, and engaging in human rights abuses. So, there is a genuine question of just how these African countries are going to get Wagner forces to leave.
Risks to these governments from the West are relatively limited. By and large, the West has refrained from taking an “us vs. them” approach. There are reputational costs that are building in some places, however, such as in South Africa. This is putting into question these countries’ commitment to the rule of law, which may have longer-term implications for Western commitments and investment.
Q: Recently, the Ukrainian Minister of FA visited several African countries. Can Ukraine make significant diplomatic inroads into the continent?
As indicated earlier, many African regimes are playing the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a way of leveraging more resources. I believe this, more than anything that Ukraine does, will shape these relations. That said, there is value for Ukraine to continue to make these efforts as it exposes the inconsistency in a number of African governments’ claims of non-alignment.
Originally appeared in Israel Hayom.
More on:  Russia in Africa  Disinformation


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