Russia’s shadow presence in Africa: Wagner group mercenaries in at least 20 countries aim to turn continent into strategic hub

Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin prior to a meeting with business leaders held by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping (both not pictured) at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, 04 July 2017. EPA/SERGEI ILNITSKY/POOL

A first in-depth investigation and audit into the meteoric rise of the shadowy private Wagner Group in Africa has revealed the presence of thousands of Russian mercenaries in at least 20 African countries including Mozambique, Libya, Sudan, the Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic.

The “godfather” and funder of Wagner Group is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a St Petersburg-based oligarch known as “Putin’s chef” who has led Russia’s push into Africa over the past three years, moving into a vacuum left in part by the United States’ waning interest in the continent.

Russia is now the largest supplier of weapons to Africa; it has military co-operation agreements and deals for military and police training with more than half of African nations; and a series of nuclear technology deals with Egypt, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda and Zambia.

Technically, mercenary activity is illegal in Russia and while the Kremlin has consistently publicly denied any links, Wagner Group functions as an undeclared branch of the Russian military.

Apart from being involved in hard combat, Wagner Group provides weapons training, supports police and civilian intelligence services and provides security protection for Russian personnel.

A former KGB operative now based in the West described Wagner’s meteoric rise in Africa as one of the most successful GRU (Russian military intelligence) operations of all time.

In June 2019, The Guardian revealed that documents obtained from the Dossier Center, supported by the dissident Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, indicated that Prigozhin is behind a covert mission to amplify Russian influence in Africa.

The documents show extensive Prigozhin-linked operations and the Kremlin plotted to turn Africa into a strategic hub to displace US and European powers. One of the goals is to see off “pro-western” uprisings — an apparent reference to combating opposition movements.

The documents show “the Company” taking credit for the election of Madagascar’s new president Andry Rajoelina and that Russia had produced and distributed the island’s biggest newspaper.

Wagner also advised Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on how to crush opposition protests in Khartoum, but the company has still been able to maintain its relationship with the new administration brought into power as a result of those protests.

The rapid success of the Wagner enterprise has also opened the way for a second generation of Russian private military companies. Two new companies, Patriot and Sew Security Services, have begun operations in Africa during the past year.

The gruesome death of at least seven Russian fighters from the Wagner group at the hands of insurgents in northern Mozambique on October 31, 2019 has brought new scrutiny to the existence of thousands of Russian mercenaries in more than a dozen African countries.

Wagner’s activities — the full extent of which would shock many Africans — were not high on the official agenda as Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted 43 African heads of state at the Black Sea resort of Sochi in an exhibition of Russian soft power in October.

Wagner is commanded by Dmitry Utkin who in 2016 received a medal for bravery from the Kremlin. It was investigative journalist Denis Krortkov, who had been tracking Utkin for years, who spotted Utkin at the ceremony on a social media post.

Writing in 2016, journalist Aleksandr Gostev said that Putin’s awarding of the medal to Utkin provided “the clearest indication yet of the key role paramilitary mercenary formations have played in Russian foreign policy”.

Utkin’s nom de guerre is “Vagner” allegedly due to his “affection for the attributes and ideology” of Adolf Hitler’s Nationalist Socialist regime and its beloved composer Wagner.

BuzzFeed journalist Mike Giglio, writing in April 2019, quoted Stephen Blank, who has researched the Wagner group for the US Army War College, saying the mercenary outfit had been funded “at times via outsize state contracts directed to Prigozhin-owned companies, for services such as catering at military bases.

At other times, Wagner has funded itself via deals with foreign governments. In the Central African Republic, it is compensated for training the presidential guard and receives a percentage of profits from the gold and diamond mines it guards.”

Wagner has a similar arrangement in Syria, where it takes a cut from the operations of oil and natural gas fields.

Wagner’s shadowy war makes it difficult to determine the group’s exact activities. It is only when it is swept up in news events such as in Syria, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, or more recently Libya, that its activities come to light.

Attempts at scrutiny have been complicated by the suspicious deaths of three members of a Russian television team, the veteran Orkan Djemal, Alexander Rastorguev and Kirill Radchenko, in the Central African Republic in 2018, who were ambushed while making a documentary on Wagner.

From what can be gleaned from sources on the ground — and the scant open source information that is available — Wagner is present in at least 20 African countries.

On 31 October Facebook suspended three networks of Russian accounts tied to Prigozhin that it claimed were influencing operations hiding behind fake identities that had “meddled in the domestic politics of eight African countries” — CAR, Congo Brazzaville, Sudan, Mozambique, Madagascar, Cameroon and Ivory Coast.

In 2016, Wagner expanded into the Middle East in support of Russia’s mission to shore up Syrian President Bashar al Assad and combat ISIS, where they were used as shock troops and sustained heavy casualties in the two battles for Palmyra and at the hands of US airpower when they attempted to capture the Conoco natural gas plant at Deir al-Zour in February 2018.

Unconfirmed reports indicated that several hundred Wagner paramilitaries were killed in the fighting.

Hence the jubilation expressed by Wagner paramilitaries when they took over the abandoned US base at Manbij in North-East Syria in October, after US President Donald Trump moved US troops out of the area (while continuing to station US troops to protect the oil plant).

Though US Africa Command maintains one of the largest drone complexes in the world in Djibouti, and has built a new complex in Agadez in Niger, the US under Donald Trump has demonstrated little enthusiasm for Africa.

In Libya, where Wagner forces are fighting in support of the rebel General Khalifa Haftar, US special forces based in Misrata withdrew from the country earlier in 2019 when the war erupted outside Tripoli.

Wagner first emerged in 2014 as part of the force that annexed Crimea from Ukraine and then as part of Russia’s undercover support for the separatist war in Ukraine’s Donbass region. A private military force, not wearing official Russian uniforms, offered plausible deniability for a military campaign that was never officially acknowledged by the Kremlin.

Wagner’s first African adventure was in the Central African Republic where it took on the Islamist Seleka rebels and the group has built on this relationship to such an extent that the Special Security Adviser to the CAR presidency is Valery Zakharov, a Russian national and a Putin insider.

Wagner’s rationale for its operations in Africa is that it is helping defeat terrorists, Islamist insurgents and transnational criminals that are destabilising the continent.

This is cleverly the same rationale that the US’s Africa Command (Africom) has used in its engagement in Africa: though Africom talks about building the capacity of African armies to defeat these forces.

What differentiates Wagner and makes them so valuable is their willingness to fight on the frontlines: Wagner forces are fighting in Mali, Libya, Central African Republic, South Sudan and Sudan. There are unconfirmed reports of more than 1,000 mercenaries in Congo Brazzaville and 2,700 troops stationed on Russian warships off the coast of Mozambique.

Wagner’s ability to come in on the back of Russian military agreements has given it an extraordinary reach. Unofficially, Wagner personnel are in more than 20 African countries, a number that is growing.

With Nigeria on the verge of signing a military assistance deal, the post-Zuma South Africa is the most important hold-out. But Wagner has offices in most of the neighbouring states, including Botswana, Zimbabwe, Eswatini, Mozambique and Lesotho.

As an ostensibly private commercial company, Wagner is following the example set by the original “diamond dogs of war”, the South African PMC Executive Outcomes (EO), and trading military support for mining deals, especially when the host country can’t afford the bills.

In the 1990s EO helped the government of Sierra Leone beat back the threat from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in exchange for a stake in the country’s diamond fields.

Eeben Barlow, the brains behind EO, gave a briefing on his unique business model to the St Petersburg economic forum in June 2010, at which members of the Russian general staff were present.

EO had major successes in Sierra Leone and Angola (against Unita) — and its successor SSTIP helped the Nigerian army dismantle the Boko Haram caliphate in north-east Nigeria in 2015. But the international community, including the US, opposed the spread of mercenary armies, and EO was forced out or largely blocked from other engagements.

The United Nations Mercenary Convention holds that the recruitment, training, use and financing of mercenaries is a violation of international law. The outrage at EO’s interventions by NGOs and well-meaning others in the West has not been matched in the international response to Wagner.

Like EO, where the troops were veterans of southern Africa’s wars, many of Wagner’s fighters are battle-hardened veterans of the Chechen wars, and now Ukraine and Syria.

Like EO, Wagner appears to be securing mining concessions, such as those acquired in the CAR, and a Wagner-related company called M Invest Ltd has acquired mining rights in Sudan.

However, unlike EO, which flew the flag of no country, Wagner functions as an undeclared branch of the Russian military.

A detailed investigation of Wagner in The Atlantic magazine said:

It’s fighters fly to Syria on Russian military aircraft, receive treatment in Russian military hospitals, work alongside regular Russian forces in operations, and are awarded Russian military medals signed personally by Vladimir Putin.”

Wagner can do things that the Russian military cannot as it operates in a world of smoke and mirrors.

Sean McFate, a former US paratrooper and author of The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder, says:

Shadow wars are a certain type of war where plausible deniability eclipses firepower in terms of effectiveness. Think about how Russia was in Crimea.

In older war tactics, when they would put their heel on another state, they’d send in the tanks. Now, in 2019, that’s not how they do it. They have military backup, but they use covert and clandestine means. They use special forces, they use mercenaries, they use proxies, they use propaganda — things that give them plausible deniability. They manufacture the fog of war and then exploit it for victory.”

Russia’s embrace of Africa is a superb irony because the Kremlin is providing covert support to far-right nationalists and anti-immigration racists in Europe and in the US it helped elect Trump.

Prigozhin was indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in 2017 for his hand in the Internet Research Agency, the troll farm that was a key part of the GRU effort to help Trump win the US election in 2016.

Russia’s push is “strategic” and not about Africa as such but, as Putin has made abundantly clear, about winning an undeclared war against the West, especially the US and France. This raises the prospect of Africa once again becoming the site of great power competition that it was during the Cold War.

The net outcome could be a massive militarisation of the continent — and future indebtedness to Russia as African countries buy up expensive weapons systems and nuclear energy plants.

In Cameroon, where Wagner is advising in the battle against Boko Haram, the Russians have sold anti-aircraft weapons that will have little effect in fighting terrorism.

In April, Angola purchased expensive Sukhoi SU-30 fighter jets vastly superior to any combat aircraft currently operating in southern Africa and expressed interest in purchasing Russian S400 missile systems with its highly developed electronic and software equipment capable of mobile electronic snooping.

About 200 Wagner men are involved in protecting Russian military intelligence officials at the Pico Basilé island spy base in Equatorial Guinea. This base allows for the interception of signals from almost all of the west coast of Africa. Over recent years the base has been significantly enlarged.

So far Russia’s military scramble for Africa has happened on the cheap.

China spent hundreds of billions of dollars building its influence in Africa through infrastructure projects and boosting economic ties, but has a very light military footprint and no equivalent of Wagner. Chinese mining operations at Tenke Fugurume in the Democratic Republic of Congo are protected by American mercenary Erik Prince’s Frontier Services Group.

Prince, whose now-defunct Blackwater security company was the most notorious private military contractor operating in Iraq during the war and was responsible for the Nisour Square massacre, is also involved in Mozambique and South Sudan, and appears to be Wagner’s main competition on the continent.

But though Prince has connections to the Trump administration where his sister Betsy de Vos is Education Secretary, and was himself investigated by Robert Mueller for trying to create a backchannel between the Trump administration and the Kremlin via Seychelles, he appears to be mercenary in the true meaning of the word. He works with the Chinese, the Russians and, it is rumoured, the big oil companies in Mozambique.

And he lacks the kind of big impact that has put Wagner on the map in such a spectacular way.

Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin?

Just like the Gupta family scaled giddy financial heights in South Africa through contracts with Jacob Zuma’s government, Yevgeny Prigozhin amassed his power and his fortune through a catering contract with the Kremlin.

Prigozhin grew up in Leningrad, Putin’s home city. He later served a nine-year prison sentence on charges of robbery and on his release branched out into the catering business.

This led to his nickname “Putin’s chef” after this former hotdog seller who later opened an elite restaurant. In 2001 Putin, accompanied by Japanese prime minister Yoshiro Mori, popped in for a meal. Putin was so impressed he contracted Prigozhin to cater for his 51st birthday party in 2003.

After his encounter with Putin, Prigozhin secured lucrative contracts to supply food to the Russian army and schoolchildren which soon secured him a place at the table of Russia’s oligarchs — obscenely wealthy, politically connected “businessmen” who enjoy a close relationship with the Kremlin.

It was Russia’s oligarchs who enabled Putin’s rise to power. Later Putin suggested they give up their political power and some of their fortune in exchange for “safety, security and continued prosperity”, as Masha Gessen wrote for the New York Times in 2014. Some, like media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky, refused and were forced into exile.

Prigozhin’s rise has been described by opposition leader Alexei Navalny as “a parable of Russia under Putin”. DM


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