The Wagner Group in Africa: How it serves to spread the influence and interests of the Russian state
A closer look at the activities of the Wagner Group in Africa, from the countries it is active in to its reported numbers and alleged atrocities — as well as the Wagner Group’s origins, and how it serves to spread the influence and interests of the Russian state.
Who are the Wagner Group?
The Wagner Group is a paramilitary organisation similar to a Private Military Company (PMC), except that de jure it does not exist. In fact, it is not registered in Russia nor anywhere else, yet it is inextricably linked to the Russian state, despite the Kremlin strenuously denying this. Founded by Dimitry Utkin and financed by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group’s name is surrounded by rumour. Some believe the name was given to the group after Utkin’s callsign “Vagner” , others believe it was named after Hitler’s favourite composer.
The exact number of Wagner mercenaries is unclear although reports estimate the group is at least 5000 strong. The number of fighters is likely higher and according to the group’s Telegram channel “Reverse side of the Medal”, they are currently recruiting. Being a member is an attractive proposition with average pay reported to be $4,600 a month, compared to $1,200 for the average Russian soldier. It is therefore likely that we will see the group expand in the future.
The Wagner group is illegal in Russia as mercenarism is outlawed. Despite this, the Kremlin maintains strong links with the group. For instance, Wagner only operates in countries where the Russian state has foreign policy interests, while the group enjoys many other privileges within and outside of Russia. Wagner operatives receive passports from the Central Migration Office Unit 770–001, a passport desk traditionally linked to Russia’s defence ministry. The main training base is located in the town of Molkino in the Krasnodar region and is shared jointly with the Russian army’s 10th Separate Special Purpose Brigade — a unit part of Russia’s Military Intelligence force, GRU. The use of Russian military infrastructure is common: in Libya, Wagner used Russian military Ilyushin Il-76 cargo planes to supply their troops. As the Wagner Group enjoys more benefits than a traditional PMC, analysts refer to them as a proxy organisation capable of furthering Russian interests abroad.
The Wagner Group’s approach is generally multi-faceted. They can train, equip, assist host countries’ forces and provide specialised tactical capabilities where necessary. As with a traditional military, they are able to provide important intelligence capabilities from recruiting human intelligence sources to surveillance and reconnaissance. Wagner also provides protective services to political elites and site security to economic assets, particularly in Africa. They have also proven particularly agile in spreading both propaganda and disinformation.
Why does the Russian state use the Wagner Group?
Plausible deniability has essentially given Wagner carte blanche to carry out operations as they please. Wagner mercenaries are reportedly responsible for countless human rights abuses including rape, looting, extra-judicial executions and other serious crimes. As they are not recognised as legal contractors, nor even officially exist, prosecutions would be very complicated, and unlikely to be pursued, and, because their actions do not reflect officially on the Russian state, accountability is incredibly difficult.
The Wagner Group in Africa
The US estimates that between 3000–5000 Wagner operatives are present on the African continent, with this number fluctuating as troops move between conflict zones. In recent years, Wagner has primarily operated in Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mali, Mozambique and Madagascar supporting ruling elites. A combination of Africa’s vast mineral wealth, political instability and Russia’s wish to expand its influence on the continent make it the perfect playground for the Wagner Group to extend its influence and pursue financial and political goals on the ground.
Central African Republic (CAR):
In addition to their role in combat, Wagner has guarded and distributed weapons, trained the government-backed military (FACA), provided security for political figures, and guarded financial assets. It is unclear how Wagner is compensated as no payments can be traced; officially Touadaré has not signed a deal with them.
However, CAR is rich in gold, uranium and diamonds and after Wagner’s arrival, diamond and gold mining permits were granted by the Ministry of Mines and Geology to the Lobaye Invest SARLU group , a corporation linked to Prigozhin. Unsurprisingly, Wagner’s military operations have been focused on resource rich areas.
Since the start of 2022, human rights abuses perpetrated by Wagner operatives have been rife. Abuses alleged to have been carried out by Wagner mercenaries have included:
- On the 12th March, at least 15 civilians were killed and burnt in Markounda.
- On 9th-10th April, mercenaries broke into the infirmary of the Henri Izamo military camp in Bangui, raping sick women and others who had just given birth.
- Between the 23rd-26th May, mercenaries looted villages and spread panic in populated areas of the Vakaga province.
The influence of Wagner in protecting Russian financial and political interests in CAR is clear, a task achieved through force. Moscow has been heavily involved politically, allowing Wagner to secure the military end of Moscow’s policy.
After separatist uprisings in 2012, France intervened to secure the government’s positions and prevent further instability; this came to an end in 2021 after a coup led by Colonel Assimi Goita. Goita turned to Russia for support and employed the Wagner Group to ensure his position endures. Goita promoted anti-French and anti-colonialist rhetoric which contributed to a poisoning of relations between Mali and France, fuelled by disillusionment with a perceived inability to combat the persistence and growth of a cross-border jihadist insurgency. In 2022, France announced its complete withdrawal from the country.
Looking to the future it is likely the Wagner Group will continue to play a significant role in securing Russian interests abroad at the expense of peace. Wagner provides an effective way for Moscow to secure both economic and political development abroad, bypassing diplomatic channels and using coercive force at will.
Wagner’s continued human rights abuses in Africa and the possibility of a reduction in funding by international donors may change African governments’ attitudes towards the group and this may counter Russia’s objectives. In the meantime, while they are operating, their continued tactics both in combat and via propaganda will continue to destabilise countries, in turn creating a more insecure environment for the commercial operations of non-Russian companies operating on the ground.
Wagner Group’s influence and power across Africa are clear to see. Their commission of violent human rights abuses and use of unregulated power sets a dangerous precedent for other areas vulnerable enough to need support from such paramilitary groups.
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Originally published at https://www.intelligencefusion.co.uk.