Why the Wagner Group Won’t Leave Africa
The mercenary group is a product of the system Putin built, and he can’t dismantle it without undermining Moscow’s global influence.
Much ink has been spilled on what the Wagner Group’s June 23 mutiny means for the mercenary outfit.
Much ink has been spilled on what the Wagner Group’s June 23 mutiny means for the mercenary outfit.
One of us is a former Wagner Group commander, and based on experience and a look at Wagner’s past, it’s clear that it’s here to stay.
Wagner is a reflection of the system Russian President Vladimir Putin has built. The same opportunities and challenges that created Wagner will constrain the Russian state’s willingness and capacity to replace it. The organization’s relocation to Belarus is simply its latest iteration.
To predict Wagner’s future, we need to understand what Wagner was. Analysts have scoured history to find precedents: from Frederick the Great’s Freikorps to the ronin of feudal Japan. The best answer, however, is that Wagner is something new. As Sergey Eledinov, an Africa expert, told Foreign Policy, “Wagner is a sociological phenomenon, one that could only manifest within the context of Russia at a certain time in an increasingly interconnected world.”
The Russian system is an amalgamation of competing institutions and individuals framing their projects within the “interests” of the state. Guidance from the center—the Kremlin—is rare, so political entrepreneurs pursue what they believe to be good for Russia and their bank accounts. But there’s the risk of misinterpreting the center, or that the center will reinterpret its interests.
Wagner began during the war in Ukraine. While the 2014 seizure and annexation of Crimea was directed from the Kremlin, the initial phase of the war in the Donbas was not. Rather, hawkish elements within the Russian government worked, successfully, to draw the Kremlin further into the conflict.
Once in, the Kremlin could not appear weak on its preferred talking point: protecting Russian minorities outside Russia’s borders. But Putin wasn’t interested in annexation, either, and so the Kremlin turned to a mix of soldiers without uniform, volunteers, and mercenaries to shore up local militias.
In 2013, Dmitry Utkin, a former special forces officer in Russia’s military intelligence, still known today by its old acronym, the GRU, was part of a mercenary group, Slavonic Corps, that fell afoul of the FSB, Russia’s internal security service, over its actions in Syria. A few months later, he was in Ukraine commanding a military detachment primarily composed of former Slavonic Corps mercenaries. That detachment would form the basis for Prigozhin and the Ministry of Defense (MoD) to develop a private military company (PMC), the future Wagner Group.
The FSB worked to organize the government of the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR). The GRU—subordinate to the MoD—organized, prepared, and managed militia units, as well as coordinated joint actions between mercenaries and militias. The LNR—where Utkin’s detachment was most active—required more mercenaries than the DNR given its lower industrial base.
Prigozhin was also active in Luhansk, where he recognized the potential for a Western-style PMC in Russia. He brought on high-ranking GRU officials as informal advisors to the project, but not as authorized representatives of the Russian government.
At its core, Wagner arose from a government need—to shore up, in a deniable fashion, weak local militias facing an increasingly confident Ukrainian military—but it was Prigozhin, and informal networks from state institutions, who took the initiative for its future development. The relationship between Wagner and the state was always dependent on the political context.
For example, in 2016, Wagner Group was in Syria, part of the Russian military’s intervention. After Wagner’s involvement in capturing Palmyra from the Islamic State, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu insisted on pulling the PMC out of the country. Wagner turned over its weapons to the Russian military.
Prigozhin formed a new company, Evro Polis, and signed a contract with the Syrian government to liberate oil fields in exchange for 25 percent of the profits. In December 2016, the Islamic State drove the Russian military out of Palmyra. The MoD once again issued weapons to Wagner to retake the city. When Russian Gen. Aleksandr Dvornikov denigrated Wagner’s role in the fighting, an infuriated Prigozhin sent his men back to camp. It was only under great pressure that Wagner rejoined the conflict.
The incident in Syria revealed a peculiarity of the Russian system. The Wagner network worked to embed itself within Russia’s national security infrastructure, itself a web of powerful interest groups. The U.S. PMC Blackwater also marketed itself as an indispensable pillar of the U.S. military’s “Total Force,” but Blackwater’s mandates were very different. Blackwater, unlike Wagner, was never tasked with offensive operations parallel to or in place of the U.S. military.
At the same time, the freedom of Russia’s elite to pursue foreign policy allowed Prigozhin to sign contracts with foreign governments—even when separate defense agreements existed between national governments. In this sense, Wagner resembled the South African PMC Executive Outcomes (EO) in the 1990s, which signed contracts with Angola and Sierra Leone. EO provided training and engaged in combat, yet unlike Wagner or Blackwater, it could not leverage ties to a “host” government.
Prigozhin still needed a narrative to frame outside contracts as furthering Russia’s “national interests.” Enter the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In 2017, Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir lobbied the Russian government to protect his country from U.S. influence. “It was impossible, however,” Eledinov told us, “for the Russian military to send troops.” The only viable option for Russia’s top diplomat, Sergey Lavrov, was to send contractors.
Of course, the use of contractors in Africa is widespread; the U.S., for example, hired an American PMC, DynCorp, to rebuild Liberia’s army. But the U.S. military could have fielded troops if it were a priority. Syria, half the distance between Sudan and Russia, already presented challenges to the MoD.
That same year, following a disagreement at the United Nations Security Council over an arms embargo in the Central African Republic (CAR), French diplomats told CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra to reach out to Russia directly. Lavrov, eager for another foreign-policy win, took advantage. He flew CAR officials to Russia and struck a deal to send weapons and instructors to the beleaguered government in Bangui.
It was in CAR that Wagner broke from all previous PMC models. Not because of mineral concessions linked to security provisions—this is common—but because of diplomacy. In 2019, according to those involved, Wagner and Prigozhin personally delivered Lavrov another foreign-policy win. They brought the CAR government and 14 armed groups together to sign a peace accord, the 2019 Khartoum Accord. Despite it’s failure to hold, it’s a peace deal the international community still supports.
In Syria, Wagner found itself constantly checked by Russia’s MoD, which, as the 2016 incident showed, had direct leverage over the PMC through the distribution of military equipment within Syria. But CAR’s lack of importance to the Kremlin’s security institutions allowed Prigozhin to pursue business ventures and projects as he saw fit.
Until late 2020, Wagner’s military operation focused on training. But a presidential election—pushed by the entire international community—upset the fragile Khartoum Accord. Six armed group signatories formed a new alliance, the CPC, and pushed toward Bangui. The rebels thought they were about to kick Wagner out. Instead, they supercharged it.
Utkin personally flew to CAR to oversee the defense. Upon arrival he told instructors, previously working under a separate entity, to sign a new contract with the PMC. Valery Zakharov, leader of CAR operations, decided to leave the country. The number of contractors in CAR jumped from a few hundred to roughly 2,000, and the mission shifted completely to counterinsurgency. As a result, most major towns returned to government control and armed groups were greatly weakened. The counteroffensive deepened Wagner’s ties to the CAR state, creating new economic opportunities for both.
Wagner was no longer a “deniable” force of the Russian state in CAR; it was the Russian state in CAR. This doesn’t equate to Wagner “controlling” the Central African Republic, however.
Instead, Wagner in CAR is a network of individuals that has subsumed state and corporate functions—diplomacy, military, business—and has grafted onto local powerful networks in the pursuit of mutually beneficial and profitable projects. With time, these networks become interdependent. Wagner has tipped the power balance in Bangui’s favor, but historical modes of governance—the relationship between armed groups and the state and between the center and periphery—have changed little in CAR.
If Wagner’s beginnings were a unique reflection of Putin’s Russia, its success abroad was only possible thanks to specific global circumstances.
Wagner chanced upon a global trend in the privatization of warfare, an existential crisis in U.N. peacekeeping, and failed Western interventions in Africa. Wagner is not an aberration within African politics but what the scholar Graham Harrison calls a “part of the repertoire of techniques of governance” African leaders use to manage constant instability.
Indeed, Africans have significant leverage in dealing with Wagner. Each conflict in which Wagner intervenes provides a unique set of obstacles and opportunities, which explains why operations differ radically in each country.
In contrast to CAR, in Mali, Wagner faces a more dangerous enemy, and local networks have proved keen to retain ownership over assets. Wagner’s “military” mission in Sudan never graduated from instruction to counterinsurgency. In Libya, the PMC began employing pilots flying MiG-29 and Su-24 jets in May 2020 to back Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli.
The scale and sophistication of the equipment Wagner sourced reflected both the Russian state’s keen interest in the oil-producing nation on NATO’s southern flank and the context of the conflict. Militias in the oil-rich country are well-funded, and Turkey’s intervention in the conflict saw a level of technology Wagner would not witness in an enemy until 2022.
In Africa, Wagner morphed from a state-backed entity into a state-like entity. But in Ukraine, following Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, Prigozhin had to deal with the same rivals and institutions that had challenged him in the past.
When Prigozhin’s enemies cut off his access to Putin, delivering victory in Bakhmut became a question of political survival. Putin’s approval of subordinating Wagner units in Ukraine to the MoD was no less existential. The resulting mutiny was a violent attempt to gain Putin’s ear and oust Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian military. Prigozhin got the meeting with Putin; Shoigu and Gerasimov remain.
The surprise beneficiary was Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who allegedly mediated the conflict and agreed to host Wagner’s new headquarters. The move may change Wagner’s structure, but the more important network remains intact.
In Russia, the MoD terminated contracts for food supply with Prigozhin’s Concord Holding. But an actual shift in suppliers will take time. “Given the convoluted mechanism of state procurement, the Concord scheme was likely quite intricate, involving external beneficiaries other than Prigozhin,” Eledinov told FP. Even if changes appear on paper, they may not reflect actual financial flows.
In Ukraine, the MoD may try to create a new PMC under the leadership of a former high-ranking member of Wagner like Andrei Troshev. The combat effectiveness of such a formation will be significantly lower and serve more to maintain morale. Troshev would still be within the Wagner network. In a critical situation on the front, Putin can deploy Prigozhin’s men from Belarus without explanation.
There are certainly some Wagner fighters who went home or signed up with MoD-affiliated volunteer battalions after the mutiny. It is also unclear how the recruitment of thousands of convicts will affect the composition of Wagner after Ukraine. But more important are the commanders, men such as Utkin and Aleksandr “Ratibor” Kuznetsov. They represent the military talent of the PMC and remain with Prigozhin.
In Syria, Wagner’s main task is to provide security for the base camp at Hayyan, essentially a fortified Russian military outpost. Given the experience of Wagner commanders, any attempts by the MoD to transform or replace Wagner units with a different formation will decrease combat effectiveness. Iranian forces, for the most part, also lack the technical expertise to pick up the slack. Like in 2016, an Islamic State resurgence would result in Wagner’s redeployment.
Wagner will likewise work to retain its assets in eastern Libya as a key logistics hub. Wagner units and units of the Libyan National Army, particularly in the south, have integrated over time. There is little appetite or capacity from the MoD to intervene.
Wagner’s assets have taken a considerable hit amid civil war in Sudan. Wagner was seen as particularly close to the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces through mining interests, and the organization provided some logistics supplies to the RSF through local trade networks at the beginning of the conflict. But Wagner has economic links with the Sudanese Army as well and it’s likely the organization will make an effort to stay on the civil war’s sidelines, revisiting its position when the outcome is clearer.
The MoD’s presence in Africa is limited to individual representatives—part of the standard staffing of any embassy—who neither control nor determine what Prigozhin does. In Africa, the Russian state needs Wagner more than Wagner needs the state, which renders Lavrov’s statement—that Wagner’s operations in Mali and CAR will continue—expected. Prigozhin’s appearance at the Russia-Africa summit was similarly unsurprising.
Wagner does not have a permanent structure; it morphs, adapting rapidly depending on the situation and circumstances. For African operations, Belarus can provide equipment and state backing. In return, Minsk will get a cut of some projects in Africa and shore up its military with training. And Wagner will continue to pursue its projects, framing its efforts as furthering Russia’s, and now Belarus’s, national interests.
John A. Lechner is an analyst concentrating on the politics of Russia, Turkey, and African nations, with a special focus on conflict in the Central African Republic. Previously, he worked as part of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan federal government advisory body. Twitter: @JohnLechner1
Marat Gabidullin joined Wagner Group in 2015, rising to the rank of commander in Syria. In 2019, he resigned from Wagner and published a memoir in Russia called Into the Same River, Twice (translated into French as Moi, Marat). His second book, Ma Verité, was published this year.
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