Wagner Group mercenaries ‘preparing to take new road to Africa’ after aborted mutiny in Russia

Wagner Group mercenaries ‘preparing to take new road to Africa’ after aborted mutiny in Russia
Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin on 17 June 2016 in St Petersburg, Russia. (Photo: Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images) | Wagner Group logo. (Image: Wikimedia) | The PMC Wagner Center logos on a building in St Petersburg, Russia, 27 June 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Anatoly Maltsev)

The future of the Wagner Group remains uncertain after its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, led an aborted march on Moscow. A recent video suggests it could focus more on Africa, where it has offered its muscle in exchange for access to mineral resources.

Concerns are rising that the notorious Wagner private military company/mercenary army may now be turning much more attention to Africa after its mutiny in Russia, led by its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was aborted late last month and the organisation apparently suspended operations in Ukraine. 

Prigozhin has been largely invisible since then, prompting considerable speculation about his fate and the future of his private army. But last week Wagner-related Telegram channels published a dark and murky video which appeared to show Prigozhin at a Wagner camp in Belarus handing over the Wagner flag and the command of that camp to one “Sergei”. 

“Hello guys, I’m happy to greet you all on Belarus land,” says what appears to be Prigozhin, in what was apparently his first video since the mutiny.

“We fought with dignity. You have done a lot for Russia. Now, what is happening on the front is a shame and we do not need to participate in it. We can wait for the moment when we can show all what we know, the full programme. 

“Further on, we are preparing, improving our level and into the new road, to Africa. And maybe we’ll come back to the special military operation at the moment when we will be confident that we will not be forced to embarrass ourselves and our experience.”

The “special military operation” is the euphemism that Russian President Vladimir Putin insists all Russians use for what everyone else calls by its real name, a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. 

The video does not elaborate on Prigozhin’s plans to step up Wagner’s activities in Africa, which are already extensive. However, the video provides further evidence that Wagner will remain an active force, though the extent of Prigozhin’s personal future involvement is not yet clear.

Wagner’s uncertain future

There was widespread speculation that Putin would completely disband Wagner after the embarrassing mutiny. But Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, have since made it clear that Wagner will continue, though it is not clear if this will be under new command. 

Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, disclosed on 10 July that Putin had met Prigozhin and several Wagner commanders on 29 June, just days after the mutiny. Putin had indicated that he wanted the command of the outfit to be transferred from Prigozhin to someone else.

The other commanders had nodded agreement but Prigozhin disagreed. Yet on 19 July, according to the Belarus state registration department, Prigozhin registered a subsidiary company to his Russian holding company Concord Management and Consulting, suggesting that he had reached an agreement with the Kremlin to continue his activities from Belarus.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Putin met Wagner’s Prigozhin after revolt that shook Russia

How much Wagner’s operations in Belarus would represent of its total forces is unclear. But in one of the Wagner channels a person from Wagner management said that of the original 78,000 Wagner fighters in Ukraine — including 49,000 convicts — only 25,000 had not been killed or wounded by 20 May this year. Of these, 10,000 would be moved to Belarus while the remaining 15,000 would go “on holiday”.

Dzvinka Kachur, a research fellow at the Centre for Sustainability Transitions at Stellenbosch University and honorary president of the Ukrainian Association in South Africa, says this meant the remaining 15,000 would sign up in Russia’s regular army, in terms of the deal Prigozhin did with Putin to end the mutiny.

The move to Belarus seems to be well under way. The Belarus Telegram channel Belarusian Hajun has reported that about 2,000-2,500 Wagner fighters were in Belarus. As of 19 July, it said 382 Wagner vehicles had entered the country in at least five organised columns. A video posted to the internet showed military vehicles said to be carrying Wagner fighters travelling into Belarus from Russia. 

Since then, the Belarusian Hajun reported this past weekend that a 10th convoy of Wagner forces had arrived in Belarus. It said there were at least 10 vehicles in the convoy and that the vehicles had mostly concealed their licence plates. It seems the bulk of these 10,000 fighters in Belarus could be destined for Africa. 

State heroes or mutineers?

Putin’s attitude to Wagner is still not clear. For many years, he denied any connections with Prigozhin or Wagner. But since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and before the mutiny, Putin had treated Prigozhin and his soldiers as state heroes, mainly because of their prominent role in the capture of the shattered eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in May, which the regular Russian army had been unable to do after 10 months of fighting.

For a few months, from May to December 2022, Putin allowed Wagner to recruit convicts to the frontline. After serving for six months, those prisoners were pardoned. The legality of this process was unclear and remained a state secret, but it is believed that at least 20,000 convicts were recruited up till the beginning of 2023.  

But on 23 June, Prigozhin — sometimes known as “Putin’s Chef” because he used to run a catering company that served the Kremlin — rebelled, leading his mercenary army first to capture the regular Russian military’s southern command in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and then to advance on Moscow in what he called a “march for justice”.

He denied it was directed against Putin, saying it was merely a protest against the incompetence and betrayal of the Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu and the military high command, which he said had failed to replenish Wagner’s ammunition during its attack on Bakhmut. 

Prigozhin gave a lengthy interview during his march in which he said that the Russian Ministry of Defence had lied to the Russian public about the potential “Ukrainian aggression” which it — and Putin — had used as a justification for attacking Ukraine.

Prigozhin said that Ukraine was not planning any aggression against Russia and that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was ready for negotiations. According to Prigozhin, the Russian war against Ukraine was motivated by the personal ambitions of senior military officers and the economic interests of some oligarchs.

But Putin condemned the Wagner mutineers as traitors who had stabbed Russia in the back. Late on 24 June, Prigozhin called off his march on Moscow in a deal with Putin brokered by Putin’s close ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, which also required Prigozhin and Wagner to go into exile in Belarus. 

After the aborted mutiny, the Kremlin propaganda machine turned against Prigozhin. His house in St Petersburg was searched by the authorities and a number of fake passports, as well as 600 million roubles (about $6.5-million) in cash, were confiscated, according to reports. 

Mercenary groups are officially prohibited in Russia and for many years Putin had denied that Wagner had any connections with the Kremlin. However, since the mutiny, Putin has claimed that Wagner had been financed by the defence ministry from the state budget.

“The upkeep of the entire Wagner Group was fully provided for by the state,” he announced, adding that the group had received 86 billion roubles (R16.8-billion) in funding from state coffers just over the past year. 

The full scope of the agreement negotiated by Lukashenko between Prigozhin and Putin that convinced Prigozhin to stop his advance on Moscow remains unknown. 

“There are many more questions than answers,” says Kachur.

“How is it possible that after Putin had publicly threatened all who were involved in the mutiny and a criminal case had been opened against Prigozhin, he still seems to be openly travelling between St Petersburg and Belarus? Were the confiscated personal arms and money returned to Prigozhin? And how is it that no one in the Wagner Group that [during the mutiny] took down a few Russian helicopters, and an airplane, killing at least 12 Russian soldiers and pilots, now faces punishment or arrest?”

She adds that even more questions had been raised by Putin spokesperson Peskov’s disclosure about Putin’s 29 June meeting with Prigozhin and his commanders.  

On the possible benefits for Lukashenko of hosting Wagner soldiers, Kachur says: “Lukashenko himself said that Wagner would be training the Belarus army, but the Belarus opposition has suggested that Lukashenko might be interested in Wagner’s help in using its contacts to set up cooperation with African countries.”

Wagner’s record in Africa

She notes that in last week’s video, Prigozhin had suggested that Wagner would be shifting its focus from Ukraine and preparing to take “the new road to Africa”. 

“Lukashenko has close ties with Zimbabwe, where Belarus a few years ago signed a contract to mine gold and is currently discussing the prospects of mining lithium. Wagner Group has experience in extracting natural resources and making profits for themselves while sharing the proceeds with the African leaders. The group has been actively working in the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali and Libya, among other countries,” Kachur notes. 

She adds that Wagner mercenaries have been abusing and killing civilians in the CAR since 2019, according to a recent report from Human Rights Watch.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Wagner mercenaries have entirely captured Central African Republic, The Sentry report finds

In the CAR, Wagner is propping up the autocratic regime of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra in exchange for mining contracts. In Mali, it is supporting the military junta which evicted French military troops who saved the country from being overrun by Islamists and separatists a decade ago.

In Libya, Wagner fighters are still backing the rebel general Khalifa Haftar despite international agreements that all foreign forces should have withdrawn to enable a peace process to succeed. In Sudan, Wagner is believed to be backing Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, generally referred to as Hemedti, the commander of the Rapid Support Forces militia, who is engaged in a bitter civil war with the regular army chief, Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan. 

Kachur notes that the general Wagner modus operandi is to provide military muscle to African countries in exchange for mining and other natural resource contracts.

The wider Wagner Group has non-military operations in several other African countries, including business enterprises and attempts to influence local politics. 

Putin’s ‘effective managers’

Kachur says that Russian private military and security companies (PMSCs) like Wagner are designed for strategic deception. While individual Russian citizens are restricted by Russian law from mercenary activity, legal loopholes permit elite-related PMSCs to bypass this law.

“Laws passed under Putin have empowered state-run enterprises to form private armies that operate under special contractual arrangements between government ministries, Russian military and strategic state-run enterprises.

Wagner Group became possible because the Kremlin keeps state institutions weak and relies on parallel structures to manage its finances,” says Kachur.

“Since around 2003-2006, when Putin began centralising power internally and until 2022, Russia could be described as a personalised autocracy. In this system, the autocrat [president] exercises political power through individual relationships with the political elite, rather than via state institutions. 

“In such a state, the institutions are weakened. Thus, to compensate for weak institutions, the Russian leader created a network of ‘effective managers’ from his personally trusted circles. The ‘effective managers’/oligarchs/political elite are running the country’s economy, its most important businesses and its public finances.

“The autocrat and these ‘effective managers’ are co-dependent in such a relationship, as the autocrat depends on the management skills of the chosen political elite, and they are interested in supporting the autocrat to protect their positions and access to public resources. Such co-dependency also explains the relationship between Putin and Prigozhin.”

The challenge for such a relationship is ensuring that there are enough public resources to share with the Russian political elite while keeping the wider population, which is becoming increasingly impoverished, largely unaware and under control, she says, 

“Russia is the 11th-largest economy in the world and provides a significant number of Putin’s friends with yachts that cost over a few hundred million dollars, while as of 2020, according to Russia’s official data [service], Rosstat, 26% of Russians lived without clean running water and 20% of the population — or 30 million Russians — lived without indoor plumbing. The Russian model produces very rich oligarchs at the expense of an impoverished population,” Kachur said.

“The Russian government coordinates the Wagner Group unofficially. It is not registered and de jure does not exist, according to Russian legislation. At the same time, official Russian diplomacy deploys the narrative that the Wagner Group, despite violating human rights and causing atrocities among the local population, is the only effective partner in fighting terrorism and providing security to people on the continent.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Brian Cotter says:

    Recent announcements have been that we have no defence force, our naval branch unable to combat smuggling, our borders are porous so welcome to Wagner, every other mafia organisation is here. Come and control the Zama Zama’s but leave a share for our Politicians to eat a little. Let us also compare unequal societies Russia and SA – Russia – according to Russia’s official data [service], Rosstat, 26% of Russians lived without clean running water and 20% of the population — or 30 million Russians — lived without indoor plumbing. The Russian model produces very rich oligarchs at the expense of an impoverished population,” Kachur said.
    Does this sound like South Africa. Did I hear Khoza calling for more SA Billionaires – does Russia call them Oligarchs.

  • Cheryl Siewierski says:

    What the Wagner Group has already done in Africa in terms of violence, crime, human rights abuses, and disinformation is worthy of many, many jail terms. And I get why certain individuals and despots (such as in the CAR and Zims) are welcoming them but why are democratic-leaning African countries – including SA – so quiet and blase about their presence? So a few grossly corrupt leaders can make use of the Wagner Group at monstrous cost to African citizens?

  • Johan Fick says:

    Be afraid, very afraid. Will Wagner be here to help the ANC hang onto power?

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