What awaits Wagner’s African empire

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows a part of the capital Bangui, Central African Republic, where the Wagner Group is very powerful (Reuters) (Siegfried Modola /)

Until the events of last week, it seemed more likely that the next outpost of the wagner group out Burkina Faso more than belarus. But on June 27 Yevgeny Prigozhin arrived in the latter country, as part of an agreement that the president of the country, Alexander Lukashenkosaid he had reached between the mutinous leader of the paramilitary network and Vladimir Putin. From there, Mr. Prigozhin He will try to direct the brutal African operations that have become crucial not only for his empire, but for the rapprochement of the Kremlin to the mainland.

Wagner has carried out “a large number of tasks in the interests of the Russian Federation” in African and Arab countries, denounced Prigozhin in a message from Telegram the 26th of June. The mercenary group has sent fighters to five African states, including mali and the Central African Republic (CAR), where the operations of “instructors”, he insisted that same day Sergey LavrovRussian Foreign Minister. Wagner has also had some kind of presence in at least seven other countries on the continent (in addition to Syria).

What happens now is unclear. But although Mr. Prigozhinthe visible head of the group, is marginalized, it seems unlikely that Wagner abandon Africa. The organization is much more than one man and has a vested interest in staying. Also, the Kremlin you don’t want to lose what has been a source of influence on the continent. Most likely Wagner just withdraw from Africa if the Africans themselves begin to see Russia as a weak and unreliable partner.

To understand what might happen next with the African empire of Wagner it’s helpful to understand how it works. there is not one wagner inc, but a network of companies linked to the Russian state that operate under contracts with foreign governments. Like the colonial enterprises of the 19th century, these agreements allow the Russian state to engage in adventures with less responsibility than if it used regular troops.

When deployed in African countries, Wagner uses a business model that has three potential elements, the mix of each of which depends on the country you are in. These three elements –military, economic and political– have their clearest case study in the CHARthe former French colony in which Wagner entered in 2018. More evidence of his role there was provided on June 27 by the Sentrya US investigative team, in a new report based on dozens of interviews and analysis of government documents and other sources.

The first pillar is the military, in cases where African clients seeking security have resorted to Russia and, therefore, to Wagner. There are no official estimates of how many combatants from Wagner There are Africabut analysts suggest the number is around 5,000, most of them in Mali and CHAR. (She has an unknown number still on Syria, where he increased Russian military efforts). The total number may be relatively small, but interviews with dropouts from Wagner suggest that their combatants based on Africa they are skilled and battle-hardened. They also enhance the capabilities of the African states’ own forces. Wagner has created a “parallel army” of about 5,000 fighters. Many of them are recruited from the same ethnic group as Faustin-Archange Touadérathe president, outside the procedures supervised by the UNaccording to him Sentry. Alleges that Wagner has trained combatants in torture techniques and leads units outside Bangui, the capital. Apparently, Wagner it imported weapons, drones and planes in violation of a UN arms embargo.

According to Sentry, Wagner used this parallel army as part of a “terror campaign”. accuses Wagner of massacres, torture and rape as part of the group’s strategy to “clean up” villages. He cites the statements of a soldier under the command of Wagner: “We only kill villagers, bury them or throw them into the bush”. (Spokespersons for Mr. Touadéra and the Wagner Group did not respond to requests for comment.)

Although The Economist could not independently verify the claims of the Sentrycoincide with other investigations, including that of Human Rights Watch. The UN estimates that one in five people in the CHAR You are an internally displaced person or a refugee. An astonishing study published in April in the journal Conflict and Health suggests that 5.6% of the population of the CHAR died last year, more than four times the UN estimate for 2010 and more than double the proportion reported by any other country. The presence of Wagner “at least it contributed to increasing the difficulties of survival”, the researchers diplomatically affirm.

The second element of the business model of Wagner is economical: the crux of security. Wagner it should not be considered a hierarchical company, but rather a loose conglomerate with a network of subsidiaries. In January, USA included Wagner on your list oftransnational criminal organizations” punishable. There is little transparency about their income or their profitability, but what seems clear is that Africa it is a crucial part of your business. In February, for example, the EU imposed sanctions on a company linked to Wagner for his role in the gold trade in Sudan.

In CHAR several nodes of the business network are connected Wagner. According to him Sentry, Wagner it has killed and looted villages near gold and diamond mining areas. Apparently a company registered in Madagascar imports mining equipment from Russia through Cameroon. the sentry accounted for 15 flights of planes linked to Wagner bound for Sudan, the nerve center of gold trafficking. He used satellite images to show the growth of ndassimaa gold mine that was once the preserve of “artisanal” miners, but is now allegedly operated by a company linked to Wagner. According to him Sentry, Wagner It is also interested in exercising, together with the country’s government, greater control over the production of small-scale miners.

The CHAR It is also a case study of the political services offered by Wagner, the third element of your model. He Sentry notes that the group carried out campaigns in favor of touadera in the run-up to the election he won in 2020 and helped broker political deals with leaders of various factions. In other places of Africathe companies of Wagner they have carried out propaganda and disinformation campaigns, and have organized false electoral observation groups.

understand the model Wagner it helps to think about what might happen next. There is speculation that, as part of an agreement between Prigozhin and putinthe first one can keep his role in Africa, although it is not clear if it will be fulfilled. (On June 27, the Russian president seemed to underscore who controlled whom when he admitted that the state had directly financed the operations of Wagnerat least in Ukraine). Some think that the benefits obtained by Wagner in Africa may have served as an incentive to Mr. Prigozhin to organize your uprising in Russia. “Wagner demanded more money and material to continue his actions in Africa”, he declared to the newspaper the world a French diplomatic source familiar with the group’s activities. “That’s where it all started”.

Given its structure,what happens to Prigozhin says very little about what happens to the Wagner Group in Africa”, argues kimberly marten, from Barnard College of Columbia University. He is not even the CEO of a company Wagner nor a unified commander from top to bottom. Although he may be a charismatic leader and logistics expert, he would be “relatively easy” for the Russian defense system to replace it, he says.

The people and entities of the network Wagner they also have their own interests that they will want to uphold. Some of them are related to Prigozhinothers not so much. john lechnerauthor of a book on Wagner forthcoming, says the group’s “upward” evolution is often overlooked. “And even if there were to be a big change in the leadership, not everyone else is going to be fired.”

Wagner It has also been a key player in the resurgence of interest in Kremlin by Africa in the last decade. After the annexation of crimea in 2014, and again last year, Russia redoubled its commitment on the continent. Next month, putin will receive African leaders at a summit in St. Petersburg. Wagner It is by no means the only tool in its African toolbox, but it has been a low-cost, high-impact instrument. “The advantages that Wagner offers the Russian state will continue to exist”, argues Julia Stanyardof the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, co-author of a report on the group, published in February, outlining the “tripartite” business model of Wagner.

The advantages that Wagner offers to Russia they are multiple. It is a source of gold, whose reserves help Russia resist the impact of Western financial sanctions. It also helps sow anti-Western messages on fertile ground in the African countries where it operates. (Apparently, Wagner was behind the lie that French soldiers were responsible for the murder of nine Chinese citizens in a mine earlier this year). Establish unofficial channels of influence with African politicians that can become official relationships. In the car, for example, the country’s ambassador to Russia recently suggested that things had gone so well with Wagner that his government would consider hosting a Russian military base.

Even so, the Russian security services may wish to modify the structure of their agreements with Wagner. One option would be to nationalize the group, although this may not suit even the Russian state, which can currently claim to deny responsibility for atrocities in WagnerOr African governments, who can more plausibly argue that they continue to control their security if they use mercenaries instead of foreign troops. Other options could be to rebrand the group, bring in new leadership or change the companies that comprise it so that different elites are in control. In any case, it seems illogical that Russia withdraw unilaterally from fruitful undertakings. “His withdrawal would hurt Russia before African governments“, Add stanyard.

Perhaps the most important factor in deciding the future of Wagner on the continent are their African clients: the politicians who have come to Russia looking for help. In CHARwhere the influence of Wagner is more entrenched, the government seems impassive. Fidele Gouandjikaadvisor of touaderahe told the news agency AFP that “CAR signed a defense agreement in 2018 with the Russian Federation and not with Wagner”, adding that “Russia has subcontracted with Wagner, if Russia no longer agrees with Wagner, then it will send us a new contingent”. The potential tensions between Prigozhin and putin they are “an internal matter of Russia”.

In maliMeanwhile, the ruling junta’s recent gamble looks even riskier. On June 16, the military government asked the 13,000 soldiers of the peacekeeping mission UN to leave “without delay”. Last August, nine months after the arrival of Wagner, French troops left the country after nine years of deployment. The board hoped that Russia protect her from UN repercussions and that Wagner help her fight the jihadists who have killed thousands of people in recent years. However, as the riot developed, Sadio Camarathe junta’s defense minister, was “almost feverish” with anxiety, the magazine reported jeune africabased in Paris.

Since the mutiny, African elites may be changing their minds on Russia. Jędrzej Czerepof the Polish Institute of International Affairs, points out that some of the most influential advocates of Russia in Africa they have been silent in the last few days. This reflects how support for Russia it depends on being seen as powerful enough to help its African clients achieve their own ends. “It will lose its charm as soon as it appears weak and incapable“, it states. The long-awaited deployment of forces Wagner in Burkina Fasothat like Mali is governed by a military junta, it is now less likely.

This points to an irony that will not go unnoticed by many African observers. The Russian president presents his country not only as a strong ally for African leaders, but as a kind of model. However, the same group that your government has sent to help African leaders fight their internal enemies has organized an uprising in Russia. Not good publicity for a regime that sells anti-coup protection to autocrats and juntas abroad.

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