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Wagner Group in Africa

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Wagner Group in Africa

In late December 2021, the Government of Mali denied that it was contracting a private security company (Wagner Group) to help with the security situation in the country. The statement called the reports of such a deployment “baseless allegations.” But even before December 2021, there has been evidence of Wagner Group’s presence in Mali. According to CSIS analysis, commercially available satellite imagery from September (when rumours of a deal between Wagner and Mali first emerged) to December indicates that a large area was first walled off, and subsequently, the start of construction was observed in December. This area is just outside the perimeter of Bamako’s International Airport, in the country’s capital. It is just one of the multiple operations Wagner is running in Africa.

The Wagner Group is supposedly a Private Military Contractor (PMC) with links to the Russian Government. But many western officials and academics believe that it does not exist, given the lack of any business registered under the Wagner name. Instead, the term has been used to describe an assortment of mercenary groups and companies which use the same logistics networks and have overlapping ownership. The linchpin of this global network is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian Oligarch with long-established links to Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is widely believed that not having any military background, Mr Yevgeny is a front or a middleman for the organisation, working on behalf of the Russian State.

The Wagner Group has significant links with the Russian Government. It was deployed in Syria along with the Russian Army and took part in major offensives like the one to take back the ancient city of Palmyra in 2016. The group has also been active in Ukraine, where Ukrainian Intelligence, between 2014-2015, intercepted calls of Dmitry Utkin, a former Lt Col in GRU and believed to be the founder of the Wagner Group with the Russian military leadership in the theatre. Besides, Russian Aerospace Forces or VKS aircraft have been linked to the arrival of Wagner personnel and equipment in Mali and other countries where the group is operating, further strengthening the notion of support from the Kremlin.

In all the African countries they are deployed to, Wagner carries out a number of tasks, chiefly the training of the local militaries and militias loyal to the government. They also undertake the protection of some of the countries’ heads of government and ministers as well as local and Russian businessmen operating in those countries. And at times, they are deployed with the local forces, which is most common in Mozambique. Securing mineral deposits and overseeing mining operations is also part of their operation in many African nations.

The Wagner Group is supposedly a Private Military Contractor (PMC) with links to the Russian Government. But many western officials and academics believe that it does not exist, given the lack of any business registered under the Wagner name.

In Mozambique, the Wagner Group was deployed to the Cabo Delgado Province, facing an insurgency by ISIS affiliate Al-Shabaab. The group was tasked to help the local military in routing the insurgents and providing air support via helicopters. Russia has interests in mineral resources and gas deposits in the country. In August 2019, the President of Mozambique visited Russia, and in meetings with President Putin, he signed agreements pertaining to minerals, energy, defence and security. In September that year, Russian planes started arriving with men, vehicles and helicopters for operations in the troubled province of Cabo Delgado. The Group deployed forces with the local military to undertake counter-insurgency operations but failed to have any large impact. The province has large gas reserves both on land and in the water close to the shores, which the Russians are interested in.

In the case of the Central African Republic (CAR), the Wagner Group is the primary means of implementing Russia’s military and economic aid. They also help manage access for Russian businessmen to diamond mines and other minerals (primarily gold) extraction sites. It is alleged that Russian advisors and instructors work closely with the CAR military and police and take part in arresting and detaining the local population. The presence of these forces have failed to stop the eight-year conflict, and Russian business has fully taken advantage of this fact, with there being reports that Wagner Group facilitated Russian business mining in rebel-held territories.

In Libya, the group has carried out multiple operations supporting rebel General Khalifa Haftar, including operating Su-24 and Mig-29 aircraft on behalf of the General’s Libyan National Army and operating air defence systems. Even with the announcement of a ceasefire and presidential elections, Russian mercenaries are still operating in the country, with the head of the Libyan High Council of State, Khalid al-Mishri, saying in December 2021 that there are still over 7,000 Russians active in Libya. According to Mr Khalid, the Russians required a foothold in Northern Africa, and they got that with the deployments in Sirte and al-Jufra.

Similarly, Wagner’s operations in Sudan started shortly after former president Omar al-Bashir’s visit to Sochi in 2017. The two sides, among other agreements, decided to establish a Russian naval base in the Port of Sudan. Personnel from Wagner were initially deployed to mining exploration sites, the rights for which were acquired by other companies linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin. Slowly this mounted to military support for the regime. Then in January 2019, the Russian Foreign Ministry stated that Russian companies were now training the Army of Sudan but expressed that they were only undertaking training and not conducting operations with the Sudanese Army. After the coup in Sudan in 2019, companies quietly kept doing their work, relying on their links with the military for political cover, knowing that the civilian part of the government was aligned with the West. But the change in government has led to a snag in Russia’s plan for the naval base in Port Sudan, as the current leadership stated in June 2019 that they would review the deal with the Russians.

With the recent entrance into Mali, it would seem Russia, via the Wagner Group, will get rights to mine the large reserves of gold present in Mali, just like they have in CAR. There is another similarity between the group’s operations in Mali and CAR. Like Mali, the group entered CAR right after the French force withdrew from that country. Thus, it is not difficult to conclude that the Kremlin uses the Wagner group as a tool to further their influence in Africa by supporting dictators and oppressive governments, which are in tough spots and at the same time also gaining financial benefits for businesses and businessmen linked to the Russian Government.

Syed Zulfiqar Ali

Syed Zulfiqar Ali has completed his Masters in Defence & Strategic Studies from Quaid-i-Azam University, and is currently serving as a Research Associate at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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