As Moscow seeks new managers for its mercenary operations, a way opens to expose its methods in Africa.
Three weeks after Russia’s Wagner Group mounted an armed uprising against authorities in Moscow, the still-swirling fallout will force changes in the mercenary group’s operations in Africa.
The open outbreak of conflict among rival armed factions that Vladimir Putin sponsors as props of his autocratic regime will now force him to find new managers for his strategy of seeking influence and resources through strongmen and warlords in unstable African countries.
These developments open an opportunity for Africans and the West to better illuminate Russia’s corrupt, often brutal methods in Africa, and their consequences.
The Kremlin revealed this week that Putin met the Wagner Group’s leader, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, and dozens of Wagner commanders just days after thousands of Wagner fighters seized a southern Russian military headquarters and began an armed drive on Moscow.
While that meeting was publicized to suggest unity between Putin and Wagner, USIP analyst Mary Glantz has underscored that Putin will now need to find ways to re-assert control over Wagner and re-distribute power among the collection of forces that underpin his rule at home and his influence-seeking abroad.
These include official state institutions — Russia’s formal military branches, paramilitary units and intelligence services — and more shadowy, public or putatively private organisms such as Wagner and other mercenary forces or state-owned security companies. According to USIP’s vice president for Africa, Joseph Sany, and its acting director for Russia and Europe, Heather Ashby, the Wagner upheaval will not force Russia to reduce its roles in Africa — but it stains Russia’s “brand” on the continent and opens a path to better illuminate how the Kremlin’s corrupt methods harm African governance and people.
What are we seeing so far of Vladimir Putin’s efforts to repair his structure of vassalized forces, and notably those that have been part of his involvement in conflicts and fragile states abroad?
It should not come as much of a surprise that the pieces of Wagner are being divided among the Russian Ministry of Defense and non-government entities with connections to the Kremlin (though exactly who, outside of the government, is unclear at the moment). This type of division of assets and cronyism when a person falls out of favor with Putin is a trademark of Putinism that has been a feature of his time in power. Prigozhin and Wagner are no exceptions.
In addition to Wagner, Prigozhin also operated another private military company in Africa, Sewa Security Services. Sewa has not received the same amount of attention from Western media but has been tracked by U.N. human rights monitors for its impact on the conflict in the Central African Republic.
Prigozhin’s mutiny has obviously impacted Wagner, as well as the defense ministry’s order that all mercenaries sign contracts with the ministry by July 1. But that does not mean there has been any significant or rapid drawdown of Wagner operations in Africa and the Middle East.
In Libya, for example, where Wagner has operated under the radar, the Russian government has continued to invest more resources and time in the country and the broader region. Expect to see more of the Russian government operating in these conflict environments alongside any remnants of Wagner or Sewa Security Services, and other Russian private military companies, as has been the case in recent years. In Mozambique, where a Wagner mercenary force tried and failed to contain a local insurgency in 2019, the Russian government has been working to rebuild relations with the Mozambican government.
Besides Wagner, a number of Russian private military companies have been operating throughout the world, including in Ukraine and Africa, over the years. These companies have ties to various Russian government intelligence agencies and state-owned companies such as the oil and gas exporter Gazprom and the technology firm Rostec.
It is not inconceivable that one of those companies or intelligence agencies would pick up the pieces of Wagner and its lucrative businesses in Africa and the Middle East. The upcoming Russia-Africa Summit, on July 27-28, will likely provide insight into how Putin and the Russian government plans to engage with African states, particularly conflict-prone ones, for the foreseeable future — and its response to the demise of Wagner.
How is this intra-Russian upheaval likely to affect Moscow’s long game for influence and wealth extraction in African countries? And are particular countries, warlord or conflicts in Africa likely to be affected?
The Wagner mutiny, beyond demonstrating the fragility of the Russian model of engagement, has dealt a significant blow to the Russian “brand” as a great power in a multipolar world and as a stable and reliable security partner.
The mutiny may not change the drivers of the collusion between the Russian state and the network of shadowy entities that are linked to Putin and Russian oligarchs. There may be a change of name, or a replacement of Wagner by another group, such as Sewa, already operating in the Central African Republic (CAR), or Patriot, a military company linked to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
The images of Wagner tanks rolling toward Moscow sent a strong shockwave through many capitals, particularly those of Wagner client governments like CAR and Mali, where there was real confusion and panic amongst authorities and generals. A reflection of the importance of this fallout is that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had to go out of his way to reassure these countries of Russia’s commitment to security cooperation.
In so doing, he publicly acknowledged the collaboration that exists between the Russian state and the Russian private military companies in Africa, a fact that officials in both Mali and CAR only timidly, if not informally, recognized.
In addition to the damage to Russia’s brand as a stable and reliable security partner that can defend its clients in a multipolar world (as it proclaims), the Wagner mutiny and the reassurance campaign launched by Moscow have blown the cover on the deniability the Kremlin enjoyed when it came to Wagner predation, illicit activities and human rights abuses in Africa. Russia officials are therefore exposing themselves to prosecution related to the continuous violations and crimes perpetrated by Wagner mercenaries and the various shady entities of the criminal network.
Working with African partners, the United States should underscore the realities of the Kremlin’s approach to Africa, including Russia’s toolkit and principal actors, and the consequences of its engagement.
This includes supporting African media and investigative journalism to expose Russia’s role in corrupt schemes and its support for oppressive regimes. This exposure of realities should illuminate the manipulative approach used by the Russian-linked criminal networks and their local cronies to subvert democracy, violate local laws, and force out of business hard-working local entrepreneurs through blackmail, corruption and violence, and human rights abuses and killings.
More fundamentally, the United States and its partners should see the vulnerabilities of Russian-targeted countries as a warning flag to sustain a priority of addressing the root causes of those ills, such as poor governance, poverty and terrorism.