Wagner: The Cornerstone of Russia’s Strategy in Africa.

The Wagner Group – Russia’s most prolific and infamous private military company (PMC) – formed during Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, a mission that was influential in establishing Russia’s growing strategy of pursuing state goals through deniable
PMC activities.

Although other PMCs such as the Moran Security Group, Rossiskie System Bezopasnosti (RSB) Group, and Patriot have operated in Africa, the spread of Wagner deployments over the past five years has notably advanced Russia’s geopolitical and economic ambitions in sub-Saharan Africa. Now, in the wake of Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine, the PMC model may continue to evolve—further complicating Russian involvement on the continent.

In recent years, Russia has increasingly used PMCs to spread geopolitical influence and expand its military and intelligence footprint. The number of locations in which Russian PMCs operate has rapidly multiplied, growing from 4 in 2015—Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and Sri Lanka—to 27 in 2021, spanning Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

PMCs are technically illegal in Russia, and organizations like Wagner effectively operate as loose networks of shell companies and financial intermediaries rather than singular entities. Nonetheless, PMCs maintain close relationships with the Russian government.

Wagner, for example, is led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch close to Russian president Vladimir Putin, and it has operated in connection with the Kremlin, Russian Ministry of Defense (particularly the Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU), Federal Security Service (FSB), and Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).

Because PMCs are not officially part of the Russian state, they are difficult to hold accountable for transgressions, cost less to maintain, and are perceived as more expendable than Russian soldiers. PMC troops are often used to carry out dangerous and front-line missions, or to serve as a force multiplier pursuing Russian interests on multiple fronts.

Moscow’s PMC strategy evolved into a more economically focused phase as companies increased deployments to sub-Saharan Africa beginning in 2017. There, PMCs pursued partnerships with resource-rich states that faced security challenges and struggled with weak governance. PMCs exchanged paramilitary, combat, intelligence, disinformation, and other security services for financial gain—usually mining concessions—in addition to broader geopolitical and military gains.

Across its major deployments in Africa, Wagner experienced varying levels of success, including outright failure in Mozambique, where the PMC struggled with counterinsurgency operations before being replaced by a more experienced South African PMC in 2020, less than a year after its mission began. Simultaneously, Wagner accrued an alarming tally of human rights abuses in locations such as the Central African Republic and Mali, where its troops have been reported to have killed, tortured, and raped civilians.

Ukrainian, British, and other European intelligence reports confirmed Wagner’s presence in Ukraine shortly before and during the invasion’s early days. At the same time, disputed rumours spread claiming that the Wagner troops in Ukraine had been redeployed from Africa en masse, particularly from the Central African Republic, echoing
pre-invasion claims.

Yet, Wagner’s recruitment page on Vkontakte (or VK, Russia’s main social network) both launched a recruitment campaign to support operations in Ukraine and insisted that campaigns in Africa would continue. By late July, however, U.S. African Command commander General Stephen Townsend confirmed that Wagner had reduced its presence in Africa “a little bit” to redeploy to Ukraine, and troops came primarily from Libya—one of Wagner’s most established hubs on the continent. Still, Wagner troops maintained control of their four military bases in Libya as well as a robust aircraft and personnel presence.

Even as Russia sustained heavy losses in Ukraine, Russian PMC activity continued relatively uninterrupted in sub-Saharan Africa, including in locations such as Mali, where Wagner had only just arrived several months earlier. Troop numbers in Mali remained relatively constant, indicating that the PMC may have prioritized efforts to strengthen its presence in Ukraine rather than expanding deployments to West Africa.

The endurance of Wagner operations in Africa is not only a sign that Moscow continues to prioritize PMC-linked geopolitical, military, and economic benefits, but also an indication that the PMC model
is working as intended.

One of Russia’s motivations in using PMCs rather than Russian troops is to secure gains at little risk or cost to the state. Because it primarily relies on PMCs for operations in Africa, Russia was able to pursue those aims while dedicating the bulk of its official forces and investments to the war in Ukraine—essentially outsourcing lower-priority missions that still advance state goals.

Russian PMC operations in Africa have also served to soften the impact of international sanctions on Moscow. Although formal Russian financial dealings have been restricted at unprecedented levels, PMCs stationed in resource-rich sub-Saharan countries continue to exploit their resources – particularly gold and gemstones – for financial gain.

In Sudan, for example, Meroe Gold, a Wagner shell company, has received mining concessions from the Sudanese government. By smuggling gold out of Sudan and through countries such as the United Arab Emirates, a common transport hub for undeclared gold, Moscow can buoy its 130 billion USD gold supply and reduce the impacts of sanctions.

The most significant change in PMC operations throughout 2022 was the growing openness of the relationship between Wagner and Moscow. Operationally, Wagner has increasingly behaved like an integrated arm of the Russian military in Ukraine, in stark contrast to its past behavior as a smaller, distinct entity. It has also begun to recruit new members more openly, even advertising its successes on Russian state television.

In a surprising move, Prigozhin admitted his connection to Wagner for the first time in September 2022 after years of denying involvement and even bringing lawsuits against researchers and media outlets that tied him to Wagner activities. Shortly after this acknowledgment, Wagner opened its first official headquarters in St. Petersburg. This clear presence permits Wagner to cast a wider net for resources and civilian support. In December 2022, for example, the center announced a hackathon—a short-term, collaborative event dedicated to rapidly producing software or hardware—focused on UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) technology.

The juxtaposition of usual operations in sub-Saharan Africa with increasingly open operations in Russia and Ukraine presents additional vulnerabilities for the group. It is impossible for Wagner to acknowledge clear ties to Russia in one theater while maintaining deniability in another. As a result, it may be easier to track Wagner’s activities, reveal the harms it causes, and enforce accountability measures under local or international law. Furthermore, acknowledgment of a connection between Wagner and Moscow may jeopardize its ability to operate freely in the long run. Since PMCs are illegal in Russia, they operate at the Kremlin’s pleasure.

Prigozhin’s willingness to openly link himself with Wagner’s activities indicates a strong sense of security, reinforced by indications that he has grown closer to Putin since the invasion. Though unlikely to occur soon, if Prigozhin were to fall out of favor with Putin, the ramifications could impact Wagner’s standing.

These adaptations prove that Russia’s model for PMC intervention is not set in stone; rather, as Wagner becomes more forthcoming about its operations and connections to Moscow, a new phase of Russian PMC activities may emerge.

Even so, Wagner appears committed to continuing and even expanding its operations in Africa, even if that means smaller deployments or less skilled recruits. During the U.S.-Africa Summit in December 2022, Ghanaian president Nana Akufo-Addo alleged that Burkina Faso reached an agreement with Wagner to employ its troops to contain jihadist violence in exchange for mining concessions.

If true, Wagner’s deployment to Burkina Faso will publicly test the impacts of the war in Ukraine on Wagner’s African missions. As Wagner sustains significant losses in Ukraine and must rely on less experienced or disciplined recruits, deployments to countries such as Burkina Faso are unlikely to provide assistance with the scale or capability to effect long-term security improvements.
Moreover, these troops may be more likely to cause additional harms to civilian populations and contribute to local insecurity.

As the consequences of Wagner’s activity in Ukraine unfold in Burkina Faso and other African countries, the drawbacks and true costs of partnering with the Russian PMC may be increasingly apparent. (Photo: Russian mercenaries provide security for convoy with the president of the Central African Republic. Photo: Clément Di Roma/VOA)

Catrina Doxsee/ISPI


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