Wagner Group: Putin’s grim reapers giving mercenaries a bad name, now embedded in Africa
They are charged with war crimes in Ukraine, derided by the Kyiv Independent journalist Ilya Ponomarenko as a ‘bloodthirsty swarm of violent criminals’. In Africa, they stand accused of multiple human rights abuses, of which the massacre of 300 villagers in Moura in central Mali in late March is the most well known.
Wagner’s integration into the Russian frontline military machine in Ukraine has left its teams in Africa stranded and having to find new ways to survive in diverse locations across the continent.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unwillingness to upgrade his Ukrainian “special operation” into a “war” which would mean ordering a general mobilisation has led to a heavy reliance on auxiliary forces and mercenary soldiers as cannon fodder in the invasion of Ukraine. There have been multiple reports of Wagner recruiting prisoners and impoverished kids from former Soviet states such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan willing to risk their all in exchange for decent pay and the promise of a Russian passport.
US officials estimate that as many as a quarter of Russia’s casualties since the beginning of the war, including 5,000 deaths, are of Wagner mercenaries.
Wagner’s reputation for brutality — including involvement in war crimes against civilians in Motyzhyn and Bucha outside Kyiv in the early months of the war — has made them a popular target for Ukraine’s military. On Sunday, 13 August it was reported, almost joyfully, that Wagner headquarters in the eastern Ukraine city of Popasna was shelled by US-made Himars rocket systems, killing and injuring an untold number of mercenaries.
According to Serhiy Hayday, the Ukrainian governor of Luhansk, the base was hit after a Russian state television reporter gave the location away by posting photos on Telegram of a visit to the base by the oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man known as Putin’s chef and the financial godfather of Wagner. However, like most reporting from the frontlines, no one could be sure if he had survived — and pictures popped up on social media allegedly showing Prigozhin still alive the next day, albeit standing amidst rubble.
The bombing marked Wagner’s emergence from the shadows as an increasingly visible and integrated component of the Russian war machine. The company first appeared in 2014 when about 1,000 of its mercenaries were involved in the annexation of Crimea and supported pro-Russian militias fighting for control of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. It was seen as a way for Russia to project force without sending in regular troops.
Wagner was then deployed in Syria, helping the regime of Bashar al-Assad defeat the Islamic State of the Levant (Isil). Wagner was focused on recapturing oil and gas wells from the jihadis, with the company receiving a share of the proceeds. In July 2017, a video showed Wagner fighters beating and beheading a man in the Palmyra area. He was later shown to be a Syrian army deserter.
The irony of Putin’s claims that one of the objectives of the invasion is to “denazify” Ukraine is that many Ukrainians regard the Wagner fighters as akin to Nazi stormtroopers. Wagner’s founder, Dmitry Utkin, is a former officer of Russian military intelligence (the GRU) who was dismissed in 2013 after he crashed a fighter jet that he did not have permission to fly. He named his mercenary group after his call sign Wagner, Adolf Hitler’s favourite composer, and photos have appeared on social media of Utkin with a Nazi eagle tattooed on his chest.
According to a French source: “Utkin sports several Nazi tattoos, including a prominent Reichsadler and Sturmabteilung unit insignias. He describes his unit’s ideal as ‘promoting the ideals of the Slavic race’. He was decorated personally by Putin, who considers him as Wagner’s thinking head.”
Utkin is a Rodnover, following a modern pagan religion known as the Slavic Native Faith. Many leading Nazis, including SS chief Heinrich Himmler, were neo-pagans, a religion that is closely tied to notions of racial purity and the superiority of the “Aryan race”.
The oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin is the financial and political facilitator whose close links to Putin have given Wagner access to power and contracts, and allowed them to function at arm’s length as an unofficial adjunct to the GRU.
Utkin’s native Ukraine is a long distance from the African conflict zones where his mercenary armies have been let loose to evolve in different ways, more in keeping with local conditions and engagements than any big plan.
Move into Africa
Wagner’s move into Africa in 2017, targeting the most conflict-ridden nations, coincided with big shifts on the continent: the decline of France’s 60-year-old neocolonial empire and the total disinterest during the administration of US President Donald Trump, who viewed Africa as a “shithole continent” to the point of wanting to close all US embassies.
With the exceptions of Sudan and Libya, almost all of Wagner’s African adventures are in former French colonies: nations with weak sovereignty struggling to contain jihadi insurgencies. (The aborted mission to Mozambique is seldom discussed anymore.)
A Burkinabe colleague described the muted reception in some parts of Africa to the deployment of Russian mercenaries: “It’s not that we love the Russians. It’s that we hate the French.”
Of all the former colonial powers, France never truly disengaged from Africa after the wave of independence and decolonisation in the early 1960s. Under the policy of Françafrique devised during the presidency of General Charles de Gaulle, France retained a transnational military engagement in Africa through its Special Forces and African bases in Ivory Coast, Gabon, Chad, Central African Republic and Djibouti.
The withdrawal this month of the last members of the French-led Barkhane force from Mali and France’s redeployment to the friendlier nation of Niger, represent another retreat for Françafrique. Whether this indicates a corresponding extension of Russian influence is far from clear.
News reports and public commentary have concentrated on the 25 out of 54 African countries that refused to condemn Russia’s invasion at the United Nations (though only one, Eritrea, actually voted in favour of Russia). Coupled with a lingering anti-imperialism fanned by the prodigious output of Russia’s social media propaganda and troll farms — also the handiwork of Prigozhin’s enterprises — the impression has somehow been created that Russia is making serious inroads on the continent.
But if you strip away the often exaggerated discourse around the Great Power conflict and a new Cold War, Russia’s most effective selling point in Africa, its once-vaunted military machine, has been tarnished by its underperformance in Ukraine. It failed in what was expected to be a swift operation to decapitate Ukraine’s leadership and bring Ukraine under the control of Russia — though Putin continues to insist that Russian weaponry is years ahead of the competition.
Before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia accounted for more than 40% of weapons sales to Africa and had military agreements with 21 African countries. But with Russian military supplies being destroyed at an astonishing rate in Ukraine so that World War 2-era T-62 tanks are being sent to the frontline, they have been unable to meet export orders.
Utkin visited the Central African Republic in 2021, probably to prepare his men for what would happen to Wagner once Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.
Wagner’s affiliates in Africa — a continent that is a relatively low priority for Russia — have been left to find their own way, a free-floating force set loose in spaces where the traditional Western powers are not welcome.
Wagner always was a hybrid between the Executive Outcomes model of strictly business and a low-cost Russian strategy of extending its influence in Africa at the expense of Western interests.
The Ukraine war has forced the affiliates to evolve into distinct organisations in each country where they are engaged, while they seek out commercial opportunities. The one thing they have in common is that Wagner’s partners are almost all military dictatorships.
Central African Republic: too brutal for Kagame
The Central African Republic (CAR) is the nerve centre of Wagner in Africa — and Russia’s only truly neocolonial project on the continent. The regime of Faustin-Archange Touadéra, re-elected in January 2021 in an election that some observers described as a farce, is effectively in Russian hands, as are most of the top-level politicians.
Wagner members who have been promoted into senior positions in the CAR government include Dimitri Sytyi (an ex-French-Russian translator) who is the government’s head of communication, and Vitali Perfilev (a former French Foreign Legion officer) who has set up an army command centre with the minister of defence, Rameaux-Claude Bireau, and Military Operations General Freddy Johnson Sakama.
Wagner has even taken over the management of the customs service and is issuing CAR documents to CAR citizens, accompanied by predictable charges of corruption.
Russia moved into CAR after the 2017 exit of the French who, believing they had ended the civil war between the Seleka Muslim movement and the Anti-balaka (Christian) tribes and had elected a French-friendly candidate as president, folded their tents and went home. Shortly thereafter the civil war restarted.
On 31 July 2018, three Russian journalists investigating Wagner activities were shot dead 200km north of Bangui by rogue Seleka fighters. Human rights workers claim they were paid by Wagner to kill them.
There are about 1,500 Wagner fighters in CAR and they have been accused of killing with abandon and with little efficiency. The international community has protested against Wagner’s human rights violations, and there is evidence, from the Human Rights Watch, the UN and the international Crisis Group, that they often kill the wrong persons or kill for no reason.
Ida Sawyer, the crisis and conflict director of Human Rights Watch, says there is compelling evidence that “Russian identified forces” have committed grave abuses against civilians with complete impunity.
In June 2021, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who supplied an important contingent to the 13,000 UN Blue Helmets force in CAR, banned his soldiers from sharing operations, patrols or barracks with the Wagner fighters because of their repeated violations of human rights.
Rwandan soldiers are no longer even allowed to drink beer at the same bar as the Russians.
Gérard Prunier, the French historian and respected author of a number of books on Africa who has been critical of Kagame in the past, says he can understand the Rwandan leader’s reticence about working with them.
“These are like football hooligans that you give explosives to. The boys in Kagame’s army are not like that. He won’t touch them [the Wagners) with a ten-foot pole. He doesn’t want to associate with people that walk around with cut heads on top of a pick.”
Since the Wagners don’t always get paid regularly, our researchers found that they are regarded by many local residents as parasites. They mine for diamonds and gold, recruiting hordes of low-paid workers. They frequently engage in clashes with tribal groups or bandits for control of the mining sites.
Some Wagner units, according to a UN source, have carved out “protected regions” for themselves where they are supported by the local population in exchange for protection from bandits.
Some of the CAR Wagner fighters are of Ukrainian origin and there were reports of fighting between Russian and Ukrainian Wagners after the invasion began. Many of the Ukrainians have deserted.
In fact, Wagner has lost one-third of its force in CAR either through desertion or transfers to the war in Ukraine, according to a former South African Special Forces soldier.
This has not really weakened the Wagner hold on CAR because the force has recruited local auxiliaries and absorbed units of the CAR army.
At the centre of Bangui there is an imposing statue of a Wagner soldier defending the capital, and an action movie, The Tourist, shows a heroic portrayal of Wagner’s activities in CAR, probably not that different from the myth-spinning that went along with the colonisation of Africa by Western powers 150 years ago.
Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations
Mali: into the ruins of empire
French intervention in Mali started in 2013 after a Tuareg-based movement, reinforced by elements of the late Muammar Gaddafi’s Presidential Guard fleeing Libya, attacked northern Mali. The French intervened to prevent a jihadi occupation of the capital, Bamako, and the African heartland of Mali.
But the French intervention was stymied by the fact that the Malian government was the product of a military coup and civilian elections in 2013 brought a corrupt government under Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta to power.
In January 2020, the French, feeling the situation across the region was getting out of hand, organised a meeting in Pau, France, of all Sahelian states, leading to the creation of the multinational Takuba force which was both European (in addition to the French, it regrouped Swedish, Danish, British and German contingents) and supposed to coordinate with the G5 Sahelian-African alliance (Chadian, Malian, Nigérien, Burkinabe and Mauritanian). This was supposed to start a broad-based anti-jihadi international alliance.
But, in August 2020, Keïta’s regime was overthrown and replaced by a military junta led by the anti-French Colonel Assimi Goïta. The military council reached out to Wagner in January 2021 and a series of anti-French measures quickly undermined the Takuba/G5 alliance as it was trying to get off the ground, and advanced the contacts with Wagner.
In February 2022, Goïta expelled the French ambassador and the Barkhane military force (2,500 French at the time, accompanied by an estimated 1,000 Chadian soldiers) was told to leave. The first Wagner fighters started to arrive in March.
Wagner immediately started operating an anti-insurgent war, resulting in the Moura massacre (between 27 and 31 March) where at least 300 civilians were killed for their alleged support of the Islamist guerillas of the GSIM (Groupe de Soutien à l’Islam et aux Musulmans).
However, it has been established that there was no military presence of GSIM in Moura itself or nearby. Many of the victims were killed in cold blood. Women and young boys were pulled out of their houses, taken to a backyard, put against a wall and shot by two executioners. One was a Malian soldier, the other a Wagner mercenary.
Corinne Dufka, the Sahel director at Human Rights Watch, described the killings as the worst in Mali in a decade.
The GSIM launched an offensive in retaliation in July 2022. On July 22 they attacked the Kati military camp 15km from Bamako, where Goïta lives.
The Wagners have meanwhile occupied most of the French installations as the French have abandoned them and moved to Niger.
Wagner has between 1,000 and 2,000 men in Mali who fly in and out of the country on a broad government authorisation which often does not even include flight plans. They are negotiating gold mining agreements with the military council.
Moscow has delivered ground attack air equipment — Su-25 and Mil Mi-8 helicopters flown by Russian pilots. A number of Czech-built L-39 attack-trainer combinations might allow the Malians to have their own pilots.
Burkina Faso: knocking on the door
The January 2022 coup in the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, took place under completely different circumstances than those in Mali or CAR.
This is due to the long shadow cast by the assassination of President Thomas Sankara in October 1987, which is far from being a “cold case”. Sankara was killed on the orders of his friend and colleague Blaise Compaoré who was himself overthrown in 2014 — a murder strongly suspected to have been approved by the French.
The assassination remains an ideological and political hot potato in Francophone Africa. Compaoré was succeeded by President Roch Kaboré, himself overthrown by a military council presided over by General Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba in January 2022.
It is this last entity that the Russians have tried to deal with. But their target was very different from what they were facing in Bangui or Bamako.
The revolt against Kabore had one central cause: negligence in security and a demand for more help from France, which did not come, given the Takuba/G5 collapse after Mali’s rejection of Paris.
Which way will Burkina go? The Russians are knocking loudly on the door but the junta in Ouagadougou is going to take its cues from events in Mali. A complete about-face similar to what happened in Bamako is regarded as unlikely.
Sudan: a tribe of gold smugglers
The Wagners have morphed into a local tribe in northern Sudan, mining for gold and working under the protection of Mohamed Hamdan Doglo aka Hemeti, a former camel trader who has become the top warlord in Darfur and is now the number two man in Sudan’s interim military regime.
Russia’s long-term strategic interest in Sudan is a naval base in the Red Sea which they have been angling for since 2011 when they tripled the size of their embassy in Khartoum.
Hemeti, who was a long-time supporter of the overthrown Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, is Russia’s closest ally in Sudan. His clout in the region — he is also close to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt — means that he meets with Putin when he visits Moscow.
Under the protection of Hemeti, who was already exploiting gold mines in northern Sudan and selling the ingots to Moscow, some of the Wagners posted to the CAR filtered up to southwest Darfur where they started to panhandle gold in the streams coming down from Djebel Mara, according to Sudanese sources.
The main security problem was cattle raiding across the Chadian border and from north Darfur. Speaking limited Arabic and no Rotana (the local tribal language) Wagner became embroiled in the regional conflicts of Darfur, according to Sudanese sources, often without understanding the ramifications of what they were handling.
Wagner is the most technologically advanced and politically the most clueless “tribe” in the region, according to Sudanese sources.
Libya: a frozen conflict
There were reported to be about 1,200 Russians and 800 Syrian pro-Moscow militiamen in Benghazi at the beginning of 2022, though this number has probably fallen because of the Ukraine war. A BBC documentary in 2021, based on the discovery of a Samsung computer tablet, uncovered widespread evidence of war crimes in Libya – including the execution of prisoners, massacring of villagers, and the mining and booby-trapping of civilian areas.
Wagner mercenaries were a critical part of the invading force under rebel General Khalifa Haftar that reached the suburbs of Tripoli in 2019 but was repelled by the internationally recognised Libyan government with the help of Putin’s frenemy, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Haftar’s forces then, with the assistance of Wagner and Russian-supplied MiG jets, prevented Tripoli’s forces from marching east along the coastal road to capture Sirte, leaving the country effectively divided between west and east: Tripolitania and Cyrenaïca. The field reality has remained frozen since late 2021, and rounds of meetings and politics have failed to produce an election or reunification of the country.
Libya’s strategic significance lies in its geographical location, straddling southern Europe, north Africa, the Middle East, and the west African Sahel. It is the second-largest oil producer in Africa and is the key to abundant natural gas reserves in the Mediterranean.
The de facto alliance backing Haftar’s Libyan National Army includes Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Wagner’s two main Libyan sponsors are Haftar and Saif-al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the former leader.
While the Russian “threat” in Africa tends to be overhyped, the Wagner mercenaries on the continent are not about to leave any time soon. They have displayed an ability to adapt and survive without support from Moscow.
On the other hand, it is not inevitable they will extend their influence into all the fragile corners of Africa. A case in point is Guinea Conakry, which was regarded as a logical target after September 2021 when Colonel Mamady Doumbouya overthrew the ageing authoritarian president Alpha Condé.
During his 10 years in power, Condé was an important economic partner for Moscow, and the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s UC Rusal owns important bauxite mines in the country. But the French have made a comeback.
Doumbouya is a former French Foreign Legion officer who fought in Afghanistan. He graduated from there and went on to marry a French policewoman who is with him in Conakry.
He is very well connected in French military circles who consider him one of their own. In February, the commander of the French troops stationed in Senegal went to Conakry and he and Doumbouya took a helicopter and personally patrolled along the Mali-Guinea border all the way down to Ivory Coast. Doumbouya feeds regional information directly to Paris.
The reason, however, why Wagner is able to thrive in parts of the continent points to a more fundamental and long-term threat to peace in Africa.
Instability and conflict in parts of Africa have created a vacuum which is being filled by warlords, criminals and mercenaries. Analysts like Prunier see Wagner as the dark side of international engagement with Africa.
“The state is dying in parts of Africa,” says Prunier. “Whatever faces are seen are usually attached to the extended body of big multinational companies. That opens up a whole range of possibilities on the side for men with guns to steal gold or kill the locals if they don’t work hard enough.”
The victims are less the French or the Western powers that Russia would like to displace, but ordinary Africans themselves. DM