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The revolt of the Wagner Group. What next for the Wagnerians in Africa?

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Over the past decade, the Wagner Group has built a strong presence in Africa and the Middle East. It deployed thousands of troops there and developed close ties with local authorities, gaining access to Africa’s rich natural resources in return. After the recent rebellion by Yevgeny Prigozhin, both the group’s military presence and shady interests in Africa have become questionable.

On Saturday, Wagner Group mercenaries seized the Russian army headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and then began to advance towards Moscow. The head of the mercenaries, Yevgeny Prigozhin, long at odds with the part of the Russian military establishment leading the invasion of Ukraine, demanded “restore justice” in the army and remove the defense minister from power Sergey Shoigu.

On Saturday evening, Prigozhin announced a retreat and the withdrawal of mercenaries to field camps to “avoid bloodshed”. This was supposed to be the result of a deal between the Belarusian authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenko and Prigozhin, concluded in an agreement with Vladimir Putin. According to these arrangements, the mercenaries of the Wagner Group and Prigozhin himself were to move to Belarus.

READ MORE: 36 hours of “justice march”

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Wagnerians in Rostov-on-DonReuters

On Monday, the head of Russian diplomacy Sergei Lavrov he said that the Wagner Group’s activities in Africa would continue. He also assured the Central African Republic and Mali authorities that their key security arrangements remain in place. On Wednesday Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia stated that African leaders should decide for themselves whether they want to continue cooperation with the Wagnerians.

Recent events in Russia, however, raise questions about the future of Russian mercenaries currently residing in African countries and how the conflict between the Wagnerians and the Kremlin will translate into the situation in politically and militarily unstable Africa.

READ MORE: What we don’t know about Prigozhin’s rebellion

History of the Wagnerians in Africa

The history of the creation of the Wagner Group is closely related to the foreign activity of the armed forces of the Russian Federation. The organization was established to carry out support activities for the regular Russian army in Syria, according to the OSW analysis. The think tank points out that despite the fact that the Wagnerians are labeled as a “private military company”, it is in fact a “state mercenary formation under the control of special services and performing combat tasks typical of regular army units”.

In 2015, the Kremlin decided to use a unit in Syria that does not fly under the Russian flag, but fights as part of the Russian military contingent and is strictly controlled by its security services, OSW writes. As he emphasizes, “this resulted primarily from the desire to conceal the number of dead and wounded – in the assumptions of the propaganda, the intervention in Syria was to show the world and its own citizens the power of the army, while in fact the most risky tasks were entrusted to mercenaries.” The peak of Wagnerian activity in Syria fell at the turn of 2017 and 2018. Over time, the mercenaries took part in the fighting less and less and gradually began to be withdrawn to Russia.

Parallel to the cessation of activity in Syria, the Wagnerians began to appear in some African countries, where they became the Kremlin’s ‘armed arm’ during several operations aimed at supporting anti-democratic regimes, using them for Russian interests and exploiting local natural resources. .

Alleged mercenaries from the Wagner Group accompanied by detachments of Malian soldiersMinister des Armées

Soldiers of the Wagner Group operated in such countries as Libya, Central African Republic, Mali and Sudan. According to the OSW, the mercenaries performed mainly protective functions there, primarily ensuring the security of mines and industrial plants controlled by Moscow, as well as protecting the missions of Russian “advisers” sent by the Kremlin to Africa. The Wagnerians also trained local armed formations. “Using them directly in combat became a sporadic phenomenon, but more often they acted as pacification units” – we read in the analysis of the Center for Eastern Studies.

According to OSW estimates, at the beginning of 2022 the Wagner Group maintained several thousand mercenaries in Africa on a rotational basis, and in total from 2015 even several thousand people could have passed through its ranks.

Shady business

According to the BBC, the activities of the Wagnerians in Africa were primarily for profit, although at the same time the presence of mercenaries strengthened Russian diplomatic and economic interests on the continent. The BBC points out that the Wagner Group appeared in countries rich in natural resources. Prigozhin’s mercenaries provided protection and military support to local authorities in exchange for a “piece of pie”.

“The Wagner Group’s operational strategy over the past few years has been to expand its military and economic influence in Africa,” Julia Stanard of the Global Initiative against International Organized Crime told the BBC. The expert said that the Wagner Group created a network of companies related to it, conducting commercial activities in the countries where Prigozhin’s mercenaries served.

In the Central African Republic, for example, the Wagner Group is to trade in conflict minerals and timber, as well as produce beer and vodka. In Sudan, on the other hand, there is a mining company M Invest, which, according to the US Treasury Department, is owned or operated by Prigozhin. Its daughter company is Meroe Gold, which is one of the largest gold producers in Africa.

Members of the Wagner Group fought, among others, in Libya. Archive video TVN24

As the BBC points out, although the Wagner Group currently does not have as many militants in Libya as it did nearly four years ago, when it supported the attempt to take over Tripoli by the troops of General Khalifa Haftar, the appearance of the Wagnerians in this country was extremely important for Moscow. From a strategic point of view, Libya has become a gateway to Africa for Russia, which thus strengthened its presence in the Mediterranean. According to the BBC, Wagner’s mercenaries are still around key oil facilities in areas controlled by Gen. Haftar in the east and south of the country. Station sources report that since Saturday, when the Wagnerian rebellion took place in Russia, “there has been no noticeable change in the situation” in Libya.

Mali, in turn, may have attracted the Wagner Group with its rich gold reserves, the BBC notes. According to US military documents leaked earlier this year, Mali may also have been used by the Wagnerians to procure weapons from Turkey.

Above the law

The mercenaries were accused of numerous violations human rightssuch as killings or minelaying in areas populated by civilians.

As the BBC writes, military operations involving Wagner fighters usually led to more civilian casualties. One of their most brutal crimes was the killing of around 500 civilians in a week-long operation in the Malian town of Moura. The UN blamed “foreign forces” and the Malian army for the massacre, while the US imposed sanctions on two soldiers and the de facto commander of the Wagner Group forces in Mali.

Earlier this year, Washington accused Russian mercenaries of carrying out criminal activities, carrying out mass executions, rapes and child abductions in the Central African Republic and Mali.

READ MORE: Putin went back more than 20 years. What’s next? There are several scenarios

Despite this, the BBC points out, the Wagnerians enjoy considerable social support in African countries. A large-scale propaganda campaign contributes to this, including troll farms run by Prigozhin’s men, which influence the public debate in Africa and fuel anti-Western sentiment.

Wagnerians in the Central African RepublicSven Torfinn/Panos Pictures/Forum

What next for the Wagnerians in Africa?

Experts say that while the Wagner Group has been extremely useful to Moscow in Africa, Prigozhin’s mercenaries would not have gone so far without Kremlin support. He adds that these elements are so closely related that their separation on the unstable African continent may turn out to be “dangerous”.

In Libya, for example, Wagner’s units relied heavily on support from the Russian Defense Ministry. A BBC source at the UN claims that if the Wagner Group were to be completely disbanded, its troops in Africa could no longer count on arms or money from Moscow.

READ MORE: Putin admitted that the Wagner Group was financed from the state budget

During his speech after Prigozhin’s rebellion, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that members of the Wagner Group fighting in Ukraine should join the ranks of the regular Russian army, return home or go to Belarus, where the Wagnerian leader went according to an agreement with the Kremlin. According to Julia Stanard, however, it is not clear whether the same options will apply to mercenaries in Africa. In the opinion of the expert, it cannot be ruled out that a compromise will be worked out under which Prigozhin will retain control and ultimate responsibility for the Wagnerian operations on this continent.

“There are also serious questions about what will happen to shady business operations in Africa related to the Wagner Group and Prigozhin.”

Rama Yade, an expert at the Atlantic Council think tank and former deputy foreign minister of France, assessed in an interview with Radio Free Europe that the rebellion of the Wagner Group will certainly affect activities in Africa. “I am not sure whether Russia’s influence in these continental countries will remain strong,” she said

Russians in AfricaForum

She reminded that “Evgeny Prigozhin, closely associated with Russian intelligence, used the Central African Republic and Mali to incite anti-Western sentiments or win sympathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin.” “The rebellion will affect the activities of the Wagnerians in these countries and in Libya and Sudan, where mercenaries are also present,” she assessed.

The expert pointed out that “until recently, the interests of the Kremlin and Prigozhin were convergent, now African states will be forced to talk to two Russian entities.” “Without this important element that the Wagner Group was for Moscow, I don’t think its influence in Africa would remain strong,” she said.

Israeli analyst Yonatan Touval noted in an interview with the Middle East Eye portal that the Russian presence in Africa and the Middle East – due to the war against Ukraine – is significantly weakening. He noted that the main question remains whether Prigozhin’s recent rebellion will create a vacuum in these regions that will lead to their further destabilization, especially in Syria and Libya. – We cannot exclude that after the revolt is suppressed, the Wagner Group cells in Africa may turn into completely uncontrolled structures, building ties with local actors without consulting the Kremlin – warned Kiril Semenov.

OSW, BBC, Reuters, tvn24.pl, PAP

Main photo source: Sven Torfinn/Panos Pictures/Forum

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