Assessing the Role of the Wagner Group in Africa

By Nayan Seth, MGA 2024 Candidate, The Fletcher School

The failed mutiny and the subsequent death of former Wagner group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin in August 2023 revived international scrutiny of the mercenary group and its global operations. On September 13, 2023, the International Security Studies Program at The Fletcher School organized a luncheon lecture by Fletcher alumnus Raphael Parens to analyze the Wagner Group’s activity in Africa.

Parens is a Eurasia Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and has written extensively on the Wagner Group and conflict in Africa. He currently lives in London, UK but was previously based in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo. He first spoke about the utility of the Wagner Group for the Kremlin, calling it an example of Russia’s “low cost, high upside” strategy model. 

“Wagner offers Russia the opportunity to build partnerships with African countries that are traditionally backed by Western [countries], particularly France, but in general, by Western security, political and economic institutions,” said Parens. 

By providing security assistance to many African nations through groups like Wagner, Parens said Russia hopes to gain influence at international institutions like the U.N. and present a challenge to the West-led international order. “Russia basically aims to build an anti-democratic, anti-Western coalition that can compete with the West in general and disrupt the Western rules-based order. And they use Wagner to do that.”

In Africa, the Wagner mercenaries are deployed in the Central African Republic, Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, and Mali. Analyzing its mode of operations, Parens said the Wagner leadership utilizes mineral contracts to pay its mercenaries and fund its equipment. “They’re getting these mineral contracts from states that are essentially looting resources from across Africa,” he said.

While promising to ensure security and stability by fighting insurgent groups and terrorist organizations, Parens asserted that Wagner offers “an illusion of security counterinsurgency” but “primarily provides regime security.”

“They’re really there to support the regimes’ staying in power, and especially in West Africa, where we’re seeing all these junta regimes and governments popping up,” said Parens. 

In Mali, the Wagner Group arrived in 2021 after the coup leaders adopted a new approach to counter Islamic State and Al Qaeda affiliates operating across the country. That created friction with French and UN forces; the French forces withdrew in 2022 and the UN mission has recently ended its mission. 

The Wagner troops have also been accused of committing human rights violations, including the Moura massacre, where over 500 people were allegedly killed by Malian and Wagner troops in March 2022.

In the Central African Republic (CAR), the Wagner deployment began in 2018 after Russian supplies of weapons and vehicles managed to prevent the overthrow of the incumbent government. Presently, the Wagner Group controls lucrative sectors such as gold and diamond mining operations and alcohol and coffee production. In CAR, the Wagner Group is also accused of grave human rights violations.

While talking about the likely implications of Prigozhin’s death on Wagner operations in Africa, Parens said that while Russian President Vladimir Putin has signaled his intentions of absorbing the group under the Ministry of Defense, the next leadership structure could be more complicated. He presented three possibilities; a hostile takeover of the group by the state, a state-corporate hybrid approach where a leadership structure is maintained with strong state intervention, or the status quo. 

Parens also touched upon the presence of Wagner’s competitors who could be used to fill the void. “There are a wide array of private militaries…from the internal Russian side. Some of them are backed by the Ministry of Defence; some of them are linked to specific companies that do resource extraction.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that a Russian delegation, led by Deputy Minister of Defense Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, visited Wagner client states in Africa in late August and early September 2023. He was accompanied by Konstantin Mirzayants, the leader of a private military company (PMC) called Redut.

When asked about the perceived success of the Russian disinformation campaign that complements the Wagner group’s inroads in Africa, Parens argued that it taps into an “anti-colonial sentiment” in West Africa that has existed for a long time. Wagner’s entry into Mali was accompanied by a large disinformation campaign that capitalized on the existing anti-French sentiment in the country. Parens cited one of the examples of Russia’s simple but effective propaganda tools: “It’s distributing Russian flags the day after a coup, which they’ve done in several countries across Africa.”

Leave a Reply