Africa has become an essential element of Russia’s geostrategic posture in recent years as Moscow seeks to evade its international isolation and sanctions. However, facing isolation and a contracting economy, Russia has come to the realisation that cultivating an entry point into Africa through conventional means like foreign direct investment (FDI), trade, development assistance, or cultural and educational exchanges, is not its best option. Instead, Moscow has chosen the path of a disruptor to elevate its influence on the African continent.1
At every possible opportunity, it has colluded with African elites, systematically attempted to undermine democracy across every region in Africa, has enabled authoritarian regimes, while simultaneously conducting sophisticated disinformation campaigns infused with messaging on upholding non-interference and African empowerment.
Most Russian activities in Africa from mid-2010 onwards have been conducted by President Vladimir Putin’s close associates, many of whom sit atop Russia’s state-controlled natural resource conglomerates. A notable example is businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who implemented Russia’s interests through a network which is often referred to as the ‘Company’. One such group belonging to the ‘Company’ is the private military company (PMC) known as the Wagner Group, which has conducted several paramilitary and political operations in Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, the CAR and Mali.2
In recent times, Wagner has acted as a proxy for Moscow in extending Russian influence across Africa. However, Wagner boss Prigozhin’s brazen rebellion on 23 June 2023 and the deal he cut with President Putin to end it, clearly have implications for Wagner’s operations in Africa.3 The dissolution of Wagner in Africa would entail bad news for African leaders like Central African Republic’s (CAR) President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who owes his survival to Wagner mercenaries. These mercenaries act as bodyguards and provide security to African political elites at the “request” for security assistance of such governments like CAR and Mali. In Mali, Wagner has replaced France as its preferred security partner and in recent days has also engineered the departure of the United Nations peacekeeping force, known as United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), to further its own interests.4
Till now, the Russian government kept Wagner at an arm’s length due to the group’s alleged committal of widespread atrocities and human-rights violations. However, recent statements from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President Putin point towards the group ostensibly being on the Russian government’s payroll. Lavrov remarked that the Wagner Group, which he referred to as a ‘Private Military Company’ (PMC), would continue operations in Mali and the CAR, where Wagner operatives, “are working there as instructors”.5 He insisted that the security vacuum created by Europe, in particular France’s withdrawal from the Sahel region, had forced Mali and CAR to turn towards Russia and Wagner to ensure the security of their leaders.
On the other hand, Putin surprisingly admitted that the Russian state had “completely financed” Wagner in Africa to the tune of around US$ 1 billion annually.6 Such sums of money were readily available to Prigozhin due to his large network of resource exploitation across Africa and beyond. The source of the money which was used to fuel Wagner operations came not only from Moscow, but also from several natural resource concessions. In countries like CAR, Wagner has developed a self-financing “business model” which involves control of diamond and gold mines along with military muscle. Consequently, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has sanctioned CAR-based mining companies like Midas Ressources SARLU and Diamville SAU.7 President Putin’s claim has now effectively made the Russian state responsible for all of Wagner’s actions, including its human-rights violations and atrocities.
Prigozhin’s rebellion has cast serious reservations about the future of Wagner in Africa, and by extension, Russia’s influence on the continent. The African states that have turned towards Wagner for security assistance now find themselves worrying about their security architecture. Wagner’s mutiny could result in armed rebellion in African countries in which they operate, thereby increasing the potential of human rights abuses and impunity. Moreover, it could also lead to insubordination of military authorities. Non-state armed groups in African countries could draw cue from the Wagner and become unaccountable to the military.8 The fact that Wagner is so deeply enmeshed in certain African countries like the CAR where its mercenaries permeate all levels makes it difficult to be replaced.
Although Wagner has diversified sources of funds beyond Moscow, it is heavily dependent on the Russian state for logistical support. Russian military bases and aircrafts are constantly used by Wagner operatives to transport both arms and personnel. Without the timely delivery of military equipment, Wagner will find it difficult to operate in the long run.
Furthermore, the future of the Wagner’s structure or what its leadership will look like remains to be decided. Not only is Prigozhin in exile in Belarus, but thousands of his mercenaries are being forced to join the Russian military. The fact that these operatives have run an extensive web of operations across various African subsidiaries and shell companies will make it difficult for the Kremlin to replace them.9 It is most likely that Wagner would continue their operations in African states, albeit under a new name and a new management. Another possibility is for Wagner’s operations in Africa to be taken over by new private military companies, such as the one run by Gazprom, Russia’s energy giant.
Although Wagner is going to continue its operations in Africa, the entire debacle could compel African countries to revisit how they engage with Russia. With a massive downgrade in European presence in the Sahel in recent years, any Russian withdrawal too could be seriously exploited by non-state actors. Going forward, African countries that are reliant on Wagner could be more cautious in their engagement with Russia. The deliberations and outcomes of the forthcoming Second Russia–Africa summit in St. Petersburg on 27–28 July 2023 will perhaps better indicate the likely contours and the future trajectory of Russia–Africa relations.