As the war in Ukraine continues, there is increased scrutiny of the Russian government’s global activities. In Africa, the newest development uses Russian mercenaries, most prominently the Wagner group, to achieve Russian interests. Even if the mercenaries are not particularly effective at defeating rebel groups, their appeal to African leaders and ability to implant themselves into the host country’s political system makes them difficult for the international community to counter.
Using mercenaries offers the Russian state several benefits. Firstly, it allows Moscow’s most controversial activity in Africa to remain deniable, even if Wagner’s connections to the Kremlin are common knowledge and Wagner’s deployments are preceded by a deal with the Russian government. It also allows Russia more access to gold, diamonds, and other precious resources, which are suitable for the economy and a small way to mitigate the impact of Ukraine-related sanctions. Furthermore, because Wagner’s ability to operate depends on its link to the Kremlin and the Russian state’s willingness to overlook the constitutional ban on mercenaries, there is almost no risk that Wagner will operate against Moscow’s interests. Lastly, When Wagner mercenaries die, which is not infrequent, Russia owes the public no explanation.
Wagner initially fought for Russian interests in Eastern Ukraine and Syria but quickly secured contracts in Africa supporting then-President Omar Al-Bashir in Sudan and Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar. However, in the Central African Republic and now Mali, they developed their playbook of opportunistically exploiting ill-will towards France and the E.U. to secure lasting contracts and political influence.
The Wagner Playbook in Africa: The Central African Republic and Beyond
Wagner’s appeal to some African leaders is simple. They offer to train the military, act like a praetorian guard, and conduct counterinsurgency operations at a relatively low cost. The deal is incredibly enticing if a state or its people are unsatisfied with its current security assistance. Former French colonies, particularly those with an ongoing conflict and French military presence, are especially susceptible. The Central African Republic, for instance, relied on French, EU, and U.N. missions as their primary security partners from 2014 until 2018. Then, as it became clear that peacekeepers and French forces were unable or unwilling to stem the violence or defeat CAR’s many rebel groups, President Touadera reached out to Russia. Alongside a shipment of weapons, some 170 mercenaries arrived under several names, including Sewa Security Services and COSI.
This is Wagner reply to Western media for calling them a neo nazi group 👍 pic.twitter.com/HufU5kqhXN
— Banko 🇷🇺🇨🇦 (@banko416) July 6, 2022
Wagner’s presence jumped dramatically in response to a rebel offensive on the capital. Rebel coalitions overthrew the government multiple times in CAR, making the newest effort, led by a former President, an existential threat to President Touadera and Russian interests. Reinforcing over 2,000 personnel, Wagner halted the rebel advance and launched a counterattack that reconquered massive territory in a few months.
Wagner also offers a few ways to pay for its services. The traditional way to pay mercenaries costs thousands of dollars per mercenary per month. Some countries, like the Central African Republic, offered Wagner access to resources such as gold and diamonds.
Engagement with Wagner also comes with a constellation of other companies linked to the same group of Oligarchs, most notably Putin associate Yevgeny Prigozhin. The oligarch’s companies range from security, such as Wagner and Sewa Security Services, to mining and resource extraction, such as M-Invest. Wagner protects resource extraction sites, such as in Sudan, and secures mines to bring Russian mining interests or extort the miners and seize the resources. There are also media and disinformation efforts, such as Prigozhin’s infamous “troll farm.” Wagner produced a trilogy of films about itself, the first of which Touriste was shot in the Central African Republic and screened to the Central African audiences in the capital city, Bangui.
Once Wagner is in the country, the results on the ground are more mixed than the sales pitch. They can be effective in a conventional fight against lightly amred rebel groups, as demonstrated by their counteroffensive in the Central African Republic, but they struggle to win counterinsurgencies. In Mozambique, Wagner took severe losses against Islamist militants in Cabo Delgado, and their relations with the Mozambican government deteriorated to the point of ending the mission.
Short thread here on Dmitry Utkin, the commander of the Russian Wagner mercenary force. A picture of this distinguished gentleman appeared on line showing he sports Nazi tattoos. https://t.co/kmGZCu6eqr pic.twitter.com/lKWtb1R5q1
— Samer Al-Atrush (@SameralAtrush) February 27, 2021
In terms of public relations and international image, employing Wagner undermines goodwill towards African leaders. Wagner is almost always too heavy-handed in its operations, leading to systematic abuses against civilians in pursuit of rebels. Worse still, they encourage the local security forces they accompany to do the same. U.N. reports from the Central African Republic found that Wagner and the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) were responsible for nearly half of all confirmed instances of abuse.
Wagner and Russia use the international isolation of their host states to increase their influence. The President of the Central African Republic has a Russian national security advisor, mandated teaching Russian in schools, and now seeks to make Russian an official language, along with a raft of changes allowing him to run for a third term. More importantly, CAR appears no closer to peace as fighting continues, and Wagner-led FACA forces create more grievances for people in central and eastern CAR than they solve. Wagner’s ability to personally protect the President means that his fortunes can rise even if his country falls. Russia supported anti-French protests and fund some civil society figures, accompanied by legitimate anger at France for its decades of paternalistic policies in Africa, ensure that there will be some level of support in Capital cities independent of the performance of presidents and juntas as heads of state.
Wagner in Mali, The Newest Mission
Mali, Wagner’s newest mission in Africa, follows the same playbook as the Central African Republic. Mali’s years-long conflict against rebels and Al-Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated extremist groups led to French intervention, an E.U. training mission and task force, and one of the U.N.’s largest current peacekeeping missions. After a series of coups in 2020 and 2021, the governing junta decided to close the airspace over Mali and expel the French mission. In September 2021, press reports revealed that the committee was negotiating with Russia to send Wagner forces to help fight extremists.
Wagner and Russia played on the Malian government’s dissatisfaction with France’s inability to restore order and the post-coup junta’s poor relationship with the international community to push anti-French propaganda and promise results in exchange for monthly payments and access to resources in the Southwest of the country. Like CAR, the mission has grown in scope, pushed the junta away from its traditional security partners, and now wields significant influence.
Rusich – an ultranationalist neo-nazi unit tied to the Wagner Group – published a recruitment video comparing a helmet they claim to supply their contractors with to the Russian standard-issue 6B27 helmet
The featured helmet resembles the Ops-Core FAST helmets used by US SOF pic.twitter.com/XIm6Ab9x5D
— OPSEC? (@GuinieZoo_Intel) July 5, 2022
Wagner has already engaged in severe human rights abuses in Mali. U.N. reports note a 300% increase in civilian deaths compared to prior years, a disproportionate number committed by security forces. The numbers are likely higher since Wagner, and the Malian government refuses to cooperate with U.N. investigations. The prime example is the town of Moura, where the Wagner and the Malian Armed Forces (FAMA) likely killed 300-600 people while “liberating” it from extremists. According to eyewitness accounts, Wagner and FAMA detained, interrogated, and executed most men in the town, regardless of affiliation with extremists. Malian authorities refused to allow the U.N. to investigate with support from Russia in the U.N. Security Council. They even detained investigators when they approached the town.
The E.U.’s Plan to Counter Wagner
Several countries are looking for ways to contain and degrade Wagner’s operations in Africa. The U.S. Department of Treasury and its European counterparts have Prighozhin and other associates under sanctions. In addition, Wagner will likely feature prominently in the Countering Malign Russian Activities Act, which passed the House of Representatives and awaits approval. The U.K. Foreign Affairs Committee has also launched an investigation into Russian mercenaries.
While most anti-Wagner efforts are nascent at the national level, a recently leaked E.U. report from the European External Action Service (EEAS) proposes taking ambitious steps to contain Russian mercenaries. According to the EEAS, Wagner’s activities in Mali forced the E.U. to suspend its training mission, leading to the erosion of democratic principles and worse humanitarian outcomes. The EEAS wants to launch three missions in West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea that go beyond the typical E.U. training mission. These missions would be trained, equipped, accompanied, and virtually guaranteed that E.U. soldiers would enter combat.
Putin seizing yet another country with oilfields. Haftar, courtesy of Wagner Group, has the hard power.
— violet (@Vmaxpax) July 2, 2022
Without overwhelming support from its member states, the E.U.’s plan is dead on arrival. Brussels is betting that improving its reliability as a security partner and making some efforts to counter Russian disinformation will prevent other West African nations, particularly Burkina Faso and Niger, who face the same security environment as Mali and are reportedly next on the Wagner hit list. However, the obstacles to implementing the plan are likely insurmountable for the E.U. in the near term.
For all the talk of launching a broad effort across West Africa, doing so actually requires the countries in West Africa to be on board. Niger and Burkina Faso requested E.U. support, but only for logistical support. While they may be interested in an E.U. training, equipping, and accompanying the mission, overstepping their request dramatically might undermine public confidence in their governance and appear to have less sovereignty over their affairs.
It is also unclear if there is sufficient appetite for the E.U. member states to contribute troops for three additional missions with a more aggressive mandate. In terms of deployments, smaller countries might be squeamish about large implementations. The E.U. might be worried that deploying former colonial powers like France would make the missions susceptible to the same kind of Russian propaganda they seek to counter. Most democracies are casualty-averse, meaning that any significant reversal could compromise participation. Lastly, with Europe’s newfound concern for Russia comes a desire to keep within their borders or contribute to NATO’s frontier with Russia.
It’s always possible that the E.U. and other efforts contain the group, but generally, Wagner is defeated by its host government. For example, the Mozambican government ended Wagner’s mission following its poor performance, not an E.U. mission in a neighboring country. Moreover, detaching Wagner will be tough without sustained diplomatic and political pressure for those increasingly relying on Wagner to prop up the regime and personalize control over the state, such as CAR and Mali.
This is a user-submitted piece by Marcel Plichta. Marcel Plichta is a Ph.D. Candidate in International Relations at the University of St Andrews and a former intelligence analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. He has written on African security issues for Newsweek, Defense One, and World Politics Review. All views are his own.