ISS TODAY OP-ED
Prigozhin’s rebellion has thrown future of Wagner drive, Russian influence in Africa into doubt
Will Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin’s astonishing march on Moscow scupper the company’s influence on the continent?
The brazen but brief rebellion that Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin launched in Russia at the weekend, and the deal he cut with Russian president Vladimir Putin to end it, clearly have large implications for Wagner in Africa. What these are, however, is harder to say.
At first, the deal was welcomed by most — though not all — because it seemed to entail the dissolution of Wagner and therefore the end of its nefarious activities in many African countries, like the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali. The autocratic leaders of those two, in particular, were no doubt among the most anxious observers, given their heavy reliance on Wagner for survival. However, even some objective observers expressed concern that a Wagner withdrawal from Africa could create a dangerous security vacuum.
But then on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told RT that Wagner would continue operations in Mali and the CAR. Wagner operatives “are working there as instructors. This work … will continue,” Lavrov said. He added that Europe and particularly France had “abandoned” the two African countries, which had in turn asked Russia and Wagner to provide military instructors and “to ensure the security of their leaders”.
And Putin surprisingly announced that the Russian state had fully funded Wagner to the tune of about $1-billion a year.
It wasn’t clear, though, if these announcements meant Wagner would continue in its present form, under Prigozhin’s leadership, despite his banishment to Belarus. Or whether the operatives in various countries would continue operating as regular Russian soldiers, or could perhaps form separate companies in each country. Or that Moscow would establish a relationship with another company, as Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov suggested.
However, J Peter Pham, distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council and former US special envoy to the Sahel and to the Great Lakes, argues, “The key question is not what Lavrov or any other Russian official says, but what they are actually able to do in order to execute on their intentions.
“Wagner was able to deploy forces and, to an extent, make them effective because Prigozhin was able to expend considerable funds to hire more or less trained personnel and equip them. It remains to be seen whether the Russian government has these same financial means or is willing to spend them on conflicts far from home.’
Importantly, Pham adds, “The money was available to Prigozhin due to the network across Africa and beyond of resource exploitation and other rackets. Is the Russian government capable of maintaining this? And, if they are, would it be worth the same to them shorn of the deniability of a cover like Wagner?”
What is clear from Putin’s and Lavrov’s statements is that Wagner — though probably under a new name and new management — remains important to Putin’s foreign policy as it has acted as a proxy for Moscow in extending Russian influence across Africa. Specifically, it has helped Russia counter Western and particularly French influence. In the CAR, Mali and Burkina Faso, Wagner has essentially displaced French forces and influence by backing military juntas or otherwise undemocratic governments that had fallen out with Paris.
It’s also been at the cutting edge of Putin’s anti-Western foreign policy in Sudan by backing Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemedti’ Dagalo, head of the notorious Rapid Support Forces; and in Libya by supporting the destabilising efforts of Khalifa Haftar.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Bloody war rages on in a battered Sudan as corrupt and ambitious warlords fight for might and Mammon
The wider Wagner Group, which includes several companies, has also meddled in elections in Madagascar and Zimbabwe.
Coincidentally on Tuesday the United States (US) non-governmental organisation The Sentry published a major report accusing Wagner of having ‘captured’ the state in the CAR to prop up the shaky regime of president Faustin-Archange Touadéra, and to extract considerable mineral resources.
The deal there, as elsewhere in Africa, has been a barter arrangement where Wagner supplied the muscle and Touadéra gave it carte blanche to take whatever gold, diamonds and other minerals it wanted. In both cases Wagner has committed widespread atrocities, the report said, indiscriminately massacring men, women and children of the ethnic communities that are the strongholds of its political opponents, and eliminating artisanal miners so Wagner can seize the mines.
Such atrocities are believed to be one of the main reasons that Moscow for a long time kept Wagner at arm’s length, using it as a proxy for Russian interests but with some deniability because they weren’t ostensibly on the government payroll.
Now we know from Putin and Lavrov’s remarks that Wagner troops were in fact on Moscow’s payroll, though also profiting from natural resource concessions.
Despite Lavrov’s remarks, Russia expert Irina Filatova, professor emeritus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, believes Putin is still formulating his post-rebellion Wagner policy. Much will depend on what the local Wagner operatives in the various countries want to do, she says; whether they want to form separate companies or remain loyal to Prigozhin in an overarching Wagner.
Whatever happens, it seems Prigozhin’s days as Putin’s ally are done. Oleksiy Melnyk, co-director for foreign relations and international security at the Razumkov Centre in Kyiv, believes Putin will restructure Wagner, perhaps under a different name and a different boss. “But Putin is definitely not going to withdraw the Wagner operatives from Africa,” he says. He predicts Putin will eliminate Prigozhin, though not immediately as he still commands considerable support.
Jakkie Cilliers, Institute for Security Studies chairperson, says while Wagner has certainly helped Putin’s Russia expand its influence in Africa at the cost of Western governments, that influence has come at an ever-rising cost to Moscow’s reputation. Evidence mounts of Wagner’s human rights abuses.
He believes that in the current climate of heightened competition between Russia and the West for influence in Africa — provoked by the Ukraine war — Prigozhin’s rebellion has provided Putin with an opportunity to avoid further reputational embarrassment by closing down Wagner. Cilliers suspects Putin might just seize that opportunity.
Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime senior analyst Julia Stanyard says the clash between Putin and Prigozhin presents African countries that have contracted Wagner a dilemma about how to position themselves.
“Until recently Wagner’s been hand in glove with Russian diplomatic engagement in Africa, even while Prigozhin’s been arguing with the military about Ukraine strategy,” says Stanyard, who recently co-authored a report on the extent of Wagner’s activities across Africa. “They’ve never been in a position where they have to weigh up engaging with Wagner vs. overall relations with Russia.”
However, she thinks Lavrov’s remarks may have eased the problem for these African governments by suggesting that, “Putin does not want to lose the influence in Africa that Wagner had gained for him or jeopardise the relations with African governments.”
With Putin’s disclosure that Wagner has always been fully funded by the Russian state, he has now effectively abandoned the deniability that had hitherto been central to Moscow’s relationship with Wagner. It has effectively made the Russian state responsible for all of Wagner’s actions, including its atrocities.
If the rift between Putin and Wagner has created a security vacuum in Africa, the West could take advantage. “US and allied decision-makers have a fleeting opportunity to present such nations with alternative, stable forms of assistance,” says Catrina Doxsee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “and, in doing so, counter Moscow’s growing footprint on the continent.” DM
Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant.
First published by ISS Today.